On Becoming Affectionate and Intimate
One of the attributes of being human is your need for affection and love. The ancient Greeks had six words for love. The ancient Greek form of love that we all long for is “Pragma.” It is considered to be a long standing love between two people. Self-love is referred to as “Philautia.” The word for love for everyone is “Agape.” There can be a playful love as described by the word “Ludus.” Another word used is “Philia” which describes a deep friendship. They considered “Eros” or sexual passion to be a dangerous and irrational form of love.
Unfortunately, many people have mistaken “Eros”, sex, for intimacy. It can be helpful to examine your ideas about intimacy. Sexual intercourse between two loving communicating people is intimacy in a very powerful and special form, yet to achieve this form of intimacy requires a great deal of communication and caring between the two people, all of which takes time and effort to develop. The sexual act itself will not generate the intimacy you desire.
Have you learned yet that in a relationship there are other types of intercourse with the sexual aspect being only one of them? In a quality relationship there will be intellectual intercourse through the sharing of ideas, thoughts and feelings. There will also be a spiritual intercourse with the sharing of beliefs and a special bonding between the two partners. All of these are in addition to the sexual aspect of the relationship. When all three are present you achieve a special intimacy. It is easy to mistake sexual intercourse for intimacy when you have not had a relationship that contains the other types of intercourse. But you can learn that your needs can be met in a more fulfilling way. When you learn to open up and develop spiritual and intellectual as well as sexual relationships you get closer to finding a greater sense of what being human is all about.
Each of us needs to be held, to be hugged and to be able to show our affection with others. You are healthier, both in mind and spirit, when you are able to experience the warmth of affection with another. Unfortunately, many people including myself began life in an environment where affection was not present. I do not remember my mother holding me, and I remember my father being cold and unresponsive when I was a child. I remember a time when I may have been about six years old, running up to my father and hugging him when he came home from work one day. There was no response from him, only a coldness that I remember to this day. I thought there was something wrong with me! I also cannot recall my parents ever holding hands or giving each other a hug, let alone giving my brothers or myself any affection in our childhood. As children, we learn from our role models and we can develop fear around affection. We tend to develop behaviors based on the modeling of the adults around us. If appropriate affection is shown between parents and siblings, you are more likely to develop affection in your own life.
Although you may end up being unaffectionate, I strongly believe that this is a learned condition that can be unlearned, or replaced with healthier habits. The key to doing this is to overcome your discomfort and fear of being affectionate. Due to my own upbringing, I became very defensive. If someone were to pat me on the shoulder or attempt to give me a hug, I usually tensed up, giving signals that it was not okay to get close to me. This has been a knee jerk reaction for most of my life. Part of it may be the result of a heightened startle response, a characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder. Regardless of the cause, I have trained myself to be aware and relax when someone shows affection. When people approach and touch my arm or shoulder, I welcome their contact without the fear I once experienced.
In non-threatening situations, I have no trouble being affectionate, and this too was something that I developed as a result of relearning. From my early twenties, I clearly remember a night I went with a friend to a discotheque. My friend and I spotted two attractive women and I asked one of them to dance. With the loud music it was very hard to hear each other and it seemed as though she didn’t understand a word I was saying. Being in a French area of town, I switched to speaking French. She seemed even more confused! After dancing, her sister explained to me that she spoke only Polish and that she had just moved to Canada! We ended up going out on a few dates, and although we did not become sexually active, this woman was extremely affectionate in a kind and loving manner. She essentially brought out and developed a part of me that had been hidden and discouraged. Of course, at the time I was quite dysfunctional and didn’t pursue the friendship, but I am grateful for the gift she gave me as it had a tremendous impact on me.
On the other side of the coin, affection without boundaries can be harmful. Particularly for those who have experienced sexual abuse, the ability to say “no” to touch has not been learned or allowed. Since working through my own issues, I find that I am much more approachable and have often encountered people who have hugged me or touched me on the shoulders without asking. While in most cases I don’t mind these gestures of affection, there have been times when I preferred not to be touched. Having the freedom to say “yes” or “no” to affection is a healthy boundary that many of us struggle with. My own father seemed to lack this respect for boundaries. Whenever I was in the passenger seat of the car and yawned, he thought it was funny to stick his fingers in my mouth. This annoyed me to no end, yet my protests seemed to fall on deaf ears. Finally I got quite angry and reprimanded him for the true issue: he did not have the right to violate my personal space. He got the message and stopped. It is unfortunate that it took a blow up to get the message across.
I’ve often heard the phrase “I’m too old to learn new ways”, or the classic “You can’t teach and old dog new tricks”, yet I have seen great changes in families and parents as well. My own mother, at age sixty-two, was a perfect example! Although my family was large, my mother was in many ways isolated. Shortly after meeting the woman from Poland, I began to hug my mother when I finished a visit with her. At first, hugging her was like hugging a cement pillar, but timidly she reached out her hand and patted me on the back, which was a major step for her. She slowly established safety and a sense of confidence in being affectionate. Within a few weeks she was hugging me, as well as hugging other family members. She later confessed that it was her fear of rejection that kept her from expressing affection and emotion. What a treat it was to watch her, a few months later, greeting my brother Bill with a hug as he walked in the door!