"No touching!" Physical touch for the less inclined?
December 2, 2014 8:12 AM   Subscribe

You are not a touchy feely person - that is, you do not openly express emotion or affection through physical contact. How have you learned to give and share love with people in your life whose primary love language is physical touch?

I realize that physical touch is important for many people, and want to honour this. To be clear, I understand the difference between sex and physical touch in this case.

I have been chatting with my therapist about this, and have been exploring ways to reconcile my physical discomfort and negative feelings of obligation with the needs of others. Out of thirty, I scored one in the physical touch category on the love languages online quiz, found here. That one question asked about a high five, which is my ideal amount of physical contact outside of a sexual situation.

I would like to hear how you've overcome your aversion to physical touch in order to show your loved ones that you care.
posted by Juniper Toast to Human Relations (14 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Did you have older relatives who forced you into physical touch when you were little? Like you had to give grandma a hug and a kiss, or your uncle sneaked up behind you and tickled you, that kind of thing?

If that's part of the problem, then maybe you could just tell people you're never going to be OK with a hug and a kiss to say hello, or there must be no tickling ever, or whatever the specific thing was that you were forced into. And just make up your own thing. The high five, the (possibly elaborate) secret handshake, the side-hug, jokingly squeezing the super-strong biceps, rubbing the tip of your nose against the tip of the other person's nose.

Also, when you make up your own thing, it might help if announcing it is part of the thing. Like a lot of people will say "high five" so you know why they're raising their hand, or they'll say "group hug" to invite people into the hug. That way, you aren't quite so taken off guard by having it suddenly be time to do the thing.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 8:40 AM on December 2, 2014

I've considered this, and I decided not to overcome my aversion to touch--the same way I'm not super cheery and effusive with my verbal expression, I consider this level of reserve to be part of who I am. And I think it's completely fine and okay. Gestures that are forced and inauthentic are no good compared to those that come naturally and freely.

So I show affection and care for my loved ones, without too much physical touch, by:

- listening, asking about their concerns and lives and goings-on
- giving thoughtful gifts
- showing up to special events
- writing sincere words in cards and letters
- letting them in on my life and my goings-on
- lending my time and energy, helping out during times of crisis

And my core group of really great family and friends all understand this and know this and we get along fine. Anyone else (fairweather college sorority friends, for example) can take a hike.
posted by magdalemon at 8:44 AM on December 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

Wow, this is so me too. My family was just not very touchy feely and I grew up very uncomfortable being around the huggy people. Some of this changed for me when I had children. I adored them so much I really just couldn't stop hugging and loving on them. Even as they got older, I still hugged them because I didn't want them to grow up feeling awkward the way I did.

But adorable kids are the easy part. It really has not been until more recently that I have made an effort with others like friends or more distant relatives. With friends it has always been kind of a joke about my touching issues and I don't mind at all. Things have started changing because so many in my group have had major life challenges lately including life threatening things. A lot of us have lost our first parent. Something about these things have made me more conscious of the importance of showing physical love/care for others.

I recently went to a school reunion where I saw people that I had not even spoken to in 20 years and in the past I would never have hugged any of them. But it was so different, I hugged everyone and it felt great to be hugged back. And they were pretty surprised at me. I think the big thing for me was just starting to do it with a few really important people and the more I did it, the easier it got.
posted by maxg94 at 8:55 AM on December 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I hate casual physical touch. It overloads my senses in a weird way and I freak out (too much stimulus in places like supermarkets does it also). I have as long as I can remember, and my mother says I hated huggingas a child. Pushing her away from hugs before I had words & saying "Too many kisses" as one of my earliest sentences.

My husband is a touch feely kind of guy and boy did we talk about this a lot early in our relationship because we knew this was going to be an issue. Things we have worked out that work for us, they may not work for you but might give you some ideas.

We hold hands ALOT. I still have to trap his thumb under mine or he will rub my hand with his thumb which freaks me out, but we have turned it into a joke.

I hate being embraced, but I am much better with contact from the side, so he can sit with his body pressed up against mine. I am better if touch is kept still instead of rubbing, so while he loves to stroke my skin he instead will rest his hand on my arm or leg & hold it still. He will give warnings when coming in & not surprise me, so he will call out jokingly "Coming in for a hug brace yourself." or "I'm going to kiss you now." I also have trouble with non sexual kissing, so often as a way to feel close but not overload me he will just put his cheek against mine or his forehead on my forehead, we call it the mind meld.

Now I don't mind touching other people, I just hate being touched, so I make sure that as he respects my needs I respect his and I touch him a LOT. I don't mind touching, I just hate being touched if that makes sense. I will ruffle his hair, stroke the back of his neck, lay with my head on his lap when watching TV, pat his shoulder as I walk past his chair. He needs lots of non sexual touching to feel content so I try & give that to him.

Now my niece & nephew, grew up knowing Aunty wwax didn't like lots of hugs or being climbed all over. So they too would do the lean that my husband does. They'd sit next to me and just press against my side or shoulder, lots and lots of hand holding, fist bumps, high fives. Even when they were babies if I was baby sitting, I couldn't hold them for long without "overloading" so I'd lay them next to me and stroke them. Again the being in control of the touch & not overloaded was very important to me to feel comfortable and as babies they seemed to prefer calm Aunt who sat next to them to "OMG why are you all up in my face touching me but I have to hold you because you're a baby & babies have to be held" Aunt.

I haven't gotten used to being touched a lot. I still overload and shut down from too much of it. Sometimes my husband will forget, or I'll be extra tired and I'll get overloaded & snap at him and feel bad, but after lots of talking, reassurance from my extended family that I was like this with everyone not just him, he is very understanding. .
posted by wwax at 9:12 AM on December 2, 2014 [12 favorites]

I've always hated being hugged but at some point I realized that what I actually hate is being "bear-hugged" by people who are large and strong and don't realize that smaller people require a gentler touch. Now I just tell those well-meaning brutes "Aaah, don't squeeze me!" if they go too hard and they are usually much gentler the next time around. If they don't get it, then the next time I will back off when they are about to hug me, make an exaggerated scared face, and say "Are you going to squeeze me? I am scared!" and then let them laugh it off and hug me gently. So far so good, no one hasn't gotten the memo the second time around. Being a non-touchy person myself, I still don't love the hugging, but at least it doesn't bother me like it used to.

(And other than hugging, I find it that people in non-sexual situation don't tend to try to touch others all that much).
posted by rada at 10:11 AM on December 2, 2014

My husband and I had a conversation about our respective love languages; I mainly hope that he remembers that my acts of service and quality time with him are my way of expressing love. Just in case, though, I've made it a habit to make physical contact at certain times of day: first thing in the morning and upon arriving home from work, for example.
posted by mchorn at 11:55 AM on December 2, 2014

For me, being in control of the touching is absolutely vital. If I have to shake hands with someone in a business setting, for example, I will always try to extend my hand first. If I decide on the level of touching, it's OK.

High fives are good, but so are "low fives". I once met a friend while I was carrying a large wrapped box with something delicate in it. I didn't want to damage it or put it down, so I extended my foot and we pressed our shoes together. It's turned into a silly joke now and we often get odd looks from people who don't know the backstory but we've kept doing it for the past few years. Having a tradition like that can sometimes be more affirming to the other person than a forced, empty gesture. Perhaps you could develop traditions with family members to show them that you care, but using a different method.
posted by Solomon at 12:33 PM on December 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Can you be a back rubber or a shoulder patter? An elbow toucher? A stray hair fixer? An eyelash grabber? A hand holder on long walks? A shoulder leaner during movies? The person your kid leans on during movies? Foot rubbing is suuuuuuper intimate and might be way beyond your comfort level, but may be worth a shot because one non touchy person I know is now a devoted foot rubber because there's lotion involved and it's able to fit into his "acts of service" personality.

There are lots of ways to touch people. Ask the people you care about how they want to be touched. Because some people who score highly on the physical touch part of that quiz don't really want to be hugged. The Five Love Languages book very specifically talks about showing kids you care as they grow up and gives the example of physical touch changing for kids, because the kiss and hug they may have loved as little ones may become uncomfortable for them, even though they still want to be touched.

I want to also touch on this:

negative feelings of obligation with the needs of others

being a pretty common feeling for people who are learning how to show love in a way that isn't "natural" to them. You just have to suck it up and find things that work for you and the person you care about. It might take a lot of practice, but you can do it. I'm a big big fan of acts of service. Having someone wash the dishes for me is even more meaningful if I know it is not their very favorite way to spend their evening after I've cooked a big meal. That's not to say that I appreciate it if they gripe the entire time their hands are in the dishpan, if you know what I mean. But I also love it when someone asks me specific questions about what I want them to do.
posted by bilabial at 1:15 PM on December 2, 2014

FWIW, I am the touchy-feely sort and married a non-toucher and had two kids who have some of his genes and they are not huggy-kissy types either. But they are very loyal to me, take care of me when I am sick, validate my feelings (verbally, by saying things like "Wow, you are really mad about that.") and just take the best care of me of anyone I have ever known. And it is a non-issue that they are not huggy types.
posted by Michele in California at 2:00 PM on December 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I make a mental note to sporadically touch a short list of people who need physical maintenance, in this manner. It has become a training habit.
posted by jadepearl at 2:14 PM on December 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Shoulders are a pretty good neutral zone for touch for a lot of people. A soft pat or a quick squeeze of a shoulder can be a nice way to break down the touch barrier. Just resting your hand on someone's shoulder for a few seconds can feel much more intimate. If you are sitting side by side it's more conversational, and if you're looking across at each other it's very direct "I am connecting with you right now." Both hands on both shoulders with a light squeeze can be equivalent to a hug without the body contact. Any of these can lead pretty naturally into arms around shoulders, which is often better than a hug and more calming for people with sensitivities or different contact preferences. So maybe ask your loved ones to try those out with you, and let them know you'll be trying them out, too.
posted by Mizu at 2:22 PM on December 2, 2014

Oh wow, I am wwax. Like, the overstimulation is almost exactly my experience.

I'm also in the midst of very consciously trying to modify physical affection because there are a few key people who I do love who don't feel loved because they're very physical and I am not. And as much as they try and understand my love languages, there's still a gap there. It is a reciprocal thing, which makes it more awkward and weird but also, oddly, more comfortable. It's easy to think of yourself as 'wrong' in some way but you aren't. It's just different languages.

My partner remarked last night that I'm much more physically affectionate now, 10 years in, that I have been before. Part of that is exposure therapy in a way, since I am in a safe space with him so we started with him showing me physical affection and me controlling the touch (I do the clamping down on his thumb, or holding his hand still thing too) to more 'natural' touch. I seek out hugs and things now. A key thing wwax points out is there is a difference between active and passive touch. I am much more okay with standing close and touching someone than with an active touching hug. But people don't really read that as a hug, unless I say so.

So with my main 'target', he tends to ruffle my hair, pat my arm, occasional hugs. And for the most part I need time to process it, so by the time I can react the moment is over and he feels like I've rebuffed him. So we have had to actively talk about it, and where my boundaries are. So I have to take that first step to initiate it as well (which I haven't, not really, but will) (or rather, should). Time to process the unfamiliar language is helpful to me. So sometimes I will grab someone's hand and hold it, not to stop the contact but to give myself enough time to work out how to understand it.

I also worked out I have a lot of issues about touch too, particularly from men. That's involved with PTSD from rape (by a friend) where I did have a significant amount of self-blame for my actions, which included not defending my physical and emotional boundaries, and for flirting/inviting physical contact. It's been fairly vital to openly address these with myself, with my partner and with my therapist. Once I've spoken them it's a bit easier to deal, basically. So if you've got unresolved issues about physical contact (not just rape! Family drama counts) I think it helps to really verbalise and itemise them to work out where the problem is.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:53 PM on December 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I didn't overcome my aversion to being touched, except for my wife. After years of physical abuse in school, I was basically a stray cat. I won't let people touch me if I don't trust them, and I only trust my wife. I make no apologies for this.
posted by starbreaker at 7:06 AM on December 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

When I meet new people in touchy-feely Southern California, I quickly roll in with a confident and in-your-face friendly offer of a handshake. I also bite my husband's arm on occasion, just so he knows I am thinking of him. In my upper Midwest family, hugs were reserved for special moments and it still is very weird to be expected to hug someone I just met. Yuck.
posted by Foam Pants at 8:36 PM on December 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

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