Touch is a critical factor in intimate bonds between romantic partners. Although cuddling is a key expression of intimacy, it has received little empirical attention. Past research suggests that cuddling has some sexual aspects (e.g., it increases testosterone [T]), but there are theoretical reasons to expect cuddling to also involve nurturant intimacy (which should decrease T). In this article, we examined the phenomenon of partner cuddling to: (1) provide a descriptive examination; (2) determine if cuddling involved only nurturant intimacy or also sexual intimacy; and (3) test whether cuddling was perceived as nurturant but experienced as sexual. Via an online questionnaire, 514 participants (338 women) responded to quantitative and qualitative questions about cuddling with their romantic partners. Results suggested that cuddling occurred frequently and for relatively long durations, and was viewed very positively. Findings also showed that cuddling was perceived as nurturant and non-sexual but was experienced as at least somewhat sexual, which may explain why past research had found that cuddling increased T. Correlational analyses linked cuddling frequency and enjoyment positively with partnered sexual activities, but negatively with solitary sexuality. Results were discussed relative to evolutionary theories of distinct but overlapping neurobiological systems underlying pair bonding that involve sexual and nurturant intimacy.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Bell, R. A., Daly, J. A., & Gonzalez, M. C. (1987). Affinity-maintenance in marriage and its relationship to women’s marital satisfaction. Journal of Marriage and Family, 49, 445–454.
Bos, P. A., Panksepp, J., Bluth, R., & van Honk, J. (2012). Acute effects of steroid hormones and neuropeptides on human social-emotional behavior: A review of single administration studies. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 33, 17–35.
Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss: Vol II. Separation, anxiety and anger. New York: Basic Books.
Brennan, K. A., Wu, S., & Loev, J. (1998). Adult romantic attachment and individual differences in attitudes toward physical contact in the context of adult romantic relationships. In J. A. Simpson & W. S. Rholes (Eds.), Attachment theory and close relationships (pp. 394–428). New York: Guilford Press.
Carter, C. S. (1998). Neuroendocrine perspectives on social attachment and love. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 23, 779–818.
Coan, J. A., Schaefer, H. S., & Davidson, R. J. (2006). Lending a hand: Social regulation of the neural response to threat. Psychological Science, 17, 1032–1039.
Diamond, L. M. (2003). What does sexual orientation orient? A biobehavioral model distinguishing romantic love and sexual desire. Psychological Review, 110, 173–192.
Fernandez-Duque, E., Valeggia, C. R., & Mendoza, S. P. (2009). The biology of paternal care in human and nonhuman primates. Annual Review of Anthropology, 38, 115–130.
Field, T. M. (2001). Touch. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Fisher, H. E. (1992). Anatomy of love: The natural history of monogamy, adultery, and divorce. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Fraley, R. C., Brumbaugh, C. C., & Marks, M. J. (2005). The evolution and function of adult attachment: A comparative and phylogenetic analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 731–746.
Gallace, A., & Spence, C. (2010). The science of interpersonal touch: An overview. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 34, 246–259.
Gulledge, A., Gulledge, M., & Stahmannn, R. (2003). Romantic physical affection types and relationship satisfaction. American Journal of Family Therapy, 31, 233–242.
Heiman, J. R., Long, J. S., Smith, S. N., Fisher, W. A., Sand, M. S., & Rosen, R. C. (2011). Sexual satisfaction and relationship happiness in midlife and older couples in five countries. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 741–753.
Hertenstein, M., Verkamp, J., Kerestes, A., & Holmes, R. (2006). The communicative functions of touch in humans, nonhuman primates, and rats: A review and synthesis of the empirical research. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 132, 5–94.
Hirschenhauser, K., & Oliveira, R. (2006). Social modulation of androgens in male vertebrates: Meta-analyses of the challenge hypothesis. Animal Behaviour, 71, 265–277.
Holt-Lunstad, J., Birmingham, W. A., & Light, K. C. (2008). Influence of a ‘warm touch’ support enhancement intervention among married couples on ambulatory blood pressure, oxytocin, alpha amylase, and cortisol. Psychosomatic Medicine, 70, 976–985.
Ketterson, E. D., Nolan, V., & Sandell, M. (2005). Testosterone in females: Mediator of adaptive traits, constraint on sexual dimorphism, or both? American Naturalist, 166, 85–98.
Light, K., Grewen, K., & Amico, J. (2005). More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women. Biological Psychology, 69, 5–21.
Mackey, R. A., Diemer, M. A., & O’Brien, B. A. (2000). Psychological intimacy in the lasting relationships of heterosexual and same-gender couples. Sex Roles, 43, 201–227.
Myslivecek, J. (1991). Developmental physiology and pathophysiology of behaviour and nervous functions. Physiological Research, 40, 169–181.
Snowdon, C. T. (2001). Sexe, attachment, et monogamie chez les primates. Primatologie, 3, 387–420.
Thayer, S. (1986). History and strategies of research on social touch. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 10, 12–28.
van Anders, S. M., & Dunn, E. J. (2009). Are gonadal steroids linked with orgasm perceptions and sexual assertiveness in women and men? Hormones and Behavior, 56, 206–213.
van Anders, S. M., Goldey, K. L., & Kuo, P. X. (2011). The steroid/peptide theory of social bonds: Integrating testosterone and peptide responses for classifying social behavioral contexts. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36, 1265–1275.
van Anders, S. M., Hamilton, L. D., Schmidt, N., & Watson, N. V. (2007). Associations between testosterone secretion and sexual activity in women. Hormones and Behavior, 51, 477–482.
van Anders, S. M., & Watson, N. V. (2006). Social neuroendocrinology: Effects of social contexts and behaviors on sex steroids in humans. Human Nature, 17, 212–237.
Wingfield, J. C., Hegner, R. E., Dufty, A. M., & Ball, G. F. (1990). The “challenge hypothesis”: Theoretical implications for patterns of testosterone secretion, mating systems, and breeding strategies. American Naturalist, 136, 829–846.
Wood, R. I. (2004). Reinforcing aspects of androgens. Physiology & Behavior, 83, 279–289.
We would like to acknowledge the help of N. Caverly, N. Desai, J. Eisman, L. Hipp, K. Goldey, S. Greenberg, S. Massuch, and S. Ngo with data collection.
About this article
Cite this article
van Anders, S.M., Edelstein, R.S., Wade, R.M. et al. Descriptive Experiences and Sexual vs. Nurturant Aspects of Cuddling between Adult Romantic Partners. Arch Sex Behav 42, 553–560 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-012-0014-8
- Pair bond
- Romantic relationship