The Truth Behind Cuddling

It’s more complicated than you’d think.

Author by Chelsea Batten
Credit: Twisha Patni

I swore, when I was single, that if I ever got married I wouldn’t become one of those people who thinks their love is better than everyone else’s. Then I got married, and immediately commenced to pity every couple that wasn’t us.

Chief among my reasons for romantic superiority was our prolific cuddling habit. In bed, on the couch, even out in public, my husband and I clung to each other like a pair of Renaissance angels. When friends complained of partners who seldom touched them (at least without foreplay in mind), I had a well-practiced routine: nod sympathetically, and privately, judge.

So it may have been karmic justice that, on one fateful night, I found myself half-awake in bed, squirming toward the wall in what felt like a life-or-death struggle for personal space.

My momentary desire for a little breathing room suddenly turned into something bordering on a panic attack. I have to get away—why won’t he let me go?—he’s going to smother me. Meanwhile, my conscious brain shook its head in disapproval—“If you were really in love, you’d want to die this way.”

Cuddling remains a nearly universal draw for humankind—despite the perils of pulled hair, pinned-down limbs, lost circulation, profuse sweating, and hot breath—and it’s no surprise why. Touch is the first sense to develop in the infant human, and the information it yields to the developing brain programs everything from immune responses to genetic expression to the blueprint for future relationships. As it matures, the brain retains a preternatural ability to communicate through touch at a level far more nuanced than any information received through language or even sight.

In adult romantic relationships, cuddling has been inflated to symbolic status, the plumb line of pure love. You can have great communication, great intellectual synergy, great sex, but if you can’t lie motionless in each other’s arms for hours, it’s common to conclude that your love must be shallow, sophomoric, a thin veneer for mere lust.

Where do we get this idea from? Turns out, from the cuddling hormone itself. Oxytocin, long hailed as the “warm fuzzy” molecule, has recently revealed a dark side to researchers—namely, that its emotional bonding action comes with an opposite and equal repelling action toward those outside the bond. Simply put, once your brain has formed that potent chemical attachment to one person, it tells you that those feelings can come from them and only them.

Oxytocin is also behind something called “approach-based behavior,” a benign name for an aggressive urge to get what we want from people. This is likely the culprit behind touch fatigue, another telling name for the phenomenon when people avoid physical contact, whether it be from strangers, family members or romantic partners. As much as we all biologically crave physical contact with those we love, perceiving too great a need from them will actually drive us away.

Michelangelo said, “To touch is to give life,” but as any bedfellow imprisoned by a sleeping partner’s tightly clutched limbs can tell you, it can also feel like taking life. That’s how I felt at 2am when I wriggled my way out of my husband’s embrace; it was immediately followed by deep remorse as I watched him roll over onto his side with a deep sigh that might have just been a snore, but to me, sounded like the death knell of our romance.

Determined to salvage my love (if not my sense of romantic exceptionalism), I sought out the help of a professional. Rather than a psychiatrist or a counselor, I opted for a real expert and reached out to Keeley Shoup, a professional cuddler based in Chicago.

Keeley, who prefers the term “therapeutic touch practitioner,” regularly hosts cuddle parties and workshops in addition to seeing a number of individual clients for private cuddling sessions. She confirmed that for many otherwise well-adjusted people, cuddling is both deeply desirable, and deeply complicated.

“I find so many people are trying so hard to do it right,” she says. “But cuddling doesn’t look one way or another. What do you want it to look like? What do you actually enjoy?”

Most people tend to picture cuddling as lying motionless with limbs intertwined for long periods of time. However, Keeley says, most people don’t find that to be enjoyable for very long. Cuddling can be stroking a hand or knee, playing with hair, giving a foot rub or a shoulder massage. “If someone gets restless easily, there are a ton of ways to cuddle with someone that are in motion. Slow dance in the living room. Tickle or scratch or draw shapes on the other person’s back.” For the person whose partner gets too hot or stuffy, Keeley advises, “Put on sweatpants, socks and a scarf, crank up the AC and get a fan.”

However, there is one rigorous requirement for mutually enjoyable cuddling. “The only way humans can access platonic touch is by mastering boundaries and consent,” Keeley says. “They’re intrinsically intertwined.”

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, Keeley says, the reason people don’t enjoy cuddling is because they have sacrificed their own comfort to please the other person. When someone tells Keeley that they love their partner but hate cuddling, the first question she asks is,“What boundary do you have that you think you’re not allowed to have?”

For hopeless romantics like me, the answer is “any.” We nurse a conviction that boundaries are fine for the beginning stages of a relationship, but once true love has been felt and declared, all boundaries should melt away in a passionate fusion of souls.

This idyllic conviction, however, doesn’t account for circumstances that arise in the course of a happy life together, such as one partner’s meat sweats, or forgetting to change the flannel sheets for cotton once winter turns to spring, or having spent the whole day in a demanding job, like parenting.

Guilt over boundaries stands in the way of achieving the “mutual yes” that opens the door for the deep, lingering bliss of cuddling. This effect has been linked by researchers to everything from insomnia cures to reduced junk food cravings, improved disease resistance to better performance in school and sports. Keeley confirms that select clients of hers who suffer from chronic pain, asthma, and migraines claim that, after a cuddle workshop, they enjoy a short period of medication-free relief. Right now, she and other cuddle practitioners are working with Johns Hopkins University on a study to determine the science behind this effect, known as the “cuddle coma.”

Far from being a prerequisite for a good match, Keeley says, cuddling is a constant quest for how best to experience bliss while simultaneously creating it for the person we love. And, in creating this bliss, time is as critical an ingredient as consent and communication. It takes a few minutes, and more than a few adjustments, for oxytocin to build up enough to suppress stress hormones and their running inner dialogue of anxieties and insecurities. As the moments pass, sensory awareness dials up, creating simultaneous connections to the self and to the other. We are calmed by the sound of a partner’s breath, intoxicated by the scent of their skin or hair, elated by the tiny cues they offer as to their own state of bliss.

Wondering whether this really works? Consider this story from a retired couple who shared their veteran perspective after decades of cuddling:

“It takes time for the deeper levels of the snuggle to manifest, when the inner sense of peace and relaxation begins to sweep over, allowing our breathing to slow down, our bodies to mold into each other’s, to get our bones arranged so they don’t poke each other. If one allows the mind to settle into the body and the body to settle into the beloved, the conventional sense of time is suspended, replaced by this timeless feeling of connection with another soul. There is no agenda, no time, no rush, no thought of anything at all but the touch and feel and taste of the beloved.”

I’ll have what they’re having.

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About Woolly

A curious exploration of comfort, wellness, and modern life — emotionally supported by Casper. It’s a beautiful magazine published by a mattress. Come on, you know it’s not the weirdest thing to happen this year. The first issue includes a love letter to comfort pants, a skeptic's guide to crystals, and an adulting coloring book.