More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
A Simple Show of Hands
October 5, 2006

ON a brisk autumn afternoon, in the shadow of the marble arch in Washington Square Park, a couple visiting from Ohio walked along holding hands like two teenagers going steady, decades after ?going steady? went out of vogue.

When a stranger asked why they had chosen to join hands during their stroll, the man, Dave Findlay, looked at his wife of seven years and answered in a word: ?Connection.?

Or as the Beatles sang back in 1963: ?When I?ll feel that something, I want to hold your hand.?

Those simple lyrics turned an expression of teenage longing and first romantic steps into a No. 1 hit. Yet today, when Justin Timberlake is at the top of the charts with ?SexyBack? and the digital airwaves are filled with steamy lyrical declarations (?I?m into havin? sex, I ain?t into makin? love? sang 50 Cent in ?In da Club?), couples like Dave and Carey Findlay still intertwine fingers, kiss palms and link pinkies as they meander through parks, cross streets and snake through crowds.

?Hand-holding is the one aspect that?s not been affected by the sexual revolution,? said Dalton Conley, a professor and chairman of the department of sociology at New York University. ?It?s less about sex than about a public demonstration about coupledom.?

Nowadays hand-holding has attracted the interest of scientists who are studying its effects on the body and mind. And sexual health educators say it is a much-discussed topic among gay students who now publicly hold hands more than ever before but still must consider whether they want to declare their sexuality.

?I think it remains more important in an era of perhaps more liberal sexual norms,? Dr. Conley said. ?It remains this thing to be doled out.?

To hold someone?s hand is to offer them affection, protection or comfort. It is a way to communicate that you are off the market. Practically speaking, it is an efficient way to squeeze through a crowd without losing your partner. People do it during vigils, marches, weddings and funerals.

Usually it connotes something innocuous and sweet about a couple and their relationship. In rare instances, it takes on added potency, such as when President George W. Bush held the hand of Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in Crawford, Tex., last year ? an act of respect and affection in Arab countries ? reminding some people of the film ?Fahrenheit 9/11,? which depicted the Bush family?s close business ties to Saudi leaders and which ignited conspiracy theories.

But, over all, few things are more innocent than a child grabbing the hand of a parent, for protection, direction and, as Mr. Findlay put it, connection. And with many children these days closer and more outwardly affectionate to their parents, chances are you have spotted a mother and her teenage daughter and perhaps even a father and his adolescent son ambling through a mall, scurrying through a crosswalk or strolling along, hand in hand.

Adult children and their elderly parents also hold hands, for balance, support and as a sign of love.

As for romantic couples, the opinions about hand-holding are as varied as fingerprints. But most people agree that it has merely changed, not lost favor.

?I think that for sure college students hold hands just like the old days,? said Sandra L. Caron, a professor of family relations and human sexuality at the University of Maine in Orono.

If they do, it is likely only after they are deep into a relationship ? not in those early days of budding romance, when a touch of hands was the first act of intimacy between a couple. That was the hand-holding that the Beatles wrote about. (Followed swiftly by the sexual revolution, whose equivalent anthem might be The Rolling Stones? ?Let?s Spend the Night Together.?)

Among more than a half-dozen students at the University of Maine, there seemed to be two universal truths: that hand-holding is the least nauseating public display of affection and that holding hands has become more significant than other seemingly deeper expressions of love and romance.

?It is a lot more intimate to hold hands nowadays than to kiss,? said Joel Kershner, 23. Because of that, he said, reaching for someone?s hand these days has more potential for rejection than leaning in for a smooch at a party where alcohol is flowing.

Libby Tyler, 20, said it was ?weird that hand-holding is more serious,? but true. ?It?s something that you lead up to,? she said.

There is nothing casual about it any more, said Rachel Peters, 22. ?Hand-holding is something that usually people do once they?ve confirmed they?re a couple,? she said.

But if that is not complicated enough, where you choose to hold hands also has meaning, the students said.

Drew Fitzherbert, 21, said that public hand-holding ?shows that commitment not only to you and your partner but everyone else in the community.?

Dr. Conley of N.Y.U. agreed. ?In the dark movie theater, in the dorm room, that?s a very different social act,? he said.

Are people holding hands as much as they once did? That?s impossible to quantify. But Gregory T. Eells, the director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell University in Ithaca, said he didn?t think so.

?I see more people on their cellphone than holding hands,? he said, adding, ?To some extent we are trading real face-to-face relationships, where there?s touch and body language, for electronic ones.?

Peter Shawn Bearman, a professor of sociology and the director of the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy at Columbia University, said that hand-holding in crowded cities like New York may simply be impractical.

?Maybe if the proportion of hand-holders has indeed gone down it has more to do with density (of humans) than the devaluing of hand-holding as a romantic signal,? he wrote in an e-mail message.

Whatever degree of hand-holding may be happening, there are good reasons to cultivate the habit ? reasons would-be hand-graspers may wish to pass along to their hands-in-pockets partners.

?Based on what we?ve seen, when we get more physical intimacy we get better relationships, whether a mother and an infant or a couple,? said Tiffany Field, the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

Even monkeys understand the importance of a hand squeeze every now and then. In ?Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals,? Dr. Frans B. M. de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, wrote that some monkeys hold hands in reconciliation after a fight.

James Coan, an assistant professor of psychology and the neuroscience graduate program at the University of Virginia, has studied the impact of human touch, particularly how it affects the neural response to threatening situations, and said the results of a recent study were more dramatic than he expected.

?We found that holding the hand of really anyone, it made your brain work a little less hard in coping,? Dr. Coan said, adding that any sort of hand-holding relaxes the body.

The study, which will be published this year in the journal Psychological Science, involved 16 couples who were rated happily married based on the answers in a detailed questionnaire. The wives were put inside an M.R.I. machine and were told they were to receive mild electric shocks to an ankle. Brain images showed that regions of the women?s brains that had been activated in anticipation of pain and that were associated with negative emotions decreased when their husbands reached into the machine.

?With spouse hand-holding you also stop looking for other signs of danger and you start feeling more secure,? said Dr. Coan, who led the study. ?If you?re in a really strong relationship, you may be protected against pain and stress hormones that may have a damaging effect on your immune system.?

Perhaps it is why so many people crave it.

Blogs and online forums are rife with complaints of those who say their significant other does not want to hold hands. ?When we go out, we always have a blast, but the one thing that bothers me is that he never holds my hand in public,? writes a woman on a ?love advice? forum on

For older couples, letting go of hand-holding may be one more sign that they are pressed for time and too swamped for little acts of intimacy.

?When do we make time to hold hands?,? said Dr. Eells of Cornell, talking about his own marriage of 15 years. ?Not very often.?

The couple is often busy shuttling children to and from school and extracurricular activities, not strolling through parks like characters in a Georges Seurat painting.

Sometimes, though, even errands provide opportunities. Recently, Dr. Eells said, he and his 9-year-old daughter were caught in a downpour after her cheerleading practice. The two grabbed hands and raced off into the rain together. When they finally splashed over to the car, the damp girl turned her face to her father. ?That was awesome,? she sighed.


Interesting article David. I especially liked this part:

?We found that holding the hand of really anyone, it made your brain work a little less hard in coping,? Dr. Coan said, adding that any sort of hand-holding relaxes the body.

just mary

I liked this article too. I think being able to touch someone (in a non-lascivious manner) is extremely comforting. Whether it's holding a hand or just a pat on the back, the smallest touch, as long as it's kind, can mean the world. Maybe it's just knowing that you're not alone, you can see the other person, you can hear them, you may even be able to smell them :eww: but are they real? When they touch you, they are.


Touch is a very valuable tool in human relationships of all kinds. In moments of sadness or despair, it can make the difference between feeling alone and feeling connected to someone who cares. In moments of happiness, it can reveal happiness shared. It can increase the good feelings and mitigate the less-than-good feelings. It can, in short, make all the difference in the world. :)

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
It doesn't even have to be a human touch, actually. There have been many studies verifying the therapeutic benefits of pets like cats and dogs (and of course budgies).

just mary

I got the link from my brother, I kept waiting for the jaded, cynical ending but it never came. This guy was just about free hugs, I love the way it goes from black and white to colour after his first hug. It's just nice. :)


I have to admit that this morning reading this thread has brought up a lot of sadness in me. In particular this part of JM's post:

I think being able to touch someone (in a non-lascivious manner) is extremely comforting. Whether it's holding a hand or just a pat on the back, the smallest touch, as long as it's kind, can mean the world.

and this one from TL:

Touch is a very valuable tool in human relationships of all kinds. In moments of sadness or despair, it can make the difference between feeling alone and feeling connected to someone who cares.

I tried to figure out the sadness and I realized that I have absolutely no one in my life that I can rely on for that kind of comfort and support, actually I don't think that I ever have. I have never had that shoulder to cry on, that person to hug or even that person to give me a pat on the back to tell me that things will be okay. Even as I thought about what David said about pets and I don't even have any of those. Kind of a sad place to be really.

Anyway, just thought that I would share :(

touch is hard. in every day interaction with others people are afraid to touch, because of potential mis-interpretation (harrassment fears?). i know i don't touch people because i just don't know how they would respond. however, in the odd cases where someone gave me a pat on the back or whatever i did feel a difference; it was usually nice.

nancy, have you thought of getting a pet? they really do make a difference.


I have thought of getting a pet but as I think that I have discussed before, with my work schedule and sometimes being gone from home for up to 15 hours a day it really is not fair to have a pet at this time in my life.


When you have time constraints and really want a pet, a cat is probably a good option; particularly, if you get two. They'll keep each other company, and they're pretty independent as far as their needs are concerned. :)


Thanks for the ideas of getting a pet but at this moment it is not going to take away this extreme sadness that I feel. I felt it not just from this post but related to it yesterday and probably should have dealt with it in my therapy session but chose not to and moved on to other things. Probably not a wise choice because I am now struggling.
This article reminded me of visiting my aunt in the nursing home and how starved for attention and affection some of the residents there seemed. I would have liked to volunteer doing something in an area like that if I wasn't so messed up.

Touch is hard for me. I guess I associate it with something bad and one of the repetitive thoughts I have is that if I touch someone they'll have something bad happen to them. I stay away from people mostly. I know that is NOT a rational thought at all, but it is still there.

I do think it is very important. I think it does make a person feel real and valuable. It's one thing an online forum cannot give us.
Thank you for mentioning budgies!!:) touch is so important, Im a touchy feelie type of person, holding hands and hugs, like what that lady said about a sharing happiness, feeling connected with someone. I once got into trouble:) when someone (a fellow worker) saw me and a male support worker hugging in the street, he got told it was inapproiate to hug a female client, his organisation wasnt happy about it,, I felt that was sad, my female befrienders always hug me when they leave or arrive, that is so nice:)
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