Somebody Needs a Hug: Touch for the Emotionally Stunted

Culture — By on June 4, 2013 at 7:00 am

What does touch mean to you?

Trying to find the light switch in a dark room?
Making contact with the rim of the basketball hoop?
A so-so TV series with Kiefer Sutherland?

Whatever first comes to mind, chances are that when it comes to touch between people you’d agree that the modern rules are a little dicey.

For example: Two people can’t be just friends and walk down the street holding hands, right? At least, not after age five. There are certain implications. Maybe some overdramatic arm-linking “we’re off to see the wizard!” bit is acceptable between pals, but after a few seconds…knock it off, guys. That’s weird.

But why does it have to be that way?

When I was a kid, my dad used to tickle me and give me ‘noogies’—he still does, occasionally. I would often fight both these and the smothering hugs that followed, because that’s how kids are. If we don’t squirm and say “Daaaaaaad!” then we’re not doing our job.

But while twelve-year-old me could wave away any “I love you” I heard as an empty phrase, I couldn’t ignore the fact that when my daddy would sneak up and playfully squeeze the breath out of me, I knew he loved me. There wasn’t a question.

Now that I’m an adult who lives three thousand miles from my family, spontaneous physical expressions like that just seem out of place. The last tickle fight I had was with a long-ago boyfriend—because, as I’m sure you know, that’s the best way to flirt on a church bus. But I can’t really see myself initiating one with a friend these days, even one that I know really well.

Because that’s just weird.

In a city like Los Angeles, everyone wants real friends very, very badly.
When you’re a transplant just trying to make it in a huge town full of judgments and ratings systems, finding some sort of unconditional acceptance feels like the ultimate jackpot. Because no one out here is your family, so no one has that same obligation to put up with you.

Despite the fact that I’ve found a great group of friends in this crazy city, sometimes I still get lonely. Not so much in the way of needing someone to talk to, but more in the “Man, I wish I had a cuddle buddy who could watch this movie with me” sense. And then I start to think that perhaps I need a boyfriend.

While I’m completely open to the possibility (your move, gentlemen), I think the main thing that I’m missing in my independent life isn’t romance, but that physical affirmation that came so naturally back home. No longer do my siblings and I all pile onto the same couch to share a blanket while we watch TV. I don’t get a hug from Mom when I get back from school and she asks about my day.

Now I walk in the door of my apartment, say “Hi” to my roommate, and we sit on opposite sides of the room and talk a bit.

To be fair, I’m not a kid anymore. Things can’t be the same forever.

One of the biggest things that living in a college dorm taught me was that everyone you meet was raised a different way. Some people grew up with their own rooms or hairbrushes or computers. Some people shared them. Some people got in wrestling matches with their friends or siblings almost daily, while others were taught to spend their time on quieter, more polite things.

Now, as adults who have parties and barbecues and game nights, we have some basic understanding of socially acceptable touch. We shake hands when we first meet, and after another run-in or two we generally graduate to “nice-to-see-you” hugs, which are allowed at the beginning and end of each gathering. And they’re great and all.

But is that it? Are those the physical expression limits of grown-ups?

The problem with coming from all of these different backgrounds is that no one really knows what to expect from anyone else, or how what they do will be interpreted. A friend of mine who hails from an African country told me about his unexpected struggles when he first moved to America. Everyone assumed he was some kind of creep or shameless flirt, purely because he had grown up in a culture that encouraged more physical touch. “Scale back,” they told him.

And while I’m all for proper boundaries and being sensitive to other people, we still seem to have a concept of physical interaction that’s a little out of whack. We should be able to use touch to affirm, discipline, and otherwise communicate—instead parents are told not to spank their kids, and we as Christians try to avoid any physical contact that isn’t completely “necessary” for fear that it will be offensive or a gateway drug to lust.

Have we forgotten that touch is one of those classic love languages?

Could we have some kind of connection that isn’t overanalyzed, some pure expression of friendship? Or are we doomed to spend forever holding back in the name of propriety? Too many decades of physicality being abused and over-sexualized may very well have ruined it for the rest of us.

“Greet one another with a holy side hug” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.


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  • Anonymous

    An excellent read, and an excellent point. I sometimes believe that I’m the only one that “craves” physical touch from someone without there necessarily being romantic or sensual implications. But, as you seemed to outline in your article, we are touched and cuddled and hugged from the day we are born until society settles in and tells us it’s “not cool” to get hugs from parents and “not acceptable” to give and get them from friends. Personally, I disagree with this, but I have inhibitions preventing me from just hugging people because I need one, or because that person is a good friend of mine.

  • Soujirou7

    We all (or most) have inhibitions that prevent us from touching or being touched despite our desire for it. Like her African friend, we’re told to “scale back” from our 5 and 12 year old selves.

    I believe Hannah made a really good point about how we all come from different places, hence no one knows quite what to expect. The best advice I have received concerning this is to simply be honest. Honest first of all to your good/close friends. Approach them with your need and ask for the things you’d like: movie night on the couch, wrestling match on the kitchen floor, etc. I can’t guarantee you will get what you want but saying nothing definitely won’t. (side note: same principle applies to married spouses; if we can’t do this now, it won’t be any easier then but doubly necessary)

    With those not-so-close, be honest in your interaction with them. Culture/society/whatever taught us not only to hold back but also be ashamed of our need for touch. The unspoken lie going around is that touch is equivalent to sexual interest (with either gender). We dispel this lie when we are brave enough to greet each other with a hug and let it be just as natural as a handshake. Again, you may be rebuffed. Either they grew up differently or they aren’t being honest with themselves. It might become a chance to start a conversation they’ve never had.