I’m really not good with social hugging. I had thought this was all very straightforward. My childhood was definitely a non-contact sport, as an adult I have been physically abused, and I suffer a lot of pain. Why would I want anyone to touch me? Unexpected kisses can give me panic attacks. However, in the last year or so, I’ve had a lot more very tactile people in my life, lots more scope to find out what I want. I think it would also be fair to say that in the context of my marriage, I am not an untouchable ice queen. Whatever my issues are, it’s not as simple as an absolute unwillingness to make contact.
It’s worth pausing to note here that it is very easy indeed to be doing things and not know why. If something has become normal, if you grew up with it, if it’s part of your culture then going along unquestioningly is very easy. Who we are is somewhat malleable and we are easily persuaded by our environments into being someone who fits. But if that’s not who you are, there’s an accompanying unease, a chaffing sense that something is out of kilter. So here I am, doing a thing, and not knowing why. Hating being pounced on and resenting casual, unmeant contact, and assuming it was because I’m not a very tactile person.
In the last year I’ve had three very important sets of exchanges around the issue of reduced physical contact. Three different people who, for different reasons are not able to make physical contact with me on the level I would have gone for. There have been conversations to understand why and to figure out what would work, and how to honour boundaries. These are three people I really like, and in the space where contact does not occur, I’ve been seeing a thing. A great welling up of joy and affection that seeks expression. I find it mildly frustrating that I cannot pour that emotion out in the most obvious ways, but at the same time to inflict unwelcome contact is, as I know from grim experience, a pretty disgusting thing. There is no way I would do that to someone I care about.
And that may be the critical point in all of this. Unmeant social affection, I realise, troubles me because it is unmeant. On occasions when I’ve expressed discomfort with being kissed, it’s tended to be the case that the person doing the kissing kisses everyone and considers it to be no big deal. I am really uneasy about doing that casually precisely because it’s not an empty gesture when I do it. I don’t like hugging people where nothing is felt or meant.
I’ve put in some serious contemplating time around this issue over the last few days. I realise I am not a cold and standoffish person, and that all my issues with contact come from somewhere else entirely. I’m an intense, emotional, passionate sort of person and (when I’m not hurting bodily, which is a different issue altogether) my inclination is to express surges of joy and adoration by throwing my arms around people, and in more serious cases, kissing them on the cheek. When I mean it, I hug tight, close and serious and I stop there for as long as I think it acceptable to the other person. In learning to accommodate people whose wants are different to mine, I’ve become more able to understand who I am and what I want, which is an interesting moral to the story. When everything is the same, when we don’t allow difference, we are less able to find out about our own authentic selves. Who I think I am has just shifted dramatically. It probably won’t change what I do, but it changes things within me.