A Touchy Subject

Today I watched a teenage boy squirm when he was required to kiss an adult relative, and it got me thinking about why we subject ourselves (and our children) to such displays of fake affection.

We learn about touching from our mothers (and fathers, too.)  Most mammals enjoyed touching and being touched (although there are individuals that don’t due to physical, mental, or emotional constraints).  Children crave it, and so do adults (unless they’re learned to shut out the need as a self-defense mechanism.)

Even marine mammals pat, nudge, nip and caress their friends, family, and potential mates. (And it’s not all friendly Flipper, either. Dolphins kick with their flukes, bite hard enough to draw blood, and ram others when they’re annoyed, angry, or even just bored.) Still, most baby whales (dolphins are whales, by the way) swim in physical contact with their mothers, and juvenile friends (male,  female, and mixed) often swim with their pectoral fins touching (“holding hands”).

So how is it that we turn something that should be a pleasure into a burden? It’s common for people to go through phases in their lives (and relationships) when they don’t want to be touched. What causes these disconnects in our physical and emotional needs and how do we fix them?

It’s an interesting question, and if you’ve even been in a situation where someone you cared about didn’t want to be touched, then you might have some ideas of your own. (It’s also very frustrating to be the one who doesn’t want to be touched, but I think there’s more emotional pain associated with “not being wanted” as opposed to “not wanting.”)

Here’s what I think is going on:

Let’s start with a kiss. As children we are taught to kiss others as a way of showing (sometimes unfelt) affection. We are told to kiss Grandpa Wilson hello, kiss Aunt Phyllis thank you, and kiss our parents goodnight. When we go through puberty, kissing takes on a whole new exciting and complicated meaning, and most teens find that kissing relatives (particularly on the lips) becomes uncomfortable, if not downright embarrassing. Kissing is a very intimate exchange (more so than sex sometimes) and most people don’t feel that way about their Great Aunt Tilly.

In some cultures, “fake” kissing on the cheeks is used as a form of greeting (and thanks, etc.), and I think that sort of kissing may be in a different category (at least it is for me.) If I am expected to touch lips with someone I am not intimate with (and do not want to be intimate with), it makes me uncomfortable, but touching cheeks (and making a kissing sound) isn’t so bad. It’s more intimate than a handshake, but less intimate than say a hug. (I do find it interesting that the “cheek kissing” folks do NOT tend to do hugs, and I think they find hugging to be uncomfortable in the same way that I find forced lip-kissing to be, but that’s for another day.)

When kissing is forced on us and lacks any real emotion, it teaches us to touch without affection. And perhaps more importantly, it teaches us to accept touching from people we don’t feel any emotional connection to. Problems arise later when we allow ourselves to be touched (or kissed) intimately without feeling the connection (either because we feel obligated to, coerced into, or even just because it’s easier than saying no.) We have been trained as children to sacrifice what we want, for what a person in a position of power wants or expects from us. Ouch.

So why do people stop wanting to be touched? Because it doesn’t feel good anymore. Why doesn’t it feel good? Ah, now that’s an interesting question. I think it’s because the touching has become a request (demand? plea?) for something else: sex, approval, commitment, money, affection, the desire to be touched back. Those needs are not, by definition, bad, but when touching becomes a poorly disguised guilt trip, the physical contact is no longer pleasurable.

For example, if you’re touching her now, so she’ll consent (out of guilt) to have sex later, you’re training her not to like the way you’re touching her now (and it’s not going to make the sex any better either). It may work a couple of times, but in the end she’s not going to want to be touched at all. I’ve had guys tell me that there are ways to touch them that would always be pleasurable (use your imagination here), but I still think, if the “payment” for that pleasure is too steep, even the world’s best conversation with Shorty will turn out to be a downer. (Think about you and Dear Aunt Tilly.) Am I wrong?

So there’s the problem: No one should be forced, bribed, or compelled to show affection that they don’t feel, and no one should be offered physical affection that is given with a guilt trip attached. (Hey, if getting a massage from a stranger in exchange for your money works for you, I don’t have a problem with it: both people know up front what the deal is and are happy with the exchange. But, don’t be kissing me when you don’t know what else to do, and you’re hoping it will get you laid.)

Unfortunately, giving and receiving unfelt affection trains us to make bad choices, allow others to control our bodies, and leads to unhappiness all around. (Does Great Aunt Tilly NOT know that you are being forced by your mother to kiss her? Do you really want sex so badly that doing it with a resentful partner is worth it? Do you like to be kissed by someone who is just doing it to distract you?) Then what can we do, especially if we’ve already been conditioned to give (and accept) unwanted physical affection?

Stop doing it.

If you find that a person you care about is not interested in kissing or other touching (and you are), maybe you need to make a bit more effort to do the kind of touching and kissing that isn’t a disguised request for something you want. Make it be a confirmation of what the relationship means to you. Take your time. Enjoy touching for touching’s sake. Kiss her and don’t be thinking about anything else. Make it a gift not a down payment or distraction. And if your partner doesn’t feel the same way about physical affection as you do, then perhaps it’s time to find someone who does.

Maybe all those mortified teenage boys are on to something?

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