About fifty years ago John Bowlby, author of Attachment, showed that we humans need something more than just food, water, oxygen, and physical shelter. He discovered that we could, as infants, receive all of those things and yet waste away without one other essential nurturing element: touch. Babies who were not cuddled sank into depressive states, quit eating, and died. And we never grow out of the desire and requirement for physical contact. Of course there are cultural and family differences as to how touch and affection are given, but the basic need persists.
My families of origin were both touchers (on Mother's Irish Kincannon side) and non-touchers (on Dad's Scottish McBurney side). Give me the touchers any day. I love a good Mediterranean festival. The Greeks and Italians ignore any non-verbal boundaries and kiss and hug you into surrender. I'm glad that trait was somehow transmitted over to those Kincannons and then to me. I'm suspicious that it was not just genetic but also contagious 'cause Dad couldn't keep his hands off Mother.
However, Dad's behavior may have been a different matter altogether. It's no question that even "non-toucher" men are driven by another inner force: sex. The concept might be more solemnly expressed as a drive for procreation, but let's face it, that usually has little to do with it. And that's where the conflict arises. The need for touch and cuddling survives childhood but gets waylaid by testosterone in adolescent males, who never recover. Often I hear from wives, "I'd like for my husband to just hold me, but it will never stop there. Once he starts any touching, it's going to end up in the bedroom." (I would deny that emphatically. Lovemaking can happen on the couch in the living room, in the back seat of the car, or on the floor of the family room. A bed is not essential. My wife, Melissa, would say emphatically that it doesn't take touch at all. Any look, sexy movement, or seductive dress is equally dangerous. A trench coat is deadly.)
Well, there you have it: There's a real and healthy desire both sexes have for touch and affection not leading to intercourse and the real and healthy drive for the sexual release of orgasm. Are there any ways to satisfy both of these short of emasculation or deprivation? I hope so. Consider these alternatives.
When people with contrasting perceptions become polarized by differences, they become enemies fighting for their own point of view. Rather than considering each other, they entrench into defensive postures or express aggressive demands. Walls are built and distance develops. This can certainly happen in marriage over this issue of how affection is given.
Another approach to dealing with differences is nicely presented in a little book, Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher and William Ury. These authors were addressing ways for successful negotiation to proceed, but their principles apply beautifully to this area of marriage. They propose that rather than negotiate from positions of "principles," that parties discuss their conflict with an eye on their "interests." Let me explain.
Let's say Sally wants to have some cuddling from Bill without it leading to intercourse, but Bill thinks she's just looking for a way to deny his need for sexual release. If they approach each other on "principle" rather than with their interests in mind, Sally will feel uncared for by Bill, who doesn't seem to notice that she needs to be held even when she may not feel up to making love. She can develop anger and resentment and refuse to come close to Bill at all. Bill may interpret Sally's resistance as rejection and denial of his manhood. Giving in to her position may feel like giving up his manliness to have a relationship with his wife.
For them to look at their conflict from the position of their "interests" they would discuss what they each want in their marriage. Their lists would probably include words like intimacy, trust, caring, closeness, affection, respect, consideration, selflessness, and probably even sexual pleasure. Chances are as they shared their individual lists they would find they have many more common desires than differences. Realizing that can help them shift from being adversaries under attack to being allies working together. In all honesty they will probably discover that Bill likes loving touch (back rubs, a gentle hand running through his hair, holding hands, or cuddling on the couch watching TV) and that Sally enjoys the exciting release of orgasm when the time is right for her. Defining the parameters of their touching is no longer a win-lose proposition.
Talk; Don't Assume
Melissa and I have discovered that we're lousy mind readers. When we just assume we know what the other is thinking, feeling, or wanting, we're often wrong, even after forty years of marriage. Now, we may just be unusually stupid or insensitive, but we don't think so. Time and again we hear other couples describe disastrous results of playing guessing games with each other.
We have also discovered that we do much better at connecting with each other when we talk—actually saying words that reveal ourselves. One form of communication is what we call "preambles." Give each other a signal that you've got something important to say. You may even give each other a clear idea of the response you'd like to have. For instance, in this matter of your need for touch it might sound like this:
Karen: Collin, I'm having some feelings I need to express and just want you to be aware of them. Is this a good time to talk?
Collin: (shifting into a non-defensive listening posture): Sure, what's on your mind?
Karen: We seem to have been so busy lately we just haven't had much time together and I've been feeling lonely. I'd like to just be held and to feel close.
Collin: Well I'm your man. Come here and let me hug you a while.
Given the history there might also be a clarifying question:
Collin: Is this a seduction?
Karen: No, just some cuddling time.
On the other hand, the preamble and communication might go like this:
Collin: Sweetheart, I'd like to talk about something going on in me. Can we talk about it? It's nothing you have to respond to. I just want you to know.
Karen: Can we talk after dinner? I feel pretty distracted at the moment, and I know you don't like your food burned.
Collin: Sure, I'll help you with the dishes; then maybe we can talk.
(Later, while washing dishes.)
Karen: What is it you wanted to tell me?
Collin: Well I realized this afternoon that I've been sort of sharp and irritable with you the last few days. I think I'm feeling unloved. It's been several days [weeks? hours?] since we've made love and I'd like to have a date. When would one work for you?
Karen: I can understand that. I wondered if something was wrong, but you know that never occurs to me. I can be available, but uninvolved' in five minutes, or if we have a date tomorrow morning I'll have more energy. Which would you prefer?
Just talking to each other solves a lot of potential problems. The old way of hinting and guessing and assuming ends up with lots of frustration. Karen would want affection without having to "go to bed," but instead she would just live with disappointment. Collin would try to deny his need for sex thinking surely Karen would realize how long it had been since they had sex and vamp him. Neither would have much satisfaction and both would feel abandoned.
See Giving as an Emotional Investment
Any friendship is built on reciprocal giving to meet the other person's needs. It's the spiritual principle of reaping what you sow and it works in marriage as well as in other relationships. Because of our desire to meet one another's needs, I fill Melissa's emotional bank account through "non-sexual" touch and she responds with red hot lovin'. Works well for us. Try it!
Louis McBurney, M.D., was a marriage therapist and co-founder, with his wife, Melissa, of Marble Retreat in Marble, Colorado, where they counselled clergy couples. Louis McBurney passed away January 20, 2009.
2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.