A Look at Bodily Relating – Affection

Last article, we began exploring the 5 A’s – which came from a question:

I have just read David Richo’s How To Be An Adult in Relationships.

In it he describes the 5 A ‘s that we need to give ourselves and others. These are attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection and allowing ourselves and others to have the freedom to be who we and they truly are. Perhaps this thought might give you an idea for an article.


Last week we had our first look at “the 5 A’s” and I left Affection out, for a reason. I also mentioned last week that, as a “baby therapist,” I was taught to ask about “sharing, caring, affection and sex” as determinants of how a relationship is going. Today, we’re going to talk about several things, and depending on how long this gets, I may split it up and take several weeks on the topic. We shall see.

While I’ve never been much of a fan of John Grey and the whole “Mars/Venus” thing, there’s no question that men and women, in the main, instinctively approach affection and sex differently. And, of course, you’ll know that I think that instinctual behaviour can be unlearned or de-emphasised. Left to our own devices, however, there are decided differences, and those differences turn the Battle of the Sexes into the Battle of Sex.

(Editor’s note: I’ve never been of the “Politically Correct” ilk, and never plan to join up. Nonetheless, as I was writing this article, I noticed that I was beginning to get “apologetic” for talking about gender differences. I really want to stop explaining that I’m generalizing in the following examples. In my clinical experience, this is what happens. I’m not saying, “all women” or “all men,” but rather “this is how it appears to me.” Ignoring the differences between male and female wants and needs leads to unhappiness and dissatisfaction.)

So, let’s begin with Affection.

As a therapist, I use the word “affection” to mean non-sexual physical contact – affectionate behaviour. Feel free to define the word any way you want to – that’s how I’m using it here. So, under this word we might have holding hands, hugging, cuddling, massaging, snuggling. Now, here is where the first “sex difference” appears for many people.

  • For many women, affection is an end in itself.
  • For many men, affection is a means to an end.

Actually, I’ve just described the chief difference that will keep cropping up in our discussions, but others will occur as we go along.

When asking about affection, then, couples with problems in this area will say, “there’s not much affection in our relationship.” The woman will say, with a sigh, “I’d love to just sit and cuddle, but he always thinks it means he’s going to get lucky.” And he’ll reply, “Fat chance of that.”

And then we know that there’s a battle going on, around the way physical intimacy plays out for this couple. Rather than a whole range of behaviours, it all gets munged together. Here’s how weird it can get. Two examples:

1) when doing sex therapy, there’s often a wide difference between the partners about who wants what done with which. There’s a lot of guessing and groping going on, and neither person is exactly having a good time. Often, the couple has either fallen into a routine of infrequent sex, or no sex. So, I propose some physical intimacy exercises, designed to explore touch, cuddling, sensuality and eroticism. Pretty standard stuff. And I say, “I’d like you to work on this for a few weeks. During that time, no intercourse, just touch.”

Now, remember, this couple is not satisfied with their sex life and is mostly not having sex. Typically, the woman will say, “Thank God! It will be good to slow things down and just make some contact.” The guy will say, “What? Three weeks without sex?”

2) One woman had decided to use sex as a weapon. The usual approach for this ploy is for the person to refuse to have sex. She says to me, “Boy, am I ever showing him! I have sex whenever he wants to, but I’ve stopped having orgasms!”

Most people have sex issues, as well as intimacy issues, as well as affection issues.
We really, really need to get over ourselves in this area.

There’s something warming and fulfilling about moving our physical intimacy off of a timetable, and recognizing that the human body is one big nerve. Touch feels good. And touch comes in more “flavours” than Baskin Robbins Ice Cream. Our problems have arisen in this area because of our tendency to be “body shy” and “sex attracted/repulsed.” Because of our Puritan preoccupation with good/bad, right/wrong, we’ve made the spurious connection that almost all physical contact is either sexual or manipulative in nature. As opposed to simply being about touch.

All healthy relationships, on the other hand, have a lot to do with the ability to both accept and freely give affectionate touch. In order to do so, I have to be comfortable with touching for touch’s sake. Thus, touch may be a prelude, but it is also and primarily a thing unto itself. It is a way to physically say, “I care about you.” That this isn’t often the case is perhaps best demonstrated by the way people often ask for affectionate touch. They say, Let’s just cuddle,” as opposed to “Let’s cuddle.” We gotta get that “just” in there to be sure nobody gets the “wrong” idea.

I suspect it takes a much more attuned individual to choose to have highly developed affectionate relationships. The ability to comfortably make physical contact eludes many people. Because of body embarrassment and a fear of rejection, or, out of fear of misinterpretation, many people choose to keep others, even their partners, literally and figuratively at arms length. Despite their longing for contact at the physical boundary of skin to skin, they harden their hearts and rigidify their bodies. And in the process, they feel very lost, and very alone, and typically make that all about how others aren’t very warm or caring.

On the other hand, to turn to a friend (or several friends!) and ask for a hug, a cuddle, a back rub, a massage, is the beginning of breaking through the tyranny of our body-rejecting cultures. Reaching out, with honesty, candour and humour, brings rewards on all levels of our being.

Of course, what this requires is the willingness to talk honestly with our friends about what we want and how we want it. Things left unsaid have a way of biting back.

Here’s an interesting exercise for you: I use this procedure when anyone is, at some level, hurting and in need of a hug. If you are going to hug someone (and are therefore “the hugger,”) pretend that you don’t know a thing about giving a hug. (Actually this is the truth, as we never know what someone else wants, but I digress…) Decide if the hug will be standing or sitting. You decide this by asking the person who wants the hug (“the huggee.”)

Let’s use a sitting hug as an example. Hugger, sit down on a couch, or the floor, and be sure that your back is fully supported and that you are sitting on something soft. You want to be comfortable for multiple minutes. Now, just sit there and invite the huggee to sit down, either next to you or on your lap, or whatever the huggee wants. Ask the huggee to make “herself” comfortable. Huggee, wiggle a bit and find the posture that suits what you need. Once the position is comfortable for both of you, hugger, ask the huggee where “she” wants you to put your arms. In other words, make no assumptions about anything. Huggee, ask, specifically, for what you want. Oh. And make an agreement that it’s OK to reposition yourselves as necessary.

After doing this until the huggee is done, debrief. How “familiar” did the hug feel? Did it meet the needs of the huggee? Typically, when we need something, we settle for whatever we get. This exercise causes us to both think about what we want, and to ask for it. You can then expand this exercise to any physical contact activity.

Find a couple or several people to practice this with. Begin to work at getting over thinking that affectionate contact is “inappropriate” when not contained in a primary relationship. As we continue to discuss the physical side of ourselves, and how we make contact, you’ll see I’m hoping to convince you to push your boundaries way, way back.

Well, as I suspected, I only barely scratched the surface (another affectionate experience J ) of this topic, so I guess I’ll stay here for a few weeks. Next week, sensual contact.

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