On Physical Affection in all Sorts of Relationships

I’m a pretty tactile guy. I find touch deeply nourishing. Being touched makes me feel good, makes me feel better, makes me feel loved. But I’m not huge on the established structures for relationships. Which makes things interesting, as these structures are pretty firm on what sorts of touch are allowed in what contexts.

I’ve recently been thinking about the role of touch, or physical affection, in different sorts of relationships, and I’ll explore that in this post. I want to look at what physical affection offers, its role in conventional relationships, and its role in other relationships. I’ll look at potential pitfalls and options for mitigation. Then I’ll scratch my chin and look through a window at the far distant sky and not be any the wiser.

Toucha toucha toucha touch me…

Physical affection is a part of relationships because, firstly, it is pleasurable, and, secondly, it is a means of communication. For most people, touch is good. Physical affection increases our wellness. It makes us healthier. It brings us closer. And not only is it good; it can feel great. Let’s not split hairs here: the smörgåsbord of physical affections – hand holding, sex, kissing, massage – is a fine offering of acts that feel very good. Of course, there are caveats here and many of us have doubtless experienced unpleasant feelings arising from physical affection. Overall though, touch is very nice.

Secondly, physical affection is a means of non-verbal communication. I think we’ve all experienced that feeling when somebody uses the possessive case with the gerund and, then and there, bringing them to orgasm becomes our raison d’être. Or maybe not. In any case, touch allows us to communicate feelings in situations where words may be inferior. Squeezing somebody’s shoulder offers emotional support, lightly touching someone’s arm might show appreciation, a kiss indicates affection (or, golly, a bazillion other things). While physical affection is definitely less precise for communication, it is more profound. It’s great for abstractions, for feelings. Feelings are complex and hard to put into words; sometimes only touch will do. Physical affection is a vital part of a healthy relationship because it complements speech as a means of communication, enabling one to convey what words alone cannot.

Of course, this particular application is fraught. There are layers and layers of socialisation surrounding physical affection, reducing, limiting, and corrupting its communication potential. While it helps to have some established senses of what kisses mean, what sex says, what hugs communicate, the garishness of these conventional associations blinds us to the faint colours of other possibilities. Making matters worse, socialisation compels men to pursue sex (and other physical gestures) as a matter of status and achievement, while women are taught to withhold themselves and play games. For example, this apocryphal bon mot:

When a lady says “No”, it means “Maybe”. When a lady says “Maybe”, it means “Yes”. If a lady says “Yes”, she’s not a maiden.

These cultural contexts frustrate the communicative potential of acts of physical affection. They make it harder for men and women alike to communicate physically. But they don’t thwart the potential outright. It’s still there, and it’s up to each of us to reclaim this territory by safely, compassionately, tentatively, setting forth.

You may now kiss the bride.

Physical affection is accepted as a part of conventional partnered relationships (as opposed to conventional unpartnered relationships, i.e. ‘friendship’, or unconventional partnered relationships). One thing going on here is that the committed relationship enshrines a safe space for either partner to reveal vulnerability. As physical intimacy, to a greater or lesser extent, generally exposes us to the possibility of emotional injury, the creation of such a safe space facilitates physical affection. Further, being physically intimate demands a degree of self-acceptance and a suspension of self-consciousness. This is easier to attain in the situation of a committed, presumably loving relationship. Thus, at an emotional level, one is much safer having sex (&c.) in the context of a relationship bound by the norms of partnerhood. Physical affection outside of such a context is a riskier proposition.

Another tie-in with conventional partnered relationships is that physical affection is a form of non-verbal communication that can convey ineffable emotions. Certainly in most relationships, but more so in conventional partnered relationships (the good ones at least!), one or both partners would have feelings that could not be expressed in words. It would be a bit weird if a new groom, instead of kissing the bride, looked her in the eye and said, “I really really love you.” It doesn’t quite mean the same thing. For these relationships, socialisation gives free rein to a natural tendency towards physical affection, one precipitated by the sensation of ineffable feelings and a desire to communicate them.

Touching a nerve…

And now I begin to wonder. Looking at the mainstream binary of friendship/relationship, we can see that certain physical acts are allowed in friendship: hugs, cheek kisses, shoulder rubs…the line gets drawn somewhere around kissing on the lips. The dominant paradigm is one of a black and white binary, in which a person has many friends with which they communicate using relatively few of the words in the physical vocabulary and up to one partner with whom they can use many more words.

This is silly.

There are as many sorts of relationships as there are combinations of individuals. This isn’t a spectrum ranging from platonic friendship to raging sexaholic lovers; it’s an N-dimensional space including every configuration of personalities, needs, and desires. These dimensions much more accurately reflects the reality (and the potential reality) of human relationships and put paid to the absurd limitations around acts of physical affection. In short, there are lots of different relationships, and there should be lots of different options for the role played by touch.

It’s not quite as simple, however. As identified, “relationships” make it easier to be physically affectionate because they create a safe space in which we can expose ourselves emotionally and better accept ourselves. But let’s be honest with ourselves. Conventional partnered relationships are also liable to trap people into doing things they are uncomfortable with. Conversely, it’s perfectly possible to feel safe in a relationship other than a “relationship”, for the conditions to be ripe for physical affection.

Expanding the role of physical affection in a relationship other than a conventional partnered one is risky. There is no user guide. But this is a good thing – it compels those involved to be deliberate about how they conduct their relationship. This requires heartfelt listening and communication, and a deep commitment to consent: “an active collaboration for the benefit, well-being and pleasure of all persons concerned.” Ultimately, the benefits can be far greater, and a relationship better moulded to the needs and proclivities of its participants. Indeed, outside of a conventional partnered relationship in which physical affection is presupposed and risks becoming routine, there is scope for any act of physical love to be more meaningful and more rewarding.

This is about more than ‘fuckbuddies’. While it’s possible for two people to choose to have sex here and there without adopting all the trappings of partnerhood and to have a great old time, I’m concerned that the ‘fuckbuddy’ frame has simply become established as another ‘off the shelf’ relationship model. If it functions as such, the participants do not do the vital work in coming to understand each other’s needs and maintaining a dialogue surrounding such. It’s thus prone to failure or hurt: which is far more an indictment of poor communication than of casual sex!

Communication is key to healthy relationships, and physical acts are a means of non-verbal communication allowing us to convey emotions or feelings that can’t be caught in words. Regrettably, the dominant paradigm for relationships uses a glib binary to limit the applications of physical affection in a way that limits the potential to find fulfillment through relationships. The alternative is to deliberately explore the myriad of possible relationships and the role that physical affection can play in each. This path is more demanding and more fraught, yet has the potential to yield relationships that are deeper, more meaningful, and more true.

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