When Adrian comes home from work, I am usually in the kitchen, making dinner. After he greets our dogs, he approaches me and leans in for a kiss. Sometimes, I don’t even realize he is approaching me until I feel his lips on my face. Sometimes he says, “Can I get a smooch from you, sweetie?” and I put down my knife and cucumber or close the oven door and turn to him and press my pursed lips against his full, warm mouth.
A kiss from Adrian always feels like curling up in a bed with freshly washed linens.
“Hi, baby,” I say. The Boys, Reko and Ladu, jump on us, trying to get in on the action, so I bend down and kiss them all over their little furry faces.
Later, after Adrian changes out of his work clothes, he saunters into the kitchen, barefoot, and puts his arms around my waist from behind, nuzzling my neck.
“We are glad you are home” I say, as I stick to my rhythm and continue chopping garlic for his favorite dish, Greek chicken. I like to make that for him during times when he is particularly busy with work. It is the t-shirt and pajama pants of dinners: comfortable, nurturing, and warm.
He keeps his body against mine for a few seconds longer and then steps away, grabbing some cookies from the cupboard and heading to the media room to watch tv and unwind.
Later, he will caress my hand or kiss my head and say, “Thank you for dinner, love.” At night, he will come into my room and kiss me goodnight, touching my breasts if I wriggle around and smile at him.
If I come home and Adrian is already there, he will greet me at the front door. I usually have my hands full of grocery bags, so will say, “Hi, sweets! I got you lots of good stuff — cookies, ice cream, hummus, and Gatorade. And bananas. You have to eat a banana every day, okay?” I put on my cosy clothes: soft cotton, tagless, layered and then I fill the fridge and cupboards, fold his laundry, remind him to change his towels. I ask him about his day and listen to his stories, laughing about how Reko scampered and rolled across the neighbor’s lush grass when they went for their walk.
Sometimes, I might say, “Oops!” and stand on my tiptoes to kiss him. Other times, I may just observe, “I didn’t even kiss you hello, did I?” I say that as absently as saying, “I meant to sweep the floors this morning.” Later, when I am really tired, I will brush my teeth, wash my face, crawl into bed and go to sleep. I usually will call out, “Goodnight!” and sometimes add, “Aren’t you going to come hug me?” Sometimes, I will do neither.
Physical affection. I do not like it at all from people I don’t know. That includes shaking hands. Fist bumping (shudder). My stuff is an extension of me. Please do not touch that, either.
As for people I do know, I might crave tight embraces, especially from Adrian and Loverne. Their hugs are like my heavy blanket, anchoring me, securing me. But, I prefer knowing that they are coming. There is some kind of nearly subconscious preparation that I do, like the pre-flight cockpit procedure:
- Arms ready to embrace? ✓
- Skin prepared to touch someone else’s skin? ✓
- Sensor guards in place in case of incidental light contact, such as hair and clothing caresses? ✓
- Ears charged for the rustle of material, the unpredictable sounds of breathing, lipsmacking, grunting? ✓
- Nose on alert for perfume/cologne/food/body odors? ✓
If permitted time to check off those boxes, I am ready for take-off and can actually enjoy and float into the hug.
I also love sex. Adrian and I have talked about that. Sex has purpose, it is a conscious act to feel pleasure. It is like eating the yummiest food on my plate last, chewing slowly, experiencing the flavors and textures as fully as possible.
But physical affection? It just doesn’t occur to me.
I have an image of my mother washing dishes at the sink, her back to the kitchen. My father walks in and, much as Adrian does to me, puts his arms around her. Her physical self seems not to acknowledge his embrace. My mother continues with the dishes, her back straight, not leaning into my father at all. They chat for a minute as she looks out the window and he at her working hands, reddened by the hot water that washes away the remnants of the dinner she made for her family. He walks away, untouched.
When I think of that moment, I recognize that my father seems unfulfilled and that my mother seems cut-off from the world, focused on her tasks, her lists, her stories, her mind. I learned so much about social expectations through mimicry; Disney and “Three’s Company” were two of my relationship role models when I was a child. I promised myself that I would soften the way Cinderella does when her prince puts his arms around her, tilt my head up to receive my true love’s kiss. I assured myself that like Krissy and Janet, I would snuggle with my boyfriend, caress his face and arms with my fingers, press against his body with mine, even slide my hand in the back pocket of his jeans so I could feel his muscles flex as we walked.
I did these at the beginning and, as I recall, Adrian grew weary (or was it wary?) of my vacillation between needy Disney princess and 1970s sexual revolution gal. I, too, grew weary of the consciousness of physicality, especially once we started living together. For Adrian, it is second nature. He passes me in the hallway and his hand reaches for me, as if I were made of velvet. For me, it requires constant, conscious remembering. You are both on the couch, so touch the back of his neck. He had a hard day at work, squeeze his hand.
One day, I called out from my room, where I was nesting, “Maybe I should touch you more. I could grab your cock when we are in the kitchen together.”
Adrian said, “Or … you could just touch my head or shoulders.”
What’s the point of that? I thought. Just … put my fingers on his head or shoulders? Out loud I asked, “You mean like a massage?”
“It doesn’t have to be. Just touching is nice.” He waited a beat and added, “But you don’t need to, either. I know you love me, baby. Touching feels good, but I want you to do what feels comfortable to you.”
I emerged from my nest, flew to the media room, and hugged my husband, kissing the top of his head, his soft hair feathering my lips in pleasing ways.
For the most part, I still think of physical affection in productive/non-productive ways. A firm hug for me or a deep massage for Adrian (which I love to give him, his soft skin and thick muscles yielding like dough under my kneading) can be as productive and necessary, really, as deep breathing during stressful times. Putting an arm around his waist feels unnatural and self-conscious. Patting his bottom could go either way: in general, it doesn’t enter my mind, but, if he is wearing his plaid pajamas, my hands reach for him of their own accord, the material and shape of his buttocks begging to be held, if only for a brief moment, by my cupped palms. When he touches me, it feels safe, even if I don’t require it.
I talked about this with my therapist a few days ago, concerned that Adrian doesn’t know how much I love him because I don’t kiss and hug him. In the movies, when people don’t demonstrate their affection in physical ways, it is usually an indication that they are cold or out of love. My therapist, Dr. K, mentioned the languages of love and remarked that I show love through service, cooking Adrian his favorite food, keeping his living spaces clean, and giving him massages. Adrian shows love through touch. That sounds about right.
Dr. K also asked if I had any role models who demonstrated physical affection. Aside from television, film, and literature, I had a friend who, in the elementary years was as casually physical with me as if I were a part of her, touching my scabs, holding my hand, playing with my hair, pushing her thumb in my pocket to store a pack of forbidden gum. As comfortable as she was, I was always hyper-aware of her fingers, as if they were hot curlers, and I would shy away from them, afraid of being burned.
In high school, I had a friend who walked with his arm across my shoulders. I hated it. He was muscular, and his arm was as hard as a log. It felt threatening to me. Later, I had a tall, beautiful, vivacious girlfriend who would pat the top of my head and lift my ringlets up in her slender fingers. When she hugged me, I had to think about it in steps: 1). put my arms around her shoulders 2). pull our bodies together 3). don’t flinch from the sensations 4). squeeze 5). relax my muscles 6). squeeze again (she liked long hugs) 7). step away while bringing my arms back down to my sides. If I forgot the seventh step, her head would get caught in the arch of my intertwined fingers and we would giggle at my clumsiness. I literally learned how to hug from this friend. I was sixteen.
I understood Dr. K’s question: maybe I never developed a taste for physical affection because my parents weren’t particularly physical, with each other or us. My dad would shake my hand before he left for work and came home long after I was asleep. My mother would braid my hair, accidentally brushing my cheeks and neck, and occasionally put her fingers on mine for brief, searing moments.
But, I have two sisters who are as casual with their physicality as my elementary friend was. When we sit on the couch, they smoosh up next to me, their legs against mine, our shoulders lined up in a tight row. I shared a bed with one of them when we traveled a few years ago and woke up to her arm around me, her long hair flowing across my face like sea grass moving just under the surface of the water. I lay stunned, wondering how she learned to be like everyone else. I can’t even sleep with my husband.
I don’t know that I will ever have a specific, concrete reason for my aversion to physical affection, my lack of awareness of it. I have done some research into autism and touch and it is unclear, as well. Part of the problem, I think, is that we are looking for why. Why can have a shame or judgement attached to it. “Why can’t I/you just hug/kiss/caress like everyone else does?” Even the article I link here, which I think attempts understanding, suggests early intervention for children with autistic traits to teach them to tolerate touching as part of socialization, as if it is wrong to not like it.
What if we focused instead on what? What does physical contact mean for an NT? It seems to mean closeness, love, security. What does physical contact mean for an ND? What does it feel like? For me, it means almost nothing unless it is that firm hug I seek for anchoring, particularly during overload or meltdown, or unless it comes from Adrian. Otherwise, it feels invasive and uncomfortable. It feels dangerous, not safe. My senses are scraped raw. I just want my space.
What if we treated physical affection the way we do roller coasters, or, better yet, big cities? Some people love them; some hate them; some think they are a nice place to visit but would never live in one. We can each figure out what is right for us.
This journey has helped me realize that I don’t need to know the why. Knowing the what is sufficient because it builds a bridge between me and the people I love. And that is what is important. Adrian and I show our love in different ways, but both are equally weighted. Just as when Reko nudges me and then bounds away, his tail waving like a flag, head turned to make sure I am chasing and when Ladu sits on my chest as I cry, his wise eyes unblinking and sorrowful, we may speak different languages but we all are saying the same thing.
I love you.