Why giving and receiving massages makes us feel so good.
All the songs about touch, from Mariah Carey to Prince, have a good point: skin-on-skin contact is a human need, and a vital part of any healthy romantic relationship. But certain kinds of touch have more meaning than others—a hug more impactful than a handshake, a hand-hold more thoughtful than a high-five. And when it comes to intimacy, a good rub-down—a massage—has a lot of benefits, whether you’re one giving it or the one receiving.
Giving a massage is as simple as setting the mood (lighting on some candles, maybe even turning on some James Blake) and communicating with your partner what kind of pressure they want and where. It can lead to sex or not; a massage in itself is an intimate act, after all. Either way, it will help reduce stress, improve physical and emotional wellbeing, and even make your relationship even stronger—here’s why.
Massage benefits for your mood
There’s a reason why, when you’re overwhelmed by deadlines or dealing with a particularly stressful situation, you feel like all you want is for someone to dig their hands into the tensest portions of your back. A massage is a powerful tool for fighting stress and anxiety, with a demonstrated ability to decrease cortisol (aka, the stress hormone) and increase parasympathetic nervous system activity (which results in the opposite of an anti-fight-or-flight reaction). Stress can reduce libido, after all, so a treatment that combats the physical effects of stress is bound to make getting it on a little easier.
Massage benefits for your body
Research has shown that massage therapy can improve range of motion and flexibility, which also means an increased range of motion between the sheets. If you’ve been considering switching up your position, a good massage makes for the perfect foreplay—consider it your warm-up before you get physical. Or, on the flip side, it can help you wind down after things get intense—after all, a 2014 study found that massage therapy can improve circulation and alleviate muscle soreness, making it a great way to wind down.
The physical benefits don’t end there: researchers at the University of Alabama found in 2013 that massage also has the potential to reduce the number of colds you get, enhance skin tone, and lower blood pressure. It can make you feel really good as a whole.
Massage benefits for your relationship
Plus, massages cause the release of oxytocin, according to a 2012 study. This hormone is known for its part in helping people form bonds with one another—the more oxytocin, the closer you’ll feel (it also happens to be one of the hormones that are released during orgasm). In this way, a good rub-down can lead not just to physical intimacy, but better emotional intimacy, too. It’s a hands-on approach for better communication.
It’s not just the recipient of a massage that reaps all the benefits. One 2017 British study showed that when couples completed a three-week massage course, their physical emotional wellbeing, as well as their relationship satisfaction improved—and this was equally true for those both giving and receiving. This finding led researchers to recommend massage as a regular part of a couple’s routine; getting rubbed the right way is a very good thing.
Swedish massage and its benefits
When you think of a massage, what you imagine is probably a Swedish massage. This kind of massage incorporates slow, gliding motions with light to medium pressure, moving towards the heart. The main goal and benefit of this kind of massage are to promote all-over relaxation. Unlike deep-tissue massage, Swedish massage doesn’t require hard pressure—so it may be easier for a non-professional to get the gist of the basics, to perform them on their partner. Pull up a YouTube video and you won’t get to a professional level—but you will probably learn how you can help your partner feel really, really good.
Erotic massage and its benefits
Massage is a big part of tantra. Two kinds of erotic massage are yoni massages (which focus on the vulva) and lingam massage (which focuses on the penis). While these massages may have similarities to hand jobs and fingering, they are distinct in one big way: Orgasm is not necessarily the goal. Yoni massage can be great for releasing tension in the pelvis, advanced certified tantra educator Mare Simone told Well + Good, and lingam massage involves massaging the testicles, perineum, shaft, and prostate with plenty of lube, tantric sex educator Psalm Isadora explained in Mind Body Green. The prostate—a gland that sits in-between the testicles and the anus—can be massaged externally or internally. If you’re going internal, be sure that your nails aren’t sharp and use plenty of lube. Lingam massage may involve some edging—preventing your partner from reaching orgasm—but it can culminate in an orgasm (or intercourse) once you’re finished with the massage. Consider this a way to take your intimacy further.
Hot oil massage and its benefits
Hot oil massages are a type of massage with roots in Ayurvedic medicine. Abhyanga is a type of self-massage performed with warm oil, during which the oil is applied to the entire body (including the scalp). This kind of massage is intended to improve circulation, skin tone, and sleep cycles.
Of course, you can apply this kind of technique to a partner. Abhyanga traditionally uses herbal-infused oils, but if you’re performing an oil massage out of the context of Ayurvedic massage, you can use any kind of body oil (or a massage candle) to help your hands glide more easily over your partner’s skin. This can also leave their skin feeling extra-soft and moisturized, too.
Scalp massage and its benefits
If your partner likes their hair touched, then you can up the ante on special occasions with a good scalp massage. Think about how good it feels when you get your hair washed at the salon or barbershop and mimic your stylist’s motions on your partner. Using medium pressure, place the pads of your fingers on their scalp and move them in circular motions. You can move from the front to the back or the back to the front—ask them if there are any spots where you should spend a little extra time (a good temple rub will likely be appreciated).
There is research that suggests scalp massages can result in increased hair growth, but you can just consider that an unexpected benefit—best of all, you can expect your partner to develop a new kind of appreciation for you (and hopefully reciprocate in turn).
How to make the most of massage
Unless you’re a trained massage therapist, giving your partner a massage at home may not necessarily cure them of any chronic pain they’re dealing with (leave that to the experts), but an occasional rub-down can be a particularly nice treat. You can give a massage as a form of foreplay, or it can be a nice way to share intimacy without having intercourse. Set the mood by dimming the lights (color-changing lightbulbs are worth it), lighting some candles, and making sure you have enough pillows and blankets for your partner to get comfortable. Don’t forget the playlist. It’s also important for your partner to hydrate post-massage—as Michele Naumann Carlstrom, licensed massage therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York explained to YouBeauty, massages are dehydrating, since all that kneading pumps fluid into your circulatory system (where it eventually goes to your kidneys, making you have to pee).