Feeling the Absence of Touch: Distancing, Distress, Regulation, and Relationships in the Context of COVID-19

Mary H. Burleson, Nicole A. Roberts, Aubrie A. Munson, Cayla J. Duncan, Ashley K. Randall, Thao Ha, Sasha Sioni, Kristin D. Mickelson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


During the COVID-19 pandemic, physical distancing guidelines were implemented to reduce viral spread, altering typical social interactions and reducing the amount of physical contact and affectionate touch many individuals experienced. The pandemic also caused psychological distress, perhaps in part related to reductions in affectionate touch with close others. We theorized that this would be particularly problematic for individuals reliant on affectionate touch to help regulate their emotions. Using online survey data collected nationwide from married or romantically partnered adults (N = 585), we examined how physical distancing (moderated by cohabiting with spouse/partner) and affectionate touch with close others (moderated by individual differences in typical use and efficacy of touch for affect regulation [TAR]) related to individual psychological distress and romantic relationship quality. As hypothesized, more physical distancing was associated with less affectionate touch among non-cohabiters, but surprisingly with more touch among cohabiters. Also as hypothesized, participants higher in TAR and experiencing less affectionate touch reported more psychological distress than those similarly high in TAR and experiencing more affectionate touch, or than those lower in TAR. Unexpectedly, more physical distancing was associated directly with lower psychological distress and better relationship quality. Better relationship quality was linked directly to more affectionate touch and greater endorsement of TAR. Thus, for those cohabiting in satisfying romantic relationships, physical distancing may facilitate relationship-positive behaviors. Further, individual differences in TAR may influence the potency of touch effects on mood and stress.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)56-79
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Social and Personal Relationships
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2022


  • COVID-19
  • Physical affection
  • affect regulation
  • romantic relationships
  • social distancing
  • social touch

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Communication
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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