Navigating The Affection Gap.

Last week, the Kinsey Institute released the results of a study that surveyed 1,009 heterosexual couples on their attitudes toward physical affection and sex. The “shocking” pull-quote making media rounds has to do with men in long-term relationships valuing physical affection (i.e. kissing and cuddling) more than women in long-term relationships, who claimed sexual satisfaction was more important.

This wasn’t particularly surprising for me, as every dude I’ve dated long-term has been more affectionate than I have. I’m almost certain I’m an anomaly, though.

I didn’t grow up with much physical affection. I was raised by women who didn’t place too high a premium on hugs or kisses. My mother says that when I was a little girl, I shrugged off affection, frowning when it was offered. So after a while, she stopped initiating it. I’m not sure if the same was true of my grandmother; in her case, it’s more probable that affection doesn’t come naturally to her. Even now, when I hug either of them spontaneously or in thanks for a gift or in parting, there’s a vague sense of awkwardness. It’s dulled over the years and, with my mother, it’s practically non-existent. But we’re still not natural huggers.

My father, on the other hand, is quite affectionate and always has been. I started seeing him regularly in summers and during holiday breaks from age 11 or 12, until four years ago, when I moved to his city of residence and I began to see him far more frequently. In those earlier years, he’d always greet me with a hug, a kiss on the cheek, and “baby,” as a term of endearment. I never told him, because I didn’t want him to feel rejected, but I bristled at the artificiality of those moments. If he’d known me better, he might’ve eased into these expressions of affection, realizing that I felt a bit ambushed by them.

The wild card was church, where hugging is practically a requisite for entry into the service. But those don’t count as affectionate, really. A church, a hug isn’t intimate; it’s a greeting, as commonplace as handshakes in other settings.

As you can imagine, intimate relationships have always been a bit of a challenge. Perhaps because of my ambivalence toward affection (rather than in spite of it), I tend to attract men who place a pretty high premium on being hugged, kissed, and otherwise shown affection. Over time, I’ve trained myself to deliver. But in the absence of a relationship, I still don’t miss it much.

Since I’m fully aware that this is pretty weird, I’ve been vigilant about showing affection to my own daughter. I hug her constantly. All day, everyday, there’s a flurry of kisses to her face and hands and shoulders and stomach and feet and back. She gets massages before naps and bedtime. (Aside from hugs and kisses, general touch wasn’t all that common at my childhood house, either.) I’m constantly stroking her hair.

While I hope that in so doing, I’m creating a more emotionally open child, the practice has also become a kind of therapy for me. The more I show her affection, the more normative physical expression of love becomes to me.

When I’ve asked around about this, conducting my own informal surveys about affection among women, I’ve been told that typically, when women have as many barriers to affection as I do, it’s the result of a physical assault or trauma. I’ve experienced neither. Unless a dearth of hugs can be considered a trauma.

I do wonder if the men who claim to value cuddling more than sex in the Kinsey survey were raised as I was–or if the women who prefer sexual satisfaction do so because they, too, aren’t conversant in the arts of other affection.

Anyone else care to weigh in here?

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slb (aka Stacia L. Brown) is a writer, mother, and college instructor in Baltimore, MD. Check her out here: http://stacialbrown.com and here: http://beyondbabymamas.com.

17 comments to Navigating The Affection Gap.

  • I grew up nearly smothered with affection from my parents. As a teenager I complained (because it’s just not cool to have everyone see you get kissed & bear hugged while being dropped at high school)but it never really bothered me. I’m not overly affectionate with my friends; we hug at greetings & goodbyes and that’s it. But when it comes to relationships, I’m the queen of PDA–it’s hard for me to go more than 5 or 10min without touching my SO. I keep it PG though!

    • I forgot to add, nobody I’ve dated has come from a family as affectionate as mine. My exes all thought I was clingy. My fiance complains for show when his friends are around–but he is the hugger in his family so I know he loves it!

  • illegal

    Not to split hairs, but I can’t help but focus in on the author’s reference to the “artificiality” of her father’s affectionate greetings. I wonder, in the light of now knowing the barriers she has to affections, if she would still consider those interactions to be artificial.

    ooooor maybe there’s Not Enough Information and I should shaddap, lol.

    • slb

      Yeah, I didn’t mean to insinuate that he was being fake, but that the affectionate displays felt false/artificial to me b/c a. they were disproportionate to the (lack of) closeness I felt to him and b. I just really wasn’t used to it (in part, because i rarely saw him).

  • trellis

    I def. violate the norms as well. I can count a total of two times I recall hugging my mother, TWO. Affection, esp. between anyone other than my partner, almost always feels awkward to me. I have def. come a long way since my teen years as far as my comfortability with touching/hugging, but it’s still a struggle for me. It has def. caused issues in many of my relationships as my partners either don’t trust how much I care or feel that I am intentionally withholding or too selfish to try (despite me trying very hard) to be affectionate.

  • Joshunda

    I’m with you, actually. Not much of a affectionate touch from my mom and I didn’t grow up with a consistent male around who could model the appropriate touch. I was lucky enough to find an older father figure who hugged me and his other students as part of the culture at the small middle school I attended for 7th and 8th grade. Even with that understanding — that there could be a non-sexual affectionate touch from a guy — I’ve always been super reserved about touching/hugging in public. I don’t know how much, if any, of this is cultural, by the way. I feel like black women are conditioned to downplay/hide their vulnerabilities in ways that white women are not.

    • slb

      “I feel like black women are conditioned to downplay/hide their vulnerabilities in ways that white women are not.”

      I’m starting to wonder about this, myself, based on these comments. Are black mothers less likely to offer their daughters affectionate touch–and if so, why? To your point, I wonder if they connect physical affection with vulnerability and withhold it to steel black daughters against appearing “weak.” That’d be worth researching.

  • slb

    Side question: for women who are responding that your experience has been similar to mine, does the Kinsey study track with you? Do you place a lower premium on cuddling/kissing?

  • nichole

    my family wasn’t big on hugging and kissing to show affection, but we’re huge touchers when it comes to mirth and teasing. we’re a very silly family so we’re always pushing people off couches and slapping people’s arms when something is really funny. my mother is constantly pinching butts. my nephew and i are poke people just to say hey. my sister and i reach out for each other when something incredulous happens. for example, this past Sunday, when Alcide was growling at Eric on True Blood, we reached across the couch and grabbed the other’s hand for support and in understanding. haha

    however, in my intimate, physical relationships, i’m a huge cuddler. thankfully, my boyfriends have been compatible in that respect, but they’re taken aback by my violence when i’m amused. lol and they definitely don’t like the pinching.

  • k8dee

    Excellent post, slb. I am the complete opposite, touchy feely family, hugs and kisses all day, but my best friend and current s.o. are the total opposite. Regarding information about these emotional distances between black mothers and daughters, I would recommend reading the chapter on black mother/daughter relationships in Patricia Hill Collins Black Feminist Thought (it is Chapter 6 in the original edition). There are also a couple of really good pieces of fiction centering around these very instances of emotional awkwardness black mothers sometimes purposely foster in their daughters. My favorites are Tina McElroy Ansa’s “Ugly Ways”and Maryse Conde’s “Desirada” (English Translation). Both are awesome texts that draw you in and help you experience the other sides of black motherly affection and the emotional complications it can bring to the lives of their daughters. I hope this helps.
    K

  • Hm. The Kinsey study seems kind of fishy to me, but it is clearly a jumping off point for an interesting conversation about intimacy. I’m the opposite: I’m a physical guy and I need that element in my relationships. But then I grew up in a physically affectionate home so that just seems normal to me. (I’m sure there are physically withholding Lebanese people but, uh, none of them are related to me… If you visit my family you have to budget an extra twenty minutes for goodbyes.) Still, I’m leery of making broad generalizations about how race and/or ethnicity play into this– perhaps “culture” is a better umbrella for discussing behavior?

    For example I don’t know if it is true that “black women are conditioned to downplay/hide their vulnerabilities in ways that white women are not” because that assumes that showing emotion= vulnerability which seems like a very old-fashioned Anglo/Northern European social construct. But Latin/Mediterranean/Middle Eastern/Semitic folks are acculturated differently. We don’t necessarily think of expressiveness as weakness–in men or women.

    So I wouldn’t describe enjoying affectionate touch as a display of vulnerability (Although I guess if the thought of it makes you feel vulnerable I can understand why you might think so). If I had to put a word on it I’d say “sensuality” rather than “vulnerability.” Sensuality can be on a continuum with sexuality but not always–sometimes it is just the physical pleasure of being alive: like sun on your skin or a delicious taste or smell. That is how I think of touching and being touched. I would feel very cut off without it.

  • I thought I was the only one! My family and I are really close, but aren’t particularly affectionate. My boyfriend is more lovey dovey than I am and it sometimes gets to him. I think he, along with other men, need affection for validation. Like a ‘she’s really over me so she must be really into me’ kind of way.

  • N.

    I’m with Joseph on this one. Physical affection is an absolute must. I’d feel dead inside without it. I find the question of whether it’s a cultural/racial thing interesting, but in my experience, it’s a community thing. I have certainly come across the idea of black mothers deliberately not being affectionate with their daughters as a sort of preparation for the general awfulness of the world they’re growing up in (I can’t remember who wrote that though, but I think it was one of the books on my high school summer reading list back in ’95 or so). My own mother (we’re South Asian) would get particularly uptight around white people – particularly in Western Europe – because she believed them to be cold and thought that they would judge her for being affectionate with her kids around them. But at home she would revert to cuddling us, so all was good.

    I don’t really think she needed to have worried though. In my experience, there’s more variation within groups than between them. I think the view that Europeans are colder than white Americans who are colder than southern Europeans who are colder than Middle-Easterners who are colder than….etc. is more the result of not understanding how affection is coded and expressed in each culture. I am an extremely affectionate person, but I’m often read as cold and reserved because I am only affectionate with people I know well and genuinely like. And, as it happens, I have found such people across a variety of backgrounds.

    As for why…I dunno. I think, for me at least, affectionate touch is more ‘real’ than words. Anybody can _say_ I love you and you don’t know if they mean it or not, but somehow I read touch as more sincere because you have to be willing to let this other person into your physical space. If you don’t like them, my reasoning is that it would be genuinely difficult to be physically close to them. But then again, that’s just because of the way *I* process physical vs verbal affection. If you process it differently, your reasoning may be the exact opposite of mine.

  • mute

    Another black woman here whose experience somewhat mirrors your own. your post made me think of my grandmother who showed her affection more though making sure I was well fed and sending me home with a couple of dollars than offering any hugs and kisses. the few times we did hug, from what i remember, it was always initiated by me. my hugs were never unwelcome because she absolutely loved me and that was always clear, but i think they were a bit awkward and surprising for her. she either wasn’t naturally affectionate in that way either, or just didn’t have the types of relationships over the course of her life where those sorts displays of physical affection could be developed in her.

    also like you, i’ve grown more physically affectionate with my mother, and she with me, as we’ve gotten older. i’m not really sure what the cause of it was, but i was definitely “harder” as a kid than i am now. i am also a lot more comfortable with crying and do more of it (albeit in private) than i was when i was younger.

  • @N
    “I think the view that Europeans are colder than white Americans who are colder than southern Europeans who are colder than Middle-Easterners who are colder than….etc. is more the result of not understanding how affection is coded and expressed in each culture. I am an extremely affectionate person, but I’m often read as cold and reserved because I am only affectionate with people I know well and genuinely like. And, as it happens, I have found such people across a variety of backgrounds.”

    Exactly. Me too.

    “I think, for me at least, affectionate touch is more ‘real’ than words. Anybody can _say_ I love you and you don’t know if they mean it or not, but somehow I read touch as more sincere because you have to be willing to let this other person into your physical space. If you don’t like them, my reasoning is that it would be genuinely difficult to be physically close to them. But then again, that’s just because of the way *I* process physical vs verbal affection. If you process it differently, your reasoning may be the exact opposite of mine.”

    Exactly again.

  • D

    I know this is an old post but I found it really interesting. I grew up in a house, where my dad showered me with hugs and kisses, even as an older teen he’d have his arm round me when watching TV.

    Where as my my mum is really cold, when I’m upset and want a hug she’d never initiate it or offer any alternative kind of affection. When I try and hug her, she’ll withdraw asap and not properly hug me back. I’ve always felt rejected by mum in a sense.

    So in romantic relationships I’ve always liked a lot of affection and all partners I chose have been affectionate up till my current boyfriend. We’re long distance, and still when we reuninte my first instant is to greet him with a kiss, where as his is not, he doesn’t seem bothered about kissing me in general.He doesn’t automatically take my hand when we’re in public. In fact we’ve talked about it and he thinks it’s ‘weird’ unless you’re at a park taking a romantic walk. He was brought up by hus parents that is was rude to show affection in public which is what’s influencing his attitude. However, his parents have a very unhappy marriage and I think it was just an excuse to explain things.

    To me, it feels like rejection when I try and take his hand and he won’t let me, and like he cares about the rest of the worlds opinion more than mine. I could understand if I was trying to snog his face off in public like a teenager about the rudeness, but I just want to hold his hand and walk together, rather then his trying to trail blaze in front of me. He says I’m oversensitive and he does like cuddles in private (but not at night) but it feels like he doesn’t love me sometimes simply because I’m more affectionate then him when he’s great to me in other ways.

    It doesn’t help that I was with my ex for a very long time (spent two xmas’s with his family long time). He was more affectionate then I was even but it made me feel loved and wanted and I never withdrew from any of it even if it was inapropriate at times. However he was very affectionate not just with me, he was a generally overlyfriendly person, who at first overstepped the boundaries and then ended up cheating on me.

    So maybe lack of affectionateness can be a good thing, if the person is generally non touchy feeley, less chance they’ll cheat I think, because something is less likely to ‘just happen’ if you don’t cross the little boundaries.

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