Touch and be touched

All humans need touch. It's part of our basic needs and without it, you go a little bit crazy. What if that need for touch gets you in trouble, though?

Especially when we are young, we so much want and need to be touched by the people around us. It is reassuring, affirming, letting us know that we are loved and belong. Not all touch is healthy touch, though, and not all caregivers are comfortable providing the kind of touch that children need.

Someone called me yesterday, asking about her budding relationship with a love interest. They had been dating for a few weeks, but something was nagging her about the situation. She couldn't pin down what it was, though, and came to me for some insight into her feelings. Was she being too cautious, self-sabotaging a relationship, should she just give it a chance and get serious?

When I pointed it out to her - thanks to empathy - she could see that what she was feeling around her love interest was nervousness, bordering on fear. A sense that he might get physically violent and abusive. It's not something I sensed as a pattern in her previous relationships, and I couldn't find it in her childhood either. She also didn't recognise this type of behaviour in her past.

What was going on, then? Why was someone potentially violent suddenly coming into her life?

Although she sounded confident enough on the phone and seemed to communicate easily enough, there was a strong sense that this was not someone who readily said what she felt and asked for the things she wanted. She felt reserved, keeping the people in her life at a distance at least emotionally, and she knew it. It had been something she'd become aware of over the past half year and had been working on. She was also aware that she really wanted touch, that it mattered a great deal to her to be touched a lot by the people she cared about. This also was something she was trying to work on.

Her past, however, made it really difficult for her to accept touch. Her parents had been distant, rarely touching her, hugging her or giving her physical reassurance, so she grew up very distrustful of touch. She didn't let people near her easily, and would tense up when someone offered kindness and physical reassurance and attention. But she wanted it so much.
Her strong desire for relationships involving touch was calling people into her life who would give her touch, but her distrust and fear and frustration around the matter, along with her habit of keeping people at a distance so that only the most pushy would break through her defenses, had created a situation where she would receive touch - but aggressive, angry, violent touch. She was going to get the closeness and physical contact, but her life was reflecting her fear, anger and distrust about touch back to her because it was the only thing she would accept.

The moment I showed her the pieces affecting her situation, it clicked for her. "Wow," she said, "that is really good to know, I'm really glad for this insight. I know what to do now with this relationship ... and eh ... yeah, I need to start letting the things I want into my life. I need to get over this thing."

There are so many things in our society encouraging us away from healthy touch, from hugging our friends and being physical with our children, our relatives, our co-workers, in public. We've become so scared to touch "wrong" or to offend someone, that many of us are pushing away entirely. If this women hadn't felt something was off in the relationship she was about to commit to and hadn't gone looking for answers, she'd have found herself in a physically abusive relationship of her own making. Because somewhere along the road, she was taught that touch is scary and painful, and that wanting touch made her weak and vulnerable.

It doesn't. Our closeness and (physical) affection for each other makes us more, not less. Our ability to touch and be touched lets us share and connect to each other in a way that words don't come close to. Let's try, where we can, to bring healhy touch back into our lives and into the lives of those close to us. We all need it - we love it.

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