Dear Kitty, Me and my partner have been together for about 3 years, and he is the only romantic partner I have ever had. He is caring and warmhearted and we share a lot of the same values, politics and sense of humor. But we have one major difference: he is uncomfortable with regular intimacy such as cuddling and holding hands (and definitely with any public affection). I, on the other hand, really enjoy this kind of closeness (I don’t necessarily need the public affection), and at this point I feel quite desperate for it. The only time we are physically close is when we have sex or when we are joking around. We both love movies and watch a lot of them together at home. To me this feels like the perfect time for cuddling up, but he insists on sitting at the other end of the sofa (which is already a compromise as he used to sit on a separate chair). I have spoken to him about this many times over the years and have told him how important it is to me, and it’s obvious that he feels bad. But stronger than his guilty feelings for disappointing me is his extreme aversion to this physical contact. The few times he has tried to come my way (both metaphorically and literally on the sofa) it has been obvious how uncomfortable he was and we had to stop. Because we are monogamous and he is my first partner, I’ve never known anything different from this and yet I know that I want and long for another type of intimacy. Before Covid I got by with varying types of intimacies provided by my friendships, but now this is more difficult. The next level is that my partner has not been interested in sex lately. Because this is our main avenue for physical contact, I feel more distant from him than ever before. He switched career paths about a year ago, and is struggling with his new role, which seems to be the main cause of his mood changes. He seems actually depressed. I feel terrible for not being supportive enough during his struggles. And I also feel so lonely. I’m not sure what my question even is. Signed, Sofa Snuggler
Dear Sofa Snuggler,
would you like a virtual hug? If so, consider yourself warmly embraced! The impulse to touch and be touched by those we care about is, for many of us, so instinctual as to seem part of the very fabric of what it means to be human; feeling starved of this touch can trigger deep loneliness, and even affect our sense of self-worth. It’s easy in a long-term relationship, especially the first, to write off as unreasonable or unimportant those needs which our partner – whom we love and want to stay with – does not or cannot meet. So: I applaud you for recognising your longing.
You know that you enjoy, value and miss cuddling-style intimacy (I’ll call it CSI). Let’s try to take that great self-awareness a step further, and feel in to what those intimate acts mean to you. The joy of CSI may be so natural to you as to be hard to explain, but, as it seems equally unnatural to your partner, it’s worth unpacking. Try completing the following sentence: “when we snuggle, I feel…” (or, “If we snuggled, I imagine I would feel…” – the idea is to access what it is you’re yearning for, not any difficult emotions associated with your current dynamic). Note the words or sensations that come up: perhaps safe, desired, elation, a sense of surrender. CSI brings you something, and it’s the nature of that something that we’re interested in.
Let’s use connection as an example. CSI may, for you, be the most efficient, reliable and pleasurable vehicle to deliver the feeling of being connected to your partner. Are there other ways that you can access that sense of connection? Perhaps it’s eye contact, going for a run together, him cooking your favourite meal. See if you can cultivate an appreciation for – and if the two of you can multiply – those interactions. You might want to try some new practices, such as doing a guided breathing exercise together. Often when people cuddle their parasympathetic nervous systems become synchronised: this is what’s happening on a physiological level when we feel “connected”. Rhythmically throwing a ball back and forth actually has a similar effect: daft as it may sound, this could be a cuddle-free way for you and your partner to come into contact with one another in a way that you will be able to feel in your body.
People differ in the ways that they communicate love and care. Some people find Gary Chapman’s “love languages” helpful: physical touch, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and receiving gifts. The idea is that each of us tend toward one or two of these “languages” in how we express and receive love – and that many relationship difficulties stem from a lack of literacy in the language of our partner. From your letter, one would suppose that you’re a physical touch person, but maybe your partner is more of a words of affirmation guy. If that were the case, could you find a mutually satisfying way for him to cuddle you with words? Reflecting on what CSI means to you, and whether there are other routes to the place that it takes you, could provide some new insights and avenues to explore together.
I would also invite your partner to gently investigate what this kind of touch means to him. As cuddling a loved one is “supposed” to be pleasant, having an aversion to it could bring up shame and confusion. If he can manage some patient and non-judgemental exploration of that “uncomfortable” feeling may reveal some more nuance in what he feels: fear of being overwhelmed, visceral irritation, shame about sexual orientation, etc. Perhaps he already knows exactly what CSI triggers, and is reluctant to go into specifics for fear of hurting you. However, if you can both stay grounded in the reality that his feelings are not about you, such sharing could help to build valuable trust and empathy.
Sensitivity to touch (sometimes called tactile defensiveness) is very common among autistic people, and aversion to certain kinds of physical closeness can also be experienced by survivors of abuse. Regardless of whether your partner belongs to either of these groups, learning about how others with touch aversion – and their partners – navigate that experience could be supportive for the two of you. This avenue may also help you to identify whether everything that ticks the CSI box for you is unpleasant to your partner. Some autistic people find light touch unbearable, while actually enjoying very firm, even immobilising contact (such as lying under many heavy blankets). A survivor may be triggered by a loved one coming into their personal space, but be comfortable giving a massage in which their partner remains passive.
If your partner is willing to explore this with you, you may discover some places where the two of you can meet. Perhaps, for example, he would like to have your head resting in his lap while you watch a movie, if he knows that you won’t then begin stroking his arm. Unwavering respect for any boundaries he sets will be essential. Sadly there’s no guarantee that you will find common ground, and being too goal-oriented could increase the pressure that he likely already feels. However, a willingness to communicate openly about this difference between you, and a sincere wish to understand each other’s experience, may bring you together in another way.
It’s wonderful that other relationships have met some of your needs: in a society that elevates monogamous, romantic partnerships, we can forget that friendships, too, are a valuable source of intimacy. The Covid era has limited access to touch for many, and you’re definitely not alone in struggling with this. I wonder if it might be possible – given the current restrictions where you live, additional risk factors you face, and so on – for you to create a “cuddle bubble” with a good friend who is also in need of CSI. Pets make wonderful snuggle buddies (there’s a reason animal adoption has soared in many countries during the pandemic). Soothing self-touch can trigger the same calming physiological reactions as being touched, and may be a comforting thing for you to practice at this time.
I’ve followed your letter, Sofa Snuggler, in focussing primarily on the major difference between you and your partner. I can completely imagine how his recent lack of interest in sex and current mood changes would be particularly distressing for you when you already feel touch-deprived and disconnected. Perhaps the loneliness you feel is making it harder to support him, but don’t be too hard on yourself. If your partner is indeed depressed, the support that he needs is beyond what you alone can provide. Let him know what you see, express your love and concern, and encourage him to seek professional advice from a doctor and/or experienced psychotherapist.
I wish each of you all that you need.
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