Local experts laud hidden power of the kiss

MOUTH TO MOUTH: Local experts say kissing sets off a cascade of psychological and physical reactions that feel good and are actually healthy.

This Valentine’s Day, don’t blow off the kiss — it’s more important than you think.

LOVING KISSES: Hal Butts says about all the kissing he and his wife do: "It's a bit physical, but I think it's more mental than physical. It means more than just that. It means genuine affection." Photo by Jonathan Jay Esslinger
LOVING KISSES: Hal Butts says about all the kissing he and his wife do: “It’s a bit physical, but I think it’s more mental than physical. It means more than just that. It means genuine affection.” Photo by Jonathan Jay Esslinger

Jeanne and Hal Butts of Black Mountain shared their first kisses in July 1957 during a “supervised” weekend on a friend’s ranch. “She was going to Stanford for her graduate degree, and I was a Navy pilot,” Hal Butts says. They had been introduced on a blind date earlier in the week. As Jeanne Butts recalls, “Those first kisses were all bells and whistles … real electric.”

They soon found, like most lovers and relationship experts, that kissing is a uniquely powerful act of connection. “We were married Nov. 23 that year,” Hal Butts says with a smile.

Cupid’s bow

Kissing taps into an explosion of senses, explains Mike Neelon, an associate professor of

NOURISHING KISSES: Benita Silver explains it's "about giving and receiving...the giving ends up morphing into a receiving, because it's highly nourishing for one's self.” Photo by Kelley Raji Simpson of JK Photography
NOURISHING KISSES: Benita Silver explains it’s “about giving and receiving. … The giving ends up morphing into a receiving, because it’s highly nourishing for one’s self.” Photo by Kelley Raji Simpson of JK Photography

psychology at UNC Asheville. “When we kiss — you know if we’re really kissing, if we’re making out — we’re obviously using more than just our lips,” Neelon says. “We’re using our hands and we’re caressing each other.” According to Neelon, kissing unleashes a chemical storm in the body that can feel both rewarding and exciting.

Benita Silver, an Asheville-based psychotherapist who specializes in intimacy issues, says the sensation is a decadent sensory treat. “I equate kissing and eating chocolate,” she says. “Because chocolate, I regard as one of the most highly sensory foods — because it melts and the smell and the taste and everything about it — it just draws you right [in].”

Silver also points to the physiological aspects of lip-locking. “Certainly it kicks up the endorphins and the oxytocin in our brain, which are those feel-good hormones,” she says.

The spark

Asheville-based psychologist Rhonda Karg recognizes that “kissing is often associated with foreplay, which is where we negotiate the levels of intimacy, eroticism, meaning and emotional connection.” Yet, she and others think that kissing can stand alone.

KISSING PRACTICE: Jamie Brazell knows we can all learn how to kiss better. “It's just like anything else that we practice, you know.” Photo courtesy of Jamie Brezell
KISS TRAINING: Jamie Brazell knows we can all learn how to kiss better. “It’s just like anything else that we practice, you know.” Photo courtesy of Brazell

Jamie Brazell, a sex therapist in Asheville certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists, says kissing is underrated. “It seems as if people just want to jump to the sex. It becomes this goal-oriented activity,” she says. “It misses out on the whole experience. Kissing can be intensely erotic and it can be full of connection. Just a beautiful way — an intimate way — of expressing affection with someone.”

Rebekah Beneteau, an Asheville-based sex and relationship coach, agrees that the importance of the kiss can get lost when it’s not tended to. “Great kissing is an act in itself, not just the lead-in so you can ‘get to the good stuff,'” she says. “When was the last time you just made out like a teenager with no intention to take it further?”

Relationship bonder

As it turns out, experts recognize that kissing, when done well, is something that can truly strengthen lovers’ connections.

Psychologist David de Jong, an assistant professor of psychology at Western Carolina University, describes one powerful study that offered further support for the bonding power of a kiss. “They found that more kissing had a causal effect on both physiological and self-reported measures of well-being,” he says. “So, unlike the conclusions that could be drawn from correlational studies, this study tells us that kissing is good for relationship well-being.”

LOVE DISCOVERIES: David de Jong's research interests involve well-being in romantic relationships and sexual health. Photo by Geoff MacDonald
LOVE DISCOVERIES: David de Jong’s research interests involve well-being in romantic relationships and sexual health. Photo by Geoff MacDonald

Neelon concurs that the chemical soup released from a kiss has been shown to be related to relationship longevity, saying a kiss “promotes oxytocin release that should lead to a more stable and longer-lasting relationship. … Since kissing releases oxytocin, then it would be one mechanism for building that bond. ”

He understands that explanation might lack romantic luster, however. “I don’t think that statement would fit easily on a Valentine’s Sweethearts candy heart,” Neelon says.

Kisses aren’t always successful in producing connection. In fact, some kisses can lead to a strong disconnection or even mishaps that can take away the uniting power of the smooch.

INTIMACY FEARS: Rhonda Karg recognizes that many individuals struggle with fears of being intimate, which can impact their readiness to engage in kissing. Photo courtesy of Rhonda Karg
INTIMACY FEARS: Rhonda Karg recognizes that many individuals struggle with fears of being intimate, which can impact their readiness to engage in kissing. Photo courtesy of Karg

Karg explains some of these unhelpful kisses: “There is a mushy, limp kiss of passivity that a lot of times is indicative of withheld intimacy. And then there’s the perfunctory kiss on the way to the office. And the sloppy, soupy-wet kiss that can trigger anger rather than desire. And then there can be a smothering kiss that can rekindle childhood fears of an engulfing parent. There can be the impatient kiss of a partner that’s preoccupied with more important things.”

Kissing tips

You can avoid puny pecks and make the most of your lip-tangos this Valentine’s day by following the advice of our experts.

1. Get consent. Always, in every situation.

“I once rode an elevator with a man I’d chosen to date; it was our first night out,” says Kenya Stevens, an Asheville-based relationship coach who specializes in polyamory. “We’d just enjoyed a drink and a long introductory chat. I hadn’t touched him except a friendly pat on the arm as he made a joke. But in the elevator, he pulled me close and attempted to kiss my mouth. … But without consent, the magic felt absent.”

“Consent,” she says, “turns me on.”

INTIMACY TV: Kenya Stevens is the star of Asheville’s first reality series on Youtube: Let’s Stray Together. Photo courtesy of Kenya Stevens
INTIMACY TV: Kenya Stevens is the star of Asheville’s first reality series on YouTube: Let’s Stray Together. Photo courtesy of Kenya Stevens

When seeking consent, it is best to say it in the form of your wants, rather than as part of some pressured question. “’I really want to kiss you right now. How do you feel about that?’ is even a nicer approach,” says Brazell. “It can be sexy and hot to do that. It’s also a way of letting somebody know what your desires are without putting a whole lot of pressure on them. So it’s actually better to state it like that in place of, ‘Hey, can I kiss you?’”

2. Be prepared. You can’t ever downplay the merits of a clean and minty mouth. Brazell suggests the practical advice of “making sure that you have good hygiene, that you’re prepared for kissing.”

3. Be present. Beneteau explains, “What makes a good kisser? Presence. Are you really feeling your partner’s lips against yours? Noticing how that gentle flick of their tongue sends an electric spark to places lower in your body?”

4. Experiment. Says Neelon: “Let’s say you’re kissing, and then somebody does something different … that kind of wakes you up. You know, it’s one of those things that kind of keeps focusing your attention on the activity.”

Adds Brazell, “Sometimes surprising a partner with switching something up after a while can be a really nice way to rejuvenate a connection.”

LIP POWER: “The lips are a great erogenous zone,” notes Rebekah Beneteau. Photo by Mahan Kalpa Khalsa
LIP POWER: “The lips are a great erogenous zone,” notes Rebekah Beneteau. Photo by Mahan Kalpa Khalsa

There are a number of different general approaches with which you could experiment. Karg notes, “There’s the soft but electric kiss that happens a lot of times with a familiar lover. There’s a hard kiss of passion. There’s sort of the broadly languid kiss of tasting and smelling each other’s body. And then there’s also a gentle bite on the lip from someone who’s begging for primal passion.”

5. Seek and give feedback. Beneteau offers the following challenge: “Are you aware of how your partner likes to be kissed? Everybody is different. Most people kiss the way they want to be kissed, which doesn’t always work. So being a good kisser means being willing to ask questions, or experiment and see what the results are.”

It can be frightening to seek feedback about something so personal. Fortunately, according to Brazell, being direct and open to feedback can be reduced to, “’Hey, how do you like to be kissed?’ or ‘Where would you like to be kissed?’”

KISSING RECEPTORS: Mike Neelon says, “The brain receives a lot of input” when you kiss. Photo by Jonathan Jay Esslinger
KISSING RECEPTORS: Mike Neelon says, “The brain receives a lot of input” when you kiss. Photo by Jonathan Jay Esslinger

You also want to give feedback about your partner’s kissing, without emotionally hurting them. Brazell suggests, for someone who wanted softer kisses, “Instead of putting them down and saying, ‘I don’t like what you’re doing,’ be like, ‘Hey, let’s try something different. Can I take charge of how we’re kissing? Let’s do it slowly and do it this way.’’’

Xs and Os

While the loving electricity is currently flowing for Hal and Jeanne Butts, there have been challenging moments in their 60 years of marriage that could be measured simply by their lack of kissing.

They recalled one intense relationship challenge that happened over three decades ago: “I became a born-again Christian, and it totally changed who I was. He didn’t know what to do with me. Our kissing got much less at that time,” notes Jeanne.

Once they worked through their differences, the kissing was quick to return. “He’d hold me by my cheeks and kiss me,” she continues. “From that point on, it’s just been uphill. It’s been wonderful.”

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About Jonathan Jay Esslinger
Jonathan Jay Esslinger is a relationship, addiction, and personal therapist in Asheville, NC. Before becoming an author and a clinician in private practice, Jonathan served as the Program Director for a mental health clinic in western North Carolina. He is a sought after trainer by other therapists in the area of relationships and mental health recovery. He also conducts teacher trainings for educators through the North Carolina Division of Child Development and Early Education. “The new research and data around healthy relationships has transformed every clinicians approach to love and happiness. I’m excited to be able to share this information so that you can grow in the way you connect with others.”

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