The Scientific Reason Cuddling Increases Intimacy In Relationships

affectionate young man kissing woman while holding hand in bedroom
These Cuddling Positions Will Boost IntimacyCavan Images - Getty Images

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Cuddling is one of the most powerful instruments in your physical touch toolbox. Not only can getting cozy with your partner make you feel all warm and fuzzy, but in some instances, it can also lead to toe-curling fun in the bedroom—and those perks are only the tip of the iceberg.

That’s right: The best cuddling positions can even build trust and intimacy, as well as establish emotional vulnerability in a relationship—regardless of its stage. Why? Well, for starters, physical touch itself can promote bonding, attachment, and connection, says Sarah Hunter Murray, PhD, a sex researcher and relationship therapist, and the author of Not Always in the Mood: The New Science of Men, Sex, and Relationships.

“Cuddling is one of the most effective forms of physical touch because you’re engaging in skin-to-skin full body contact,” adds Rachel Needle, PsyD, a certified sex therapist and intimacy expert in Florida. “That alone is very powerful at strengthening emotional bonds.”

But you can also thank oxytocin for that feel-good energy during a cuddle sesh. Nicknamed the “love hormone,” oxytocin is “associated with trust, sexual arousal, and relationship building,” explains Rose Hartzell, PhD, LMFT, a sex therapist and educator at San Diego Sexual Medicine. This little hormone kicks into hyperdrive when you make physical contact with someone, so cuddling has the potential to release a lot of it.

Maybe you have a favorite tried-and-true cuddling position (hey, if it's the classic fake yawn-and-reach maneuver, no judgment here) or maybe you’re in the mood for some fresh ideas. Whatever your preference may be, here are the 13 best cuddling positions to foster intimacy and connection.

1. Holding Hands

holding hands cuddling position
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How to: The partners clasp hands in whatever way feels comfortable, says Hartzell. For example, their fingers can intertwine, one person's hand can gently rest on top of the other’s, or their hands can embrace in a palm-facing hug.

Benefits: Don’t underestimate the power of a position as simple as a handhold—it’s a small but mighty gesture. “It can be a connecting force at all points during a relationship, such as in the early stages when partners are taking baby steps into further intimacy, or when a couple has been dating for years,” says Hartzell. It’s also a less vulnerable cuddling position, which can be great for those who want to get intimate in public.

2. Spooning

spooning cuddling position
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How to: One person will be the “big” spoon, and the other, the “little” spoon. Both partners lay on their sides, and the big spoon snuggles up behind the little spoon, “so it feels like they’re kind of hugging them from behind,” says Needle. To create more of an embrace, she suggests the big spoon wraps an arm around the little spoon. (Of course, feel free to take turns alternating between the big and little spoon roles!)

Benefits: Arguably the O.G. of cuddling positions, spooning is extremely intimate in that it encourages close full-body contact, explains Needle. “It allows for the big spoon to be dominant and fully open to touching, and for the little spoon to feel safe and connected,” she adds.

3. Head On Chest

head on chest cuddling position
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How to: “One partner lies on their back and the other rests their head on their partner’s chest, ideally in the vicinity of their heart,” Needle says. The person with their head on the chest can then drape an arm around their partner’s waist, which the other person can soothingly rub or hold. “It’s nice to have some other point of contact, whether it’s comforting the arm that’s embracing them or touching their partner’s back with their other free hand,” she adds.

Benefits: Aside from the soothing, rhythmic sounds of someone’s heartbeat? “This cuddling position can be really connecting and grounding,” Needle says, adding that “just by hearing their heartbeat and feeling close to them, it can be a reminder of their partner’s role in their life.”

4. Butt-To-Butt

butt to butt cuddling position
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How to: This position is fairly straightforward: The partners lie back-to-back and scoot in until their butts are touching comfortably, says Needle.

Benefits: “It gives partners space, but still maintains some sort of connection,” Needle explains. This position is also perfect for hot sleepers and those who get easily claustrophobic while cuddling.

5. The Fish Hook

fish hook cuddling position
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How to: Two partners sit on a bed or couch with their bodies slightly angled to face one another. One person sits with both feet grounded on the floor, while the other drapes their leg over their partner’s legs. This position can be made extra cozy by the partners holding hands, brushing their legs, or with one person resting their head on their partner’s chest, says Hartzell.

Benefits: Because the partners’ heads are really close, they can “engage in deep conversation and it allows for easy access for eye-gazing and deep kissing,” she explains.

6. The Hold-Me-Tender Embrace

hold me tender embrace cuddling position
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How to: The partners settle into bed or the couch while facing one another on their sides, and then intertwine their arms and legs together to fully become one.

Benefits: This position takes two to tango, which can “help partners feel more comfortable and connected within the relationship,” says Needle. Plus, there are so many opportunities for different points of contact here—one of which can even be the lips, if a couple wishes. Although wildly intimate, this cuddling position is not reserved just for the serious partnership stage, she explains. In fact, it can help couples in the honeymoon phase become more vulnerable with one another because of how close and connected they are physically.

7. Standing Spoon

standing spoon cuddling position
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How to: Both partners stand while the “big” spoon cuddles the “little” spoon from behind, explains Hartzell. The big spoon can wrap their arms around their partner’s waist and nuzzle their neck to form a warm embrace.

Benefits: This position is perfect if you want to get cozy in public. “The spooning partner has direct access to their partner’s neck and ears, and when touched or kissed, they can stimulate pleasure as part of the body’s erogenous zones,” she explains. As an added bonus, it allows for “a secret type of intimacy that’s not so obvious.”

8. Leg Entwined

leg entwined cuddling position
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How to: The partners intertwine their legs to form a makeshift pretzel, while still keeping the top half of their bodies separate, says Needle.

Benefits: The beauty of this position is that it “allows a couple to decide how much contact they want to have,” she says. While it may feel like a crazy game of Twister at first, both partners’ arms are free to roam. This positioning can feel good spatially and lead to other spicy activities, such as massaging one another, making out, and even penetrative play, if desired.

9. Classic Movie Theater Arm-Around-Shoulder

movie theater cuddling position
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How to: One person drapes their arm around their partner’s shoulder, suggests Hartzell. The other person can lean their head into their partner’s neck, rest a hand on their lap, or hold the hand that’s draped over their shoulder.

Benefits: An oldie but a goodie, this position is super low-stakes and “not overly intimate,” Hartzell explains, making it perfect for cuddling during the early stages in a relationship.

10. Arm Draped Across The Other’s Back

arm draped across the other's back cuddling position
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How to: In this position, one partner lies on their stomach while the other is positioned on their side (facing their partner) with their outward-facing arm draped over their partner’s back. The person who is being cradled can also show signs of physical acknowledgement through “touching, rubbing, or holding their partner’s draped arm and hand,” says Needle.

Benefits: This position is a beautiful nonverbal way of saying, “I’m here for you and I care about you,” says Needle. An added bonus? It’s an amazing sleeping arrangement. “[This position] makes the person being cradled feel safe, loved, and cared for throughout the night, while allowing the other person to know ‘my person is here,’” she explains.

11. Ear-To-Heartbeat Plank

ear to heartbeat plank cuddling position
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How to: In this position, one partner lies belly up with their legs open “almost in a V-formation,” says Hartzell. The other person lies face-first on top and rests their ear on their partner’s heart, with their legs in between their partners’.

Benefits: This cuddling position is incredibly intimate as “they’re literally connecting with their partner’s heart,” notes Hartzell, and it’s a postcoital entanglement one can naturally fall into. Plus, it puts the top person in a great position to lay kisses on their partner’s body, going up or down, she adds. And, of course, the bottom person has access to do whatever they'd like with their hands, such as rubbing their partner’s back or playing with their hair.

12. The Protective Backpack

protective backpack cuddling position
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How to: One person leans back against their partner’s chest and stomach while facing forward with their legs in between those of the partner in the back. Sitting upright, the “backpack” person embraces their partner from behind, creating a “protective force field of love and warmth,” says Hartzell.

Benefits: Like the standing spoon, this angle gives the backpacker easy access to their partner’s erogenous zones, per Hartzell. It can lead to gentle kisses and even dirty talk since the back partner's mouth is so close to the front person's neck and ears. Plus, because partners don't necessarily have to look at one another, it can be a great position to be vulnerable in, like if a couple is having a tough conversation. Conversely, “it’s a great way to console someone” because it’s a form of physical touch that doesn’t involve “invading one’s space,” explains Hartzell. That slight distance can make it easier for the other person to speak vulnerably.

13. The Face Cradle

face cradle cuddling position
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How to: As partners face one another while both lying on their sides, one person cradles their partner’s face by placing a palm on their cheek. Depending on comfortability levels, the one being cradled can “rest a hand on their partner’s shoulder, caress their partner’s outstretched arm, or pull them in for a kiss,” says Hartzell.

Benefits: Those who crave their partner’s warmth in bed will get that and more with this position. “The skin-to-skin contact can evoke deep emotions as well as open the door for open dialogue, eye gazing, making out, or more sexual play,” she explains.

What are the benefits of cuddling?

At its core, cuddling is an amazing way of unleashing your O—oxytocin, duh. This “love hormone” has the ability to make you feel good in more ways than one, says Needle. “Physical touch directly impacts our nervous system, and cuddling specifically releases oxytocin, which promotes feelings of relaxation, well-being, and closeness,” she says.

But wait, it gets even better. Cuddling also decreases cortisol levels, and oxytocin helps regulate your stress response, both of which can “reduce feelings of stress and anxiety,” says Needle. Research also supports this, including a 2021 study that found physical touch amongst couples can “alleviate individual stress effectively.”

A cuddle sesh before bedtime may even enhance your quality of sleep as it boosts feelings of comfort and safety, says Needle. In fact, 2020 research found that bed-sharing couples experience 10 percent more rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (a.k.a., the sleep stage responsible for most dreams) and more undisturbed REM sleep, compared to partners who don’t sleep snuggled close.

And when it comes to your emotions, getting cozy can bring couples together and reinvigorate the love they have for one another while establishing emotional security. “Physical touch in general can build trust, but cuddling can be especially bonding,” says Hartzell. “For couples who are fighting or in distrust, something as innocent as holding hands can activate a response of ‘We started as a team, we don’t have to be adversaries. We are in this together.’”

What role does cuddling play in sex?

Cuddling can heighten arousal and contribute to an overall more satisfying sexual experience—but in many ways, “cuddling can be even more intimate than the act of sex itself,” says Hartzell. For some, cuddling can be a natural gateway to other variations of foreplay and serve as an on-ramp to sex. This can be particularly beneficial for couples in a sex rut, or during the early stages in a relationship, when you’re focusing on building an intimate emotional connection.

Postcoital cuddling, on the other hand, can contribute to positive feelings about your partner (again, thank you, oxytocin!), and your sex life as a couple. “Rather than going your separate ways after engaging in a sexual experience, cuddling can be a way to stay connected—and off your phones—while still basking in that sort of high,” explains Needle.

Meet the Experts: Sarah Hunter Murray, PhD, is a sex researcher and relationship therapist, and the author of Not Always in the Mood: The New Science of Men, Sex, and Relationships. Rachel Needle, PsyD, is a certified sex therapist and intimacy expert in Florida. Rose Hartzell, PhD, LMFT, is a sex therapist and educator at San Diego Sexual Medicine.

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