The therapeutic value of appropriate touch
I was running late. Just a little late. The church service had started already as I pulled into the parking area, and it looked to be totally full. I could not recall seeing so many cars before. Of course, it had been a while since I last visited this church.
As I walked in an old friend greeted me and explained all the decorations. The church had just held its vacation Bible school and the children were performing songs from that programme to begin the service. Naturally, their families were all there.
As I entered the church I could see most seats had been taken. There were two about three rows back from the front, middle section, on the right hand side. I went there, sat down, and asked the person if they were taken. She informed me that the one nearer to her belonged to a woman who had gone out for a moment. I could sit in the one on the far outside. I did, and soon the woman came back and sat next to me.
She was black, about middle to late middle age, and she seemed a little fragile. She had a large, and lively smile. She carried a bundle with her and she put that in her lap, cradled with her arms.
The Pastor stepped to the front when the children were through singing and the worship band had played their songs. He called people to a moment of quiet reverence to consider what they had been singing and to prepare for the rest of the service. Before the prayer, he asked everyone to take the hand of someone close. There was no one but the aisle to my right. The black woman with the bundle was to my left, but she did not have a free hand, and the moment was a bit awkward. She kept looking ahead.
I could have sat there and done nothing about the pastor’s request. For some reason I decided to create a work-around. I reached up and behind the woman, rested my arm on the back of her chair, and then touched her far shoulder with my hand. She turned her head to see who on her left was touching her. She did a double take to realise that it was I, and she started to giggle. After the prayer, I removed my hand from her shoulder and took my arm back from around her. She leaned over to me, and in a gentle and soft voice she said, “It’s been a long time since a man put his arm around me.”
It’s been a long time since a man put his arm around me. That reminds me of so many of the couples I’ve met in my practice of psychotherapy and couples work. People need kindness, gentleness, and loving touch.
In 2012 Leslie Greenberg and Shari Geller wrote a book on therapeutic presence. They claim that presence is one of the most therapeutic gifts a therapist can offer a client. To be fully present and fully human with another person has been viewed as healing in and of itself, and one of the ways in which one person can be present with another is through touch.
Touch in therapy, frankly in any provider context, has become complicated by the ethical improprieties of a few people. Touching can be misunderstood. Touching can remind a client of how he or she has been touched in hurtful ways. Touching can seem like an intrusion. Touching can seem like abuse.
While these things are true, there is a place for appropriate touch. There have been many times in psychotherapy when a client feels overwhelmed with incredible sadness and when they seem to sink into the couch, crushed and alone with the pain. That is when I want to reach out with my hand to let them know that they are not alone, that I am there with them, that I am present. My hand touches theirs, and they lift their eyes to meet mine. The sadness they feel is on my face. And they get it. They know that I understand. They know that I get them. They sense my presence.
What is known about the healing benefit of therapeutic presence is also true about the therapeutic value of appropriate touch, and all that can be used to develop intimacy between two people in a relationship outside of therapy.
How many times has some husband heard his wife say, “All I wanted you to do was hold me?” Or the husband complain that she pulls away or has gone cold to his touch only to hear that she’s afraid to let him touch her because she’s afraid it’s just his way of trying to get some sex.
Some kinds of touch in marriage just seem like manipulation and abuse. They don’t communicate caring and kindness. When touch makes others feel like objects of utility, like things others use to get what they want, then it’s not therapeutic, it’s not healing, and it’s not intimate. That kind of touch makes people pull back and go away.
This weekend my wife was visiting with people at a large family event, and she met a young man with developmental challenges. He may have been autistic. He was averse to so many things. In the midst of all those unfamiliar people in his house my wife managed to make her presence known to him. She was patient with him. She was present to him. He showed her his things. She took him outside where he seldom ventured, and she picked flowers with him, which he said he wanted to feed to the deer that grazed in the tall grass around his house. When she had to leave, she reached out to him, and she placed one open palm of her hand on one side of his face and the other on the other side of his face. She cradled him that way, looked into his eyes, and she said, “You are special!” And he replied, “I know I am.” That kind of contact, that kind of touch, is healing for both the person touched and the person touching.