An email I received earlier this month from a young lady in Mexico reminded me of something I’d long forgotten, and something I wish I’d been able to forget for many years after I first met Chris. I became completely obsessed about it, to the point where it could have ended our relationship. Of course, I’m grateful it didn’t, and I’m also grateful I had something to share with the young lady that I hoped would help.
Her concern had to do with her girlfriend–that her girlfriend wasn’t as physically affectionate as she was and as she wanted her to be (for example, didn’t hug her as much). And that she felt her girlfriend was essentially telling her she didn’t feel the same way about her emotionally, even though they’d been together for years. Boy, could I relate to that.
When I wrote back the young lady, I told her that, when I was growing up, my parents never touched my sister and me, except to discipline us. Consequently, I was starved for physical affection, for the validation that came from it. I just wanted to be hugged. Was that asking too much? I wanted to know I was worth hugging, and thus that I was a worthwhile human being. I wanted to know I made a difference to them for being here, that they were glad I’d been born. But it never happened.
When I grew up and moved out on my own, I swore that, when I was in a relationship, I would be physically affectionate toward my partner. I wouldn’t hold myself back from him. I had this vision in my head that we’d hug and kiss all the time, because that’s what two people in love with each other do, right? It’s only natural. In other words, I wanted to make up for everything I missed out on when I was a kid.
Enter Chris. He wasn’t raised in a touchy-feely family either; his parents had always been physically reserved with him and his sister. When I learned that, I thought he’d be like me, needing to gain in adulthood what he'd lacked in childhood, needing to feel better about himself through the physical validation he received from me. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
When I was physically affectionate toward Chris all the time, it drove him crazy. He even told me so. He never came to me and wrapped his arms around me first. And, when I held him, he was always the first one to pull away, like he couldn’t wait for the hugging thing to be over. Each time it happened, I took it as yet another small rejection of me. I became deeply hurt.
This went on for years–yes, years! I kept forcing myself on Chris (that’s how I saw it, anyway), because I was determined to soften him, because I wanted him to know he had a safe place in my arms to be himself, and I would never hurt him. I thought, surely, he’ll come around sooner or later. Surely, he’ll start to trust me and see my heart's in the right place. Surely he’ll start to initiate hugs and not be the first one to pull away.
Didn’t happen. And we had lots and lots of talks about it. He told me hugging made him feel very uncomfortable–even hugging me–and I told him I craved being hugged, it was very important to me, and I was determined not to perpetuate the poor example my parents had set. I knew from the look on his face he wasn’t happy with that. I also knew that, if I kept doing it, I could lose him. I lived with the fear of that for years.
It wasn't until some time after we'd bought our condo together that we had the talk that would change everything for me. During that talk, I remember asking him, is it me you don’t want to be physically affectionate with, or would you be the same toward anyone else? It was a big risk. What if he’d said it was me? The idea of losing him, especially over something like this, scared the hell out of me. But I had to know. I had to feel loved.
Chris thought for a few moments. I rephrased the question, hoping I’d say it in a way that helped him sort out how he felt (although I knew my first question couldn’t have been more direct). Finally, he said what I needed to hear, one way or the other: It wasn’t me. He said he would feel the same way toward anyone else. What an enormous relief that was, because I loved this young man so much, and I didn't want to lose him or the wonderful life we shared together.
The rest took patience, lots and lots of patience (which, regretfully, I don’t have enough of at the best of times). And the belief that, one day, Chris would feel more comfortable being physically affectionate with me, that he might even come to me and hug me first, and that, at the least, he wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable when I hugged him and would no longer pull away.
I don’t know when things started to change; I’m guessing well over a decade after we met. But, still, not as much as I’d thought they might. Does Chris eagerly wrap his arms around me for no reason at all, simply because he wants to? No, I wouldn’t go that far. Is he more willing to hug me when I go to him? Yes, he is, very much so. And good news. Whenever I hug him, he no longer pulls away. In fact, he consistently keeps hugging me…until I let go of him.
It’s easy to think love looks the way it does in Hollywood movies. That, when we find someone, he or she will be all over us, hugging and kissing, confirming on every occasion that we are the only one for him or her. That he or she loves us as much as, if not more than, we love him or her. That’s the way it should be, right?
My experience tells me it's not always the case. And I'm also here to tell you that, just because you don’t receive the degree of physical affection you think you should doesn’t necessarily mean the man or woman you’re with doesn’t love you madly. Some people are just naturally more reserved. Some people have different ways of showing their love. And their ways may not be your ways, but, make no mistake, they're still there. You just have to become more aware of what they look like.
And don’t necessarily throw in the towel on something that doesn’t look the way you think it should. I can’t imagine what would have happened if I’d become so fed up with Chris that I’d put an end to our relationship, just because I thought I deserved to be hugged and kissed more than he was doing, and, by god, I'd find someone who gave me what I needed.
In the end, Chris has given me all I needed, and so much more, for nearly the past twenty-two years. I can’t ask for anything else. I’m one lucky man, and I know it. I'm also one grateful man.