Replacing Physical Intimacy and Comfort
November 23, 2017 11:22 AM   Subscribe

When you expect to be without friends or sexual partners for the very long-term, what can replace, satisfy, or alleviate the need to physically comfort and be comforted?

Whether it is true or not, I firmly believe that I will never find romance, love or sex in my life. I am decades past the normal age for one's first encounter. Dates have only been short and have been years in-between. I am aware of and not blind to numerous social cues; in fact, I'm more socially aware than many "normal" people I see. I am genuine, I share but don't overshare, I'm empathetic. Yet I must give off something -- some unknown social cue or pheromone -- that causes people to not really care about me, to not want to form permanent friendships with me, and certainly never to love or be attracted to me.

I respectfully ask that respondents don't challenge the precepts in the above paragraph. Despite it feeling to me like rock-solid iron-hard fact, I very much realize it may be the product of a fractured or post-traumatic mindset (I have been betrayed by several friends with whom I placed great trust), and I am in the process of finding appropriate therapy, as well as reading several recommended self-help books, to challenge or alter that mindset.

Your answers to this question, however, would hopefully help me with the rather severe daily emotional pain and longing I deal with until I find a better equilibrium.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (34 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
If you're not allergic and you're able to have a pet where you live, get a pet. If you're not allergic but unable to have a pet where you live, volunteer at a pet shelter. Contact with companion animals has been vital to my sense of well-being while spending long periods of time alone.
posted by palomar at 11:27 AM on November 23, 2017 [31 favorites]

I’m very sorry to hear that you’re going through this.

If your time and budget allows for it, traveling is one way to turn some of your energy outwards. I would do it for short-ish periods of time (1-2 weeks, or a good weekend hike) and take time to learn about history and cultures. It isn’t a replacement for intimacy, but seeing different places and meeting people briefly, even if not necessarily with any goal of developing longer-term or more intimate relationships/friendships, helped me feel a little more connected to humanity— you know, sort of taking in the fact that everywhere I went, people wanted to be loved, cared for, and for their children to have a better life.

Getting a massage, especially on a semi-regular basis where you eventually get to know the staff, can be helpful as well.

Spending time or volunteering around small children is another good way to feel more in touch with your inner child and appreciate how deserving all children and all people are of nurturance.

Get a houseplant or plant some tomatoes and basil. Have good tea and slippers on hand at home. Get sunlight during the wintertime. Read some uplifting novels. Find a pen pal if socializing “in real life” feels like too much. Join a choir, even if you’ve never sung before.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 11:38 AM on November 23, 2017 [6 favorites]

This old thread might be helpful, or this one.
posted by Too-Ticky at 11:48 AM on November 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Make your living space full of sensory items that comfort you. Furniture that you like, plants if you like those, a color scheme you enjoy, scents, textures. A place can certainly be as physically comforting as a person or a pet. More, sometimes.
posted by Autumnheart at 11:52 AM on November 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

I often don't even like physical contact with other people because unpredictable touch tweaks a lot of my sensory issues, but I've discovered that I can get a lot of what I miss of cuddling from an appropriate arrangement of pillows. I'm looking at getting one of those really long body pillows that you can basically wrap around yourself--they're often marketed for pregnant women but they definitely aren't JUST for pregnant women.

To add to what Autumnheart says, I think a lot of single people, long-term and otherwise, tend to start ignoring the state of their homes because they usually keep their homes nice for the sake of other people instead of for themselves. Even aside from the sensory aspect, having a home that you like and enjoy (and that is clean and ready for you to do things like cooking or hobbies whenever you feel like) is I think conducive to feeling safe and secure in a way that helps a lot. I'm bad at it, but I notice I feel much, much better when my apartment is tidy and well-organized and when I have furnishings and decor that make me happy.
posted by Sequence at 11:55 AM on November 23, 2017 [8 favorites]

Find a way to express yourself physically that tunes you in to the sensuality of your body.

For me, this was dancing. I would go to a club that I knew no-one in my social group would be at, have one drink or maybe two (only enough to make me feel relaxed enough to dance) whilst people-watching to pass the time, and then I would dance - sometimes for just an hour, sometimes for several.

It was also, at times, cycling. I once set out on a day's ride, to see how far I could get. I showed up at a town in the middle of nowhere in time to get a room in an inn, dirty and sweaty. I drank a glass of wine in the bar, and chatted to the locals about my day's riding. I felt proud of what me and my body had achieved, it was awesome.

For you, it might be another type of dance, or exercise, or maybe something else. You could be a model for a life drawing class and feel the eyes on your skin. You could join a choir and feel your voice curling around other people's.

Push yourself, test your boundaries a bit, like one has to when one embarks in a relationship.
posted by greenish at 12:17 PM on November 23, 2017 [10 favorites]

I came to say pets and regularly scheduled massages, but I see you’ve got that covered in responses already. I wonder about other forms of planned non-sexual physical touch since that seems to be where your question is focused - something like a dancing class?

In addition to something like a body pillow, perhaps options like a heated blanket or a weighted blanket would be helpful, depending on your particular sensory likes/dislikes.
posted by Stacey at 12:21 PM on November 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have a personal goal of turning my house into a spa/retreat-like atmosphere. It’s pretty awesome. As an added bonus, people also like to visit because it’s comfortable.
posted by Autumnheart at 12:22 PM on November 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

I go to movies by myself, especially if I'm feeling lonely. it's a good way to be around people and share an emotional journey without having to interact. I prefer comedies and action movies for solo viewing due to their heightened emotions and simpler narrative arcs.
posted by noloveforned at 12:22 PM on November 23, 2017 [5 favorites]

I often don't even like physical contact with other people because unpredictable touch tweaks a lot of my sensory issues, but I've discovered that I can get a lot of what I miss of cuddling from an appropriate arrangement of pillows.

Agreed. I have gone through multi-year stretches without human contact beyond occasional hugs and handshakes, and there isn't much that genuinely takes the place of that. For me, I find the key is to satisfy your body's senses in other ways. I take a lot of baths, as it's heavy on sensory experience. I have an electric blanket, as the warmth gives me comfort beyond simply just a corporeal level. Gardening, too, activates the senses and also connects you to another living thing. The particular tools are going to be different for everyone, but these work for me.

Most important, however, is the mental aspect. Just get through the day. That's manageable. Each individual day isn't *that* big a deal. It's the cumulative aspect that's the tough one -- yearly markers like birthdays or New Year's or Valentine's Day. Ignore those as best you can, which is about all you can do. Just get through today.
posted by Capt. Renault at 12:29 PM on November 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

This is an extremely literal answer, but: a weighted blanket, and/or a weighted/pressure vest. They trigger the release of neurochemicals that will improve your general sense of well-being.

Agreed that a body pillow (which I have used since childhood because I'm a side-sleeper with back/shoulder/neck issues) is very comforting, though probably only if you side-sleep, otherwise it's just weird. But if you're a back-sleeper, try pulling the bottom corners of your pillow up onto your shoulders so the pillow cradles your neck, which is really good for neck tension and also generates feel-good neurochemicals.

I am increasingly convinced that meditation - even at very beginner levels - is critical to making space for mental health. Not that it fixes anything, but it just provides an improved environment.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:45 PM on November 23, 2017 [7 favorites]

I also came here to say a weighted blanket. The weight/pressure are very soothing.

If you can afford it, definitely look into regular massages so that your body is receiving healthy touch, and to keep yourself feeling good.
posted by epj at 1:36 PM on November 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Have you considered cultivating involvement in communities that will be warm and welcoming, and if you want it also physically close, while also absolutely respecting your boundaries?

I’m thinking about the framework put into place by the folks who put on these Cuddle Parties, or personal growth groups like the Human Awareness Institute. In my experience, both of these organizations are rooted in compassion toward all people, and hit an excellent balance of being warm and affirming while also upholding a very strong culture of consent.

I would definitely encourage you to check them out.
posted by Sublimity at 1:42 PM on November 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Following up to say, so I don’t misuse the edit window—these communities are really great for being places where you could, say, ask to hold someone’s hand, or share a hug, or have a cuddle, and it’s not going to Mean Some Huge Deal About Your Relationship. It’s just a given that you are a human being, and as such are worthy of kindness, and people will treat you with warmth and care.
posted by Sublimity at 1:46 PM on November 23, 2017

A teddy bear is a good companion.
posted by Carol Anne at 2:25 PM on November 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Agreeing with the massage answers -- and if massage therapy is unfamiliar to you, please don't let the "draped in a sheet, flat on a table, in a room with a stranger" notion put you off; that's just one type of massage. Head and neck massage (sometimes performed during a professional hair shampooing prior to a haircut), shoulder massage, and hand massage are some fully-clothed options. (Hand and foot massage are a feature of manicures and pedicures.) A practitioner can access your entire back during a seated chair massage, which can soothe your whole body. In Thai massage, the therapist guides you through gentle stretches.

(In the realm of full-body spa-type massage, heated stone massage is great for a comforting, cradled feeling.)

Also agreeing with water immersion -- bathtub, jacuzzi, hot tub, or swimming pool.

Heated mattress pads, electric blankets, hot-water bottles, and microwaveable heating packs and slippers are useful, too.
posted by Iris Gambol at 3:10 PM on November 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Besides massages, other ways to get (what I find to be) pleasant physical touch include manicures/pedicures, facials, and having my hair shampooed at a salon. Not everyone would agree, but I find this kind of physical touch to be refreshing.

Agree on the weighted blanket and the appropriate arrangements of pillows.

I also find, when I'm upset, that stroking my own hair can be soothing, especially if I reach across and pat the right side of my head with my left hand, or vice versa.
posted by gideonfrog at 3:12 PM on November 23, 2017

posted by Jacqueline at 3:50 PM on November 23, 2017 [6 favorites]

This is absolutely what dogs are for.
posted by Grandysaur at 4:12 PM on November 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

Contact improvisation. Don't worry if you're not a "Dancer" ie whatever you think that's supposed to be.
posted by redpajamas at 5:20 PM on November 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

An aspect of being single that seems to me like it would be really lonely is not having anyone to listen or care about your experiences, thoughts and feelings.

If you are spiritually oriented at all, you might try prayer, the sort of prayer where you talk to a god, goddess, saint, angel or other spiritual entity in an intimate, conversational way. I know a person who has an altar in his kitchen to honor his ancestors (because the kitchen was always the place where family hung out together when he was young.) He spends time each week sitting there talking to beloved dead relatives, telling them what has been going on in his life, reminiscing about times with them, and talking about his problems and challenges. A cozy robe, a nice hot cup of tea and a long chat with Jesus or Mother Mary or Grandma can be very comforting.

Nthing a furry pet of some sort. My cat is not just a pet, she is a companion and snuggle partner. Barring a live pet, get some really cuddly stuffed animals. You can talk to them as well as hug and snuggle them.

If you are a person who finds massage to be too intimate or physically intense (I do) you might look into Reiki. Check with the practitioner first to find out if they do hands-on (as in actually putting their hands on you... some hover their hands a few inches above the client during treatment.) The Reiki sessions I have had involved actual touch. They lightly placed their hands on various places of my (clothed) body and then gently held them in each spot for several minutes while letting the Reiki energy flow. Even if you think Reiki is total woo, it still feels nice to lie back and let someone touch you in a caring yet not-too-intense way.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:21 PM on November 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Partner dancing has a lot of physical contact involved. Also some martial arts. Rugby. Wrestling. Some types of acrobatics.
posted by kjs4 at 8:23 PM on November 23, 2017

Hug Box?
posted by gregr at 9:17 PM on November 23, 2017

A jaccuzzi with jets is a different type of massage. Expensive, unless it's part of a not too pricey gym membership.

When I have periods of solitude, I sometimes read aloud to myself as a break from silent reading. Weirdly, I get a warm feeling from hearing a human voice, even though it is my own.
posted by puddledork at 11:14 PM on November 23, 2017

I’m similarly isolated from human touch. I don’t particularly want a pet. When I get incredibly stressed or angry or sad I go to a store and pet the scarves. No intention to buy, I just touch all the softness and comfort and somehow it helps. The same thing happens if I’m in a store and there are stuffed animals. If you’re a tactile person at all this might help.
posted by bendy at 3:41 AM on November 24, 2017

Weirdly, group exercise (which I won't pretend to actually enjoy, because it tends to be strenuous) does have an interesting emotional aspect. All of us in the room are sharing a physical experience, and there's a bonding aspect (because getting through it tends to be hard!) Even without speaking (or even eye contact) with others in the room, there is a physical togetherness. Plus vigorous exercise is just overall so good for mental health.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:13 AM on November 24, 2017

Bath oils, salts and bombs. Facial masks and scrubs. Handmade soap. Foot soaks with uplifting scents like pine. Massage your feet with oil afterwards. Your favorite perfume. Luscious body butter and hand cream. Massage sweet almond oil into your cuticles. Make your own aromatherapy massage oils.
Spiritual: frankincense, sandalwood, myrrh
Sensual: rose otto, ylang ylang, jasmine absolute
Silk and cashmere clothing. Fluffy, soft, thick blankets or comforters. Quality bed-linen. Hot chocolate (add booze and/or spices). I like rosebud herbal tea but YMMV.
I've wanted a Fuzzigle for some time but I just couldn't bring myself to spend so much on a stuffed toy. They're adorable though!
posted by whitelotus at 6:23 AM on November 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Do you play an instrument, or sing? I like acoustic, big-sound guitars where you have to work a bit to really explore the dynamic range. It doesn't seem related, but I find that it can scratch a similar itch. If you like it, going out to small venues with live music might also help.

I also highly recommend getting pets, but do know what kinds of commitments you are making. And -- if you can only keep small animals, pet rats are extremely social and give you the most "positive feedback" for playing with them, seeking out and returning affection at the level of some dogs/cats.
posted by miniraptor at 9:53 AM on November 24, 2017

Nthing hot tubs (at the YMCA if you don't have a lot of money).

And weighted blankets can be nice but for more concentrated weight at a lower cost you can buy and play around with a 15-lb bag or two of dried beans/rice/popcorn from a restaurant supply type store and see how that feels.
posted by needs more cowbell at 5:02 PM on November 24, 2017

Big feather boa
posted by serena15221 at 9:50 PM on November 24, 2017

Travel and/or a pet. Pets and travel can be a tricky combination, since the pet always needs you. When I've been more isolated, having a cat has kept me from more serious depression.
posted by bile and syntax at 12:07 PM on November 25, 2017

One thing I've found helpful when I've been touch-starved is a body brush, a large soft brush with a handle. Sometimes they are sold as a gentle way to wash your back.

I find it nice to use dry without soap, and run it over my arms and legs and back. I heard it's best in some health way to brush towards the heart, not sure if there is anything to that but I find it feels better than the other direction.
posted by yohko at 11:55 PM on November 26, 2017

Walking barefoot in grass is also nice.
posted by yohko at 11:57 PM on November 26, 2017

I've been feeling the same way and just got a super soft faux fur blanket. In addition to my weighted blanket, body pillow, and cat.
posted by seraph9 at 10:05 AM on November 28, 2017

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