OK, this post is going to be pretty personally revealing about me and my relationship with J, so if that type of thing makes you uncomfortable, this is probably a post to skip. Or just scroll on down to the love song link, but don’t read it. Haha!
I grew up affection-starved. I’ve sort of written about this before in my pieces The Foreignness and Comfort of Unconditional Love and Distance. It usually takes people by surprise when I say that I grew up affection-starved. Some of them don’t believe me and even want to dispute it, particularly people who know me in real life and know my family. I have a big, loud extended family that seems to always be together. But being together often doesn’t equal being affectionate ever. They aren’t affectionate people. A lot of the time, they aren’t even particularly kind people. They spend a lot of time together, but a lot of that time is spent bickering and even when they do speak with each other in civil, calm tones, it’s always about something superficial. Sports. Weather. A run-down list of facts of life…’What grade is The Boy in this year? Where did you go on vacation? Let’s see pictures…nice, nice…OK…um…’ And then it’s obvious they’re out of material without getting deep and meaningful, and they don’t customarily want or do well with deep and meaningful. They mock ‘deep and meaningful’ when it’s positive and one up you with complaining if it’s negative. Any attempt at depth usually erupts into an argument, so they all largely avoid it. And hell, sometimes sports and weather will erupt into an argument too. They don’t really speak with kindness and affection to or about each other, at least not that I’ve ever heard. Interaction with my family is either hollow or hostile.
I have no memories of either one of my parents ever saying they loved me. I mean, I know (I guess) they DID, and I know a lot of people find the words, ‘I love you,’ empty and overdone from hearing it so many times from people who never meant it, but I never heard it from anyone at all, and even if I had, it’s still strange and difficult to have never heard it from my parents. My dad still never even attempts to say it. My mom has developed this graceless, forced phone call close with me now, where I can tell she’s thinking about saying it. She knows from watching how other mothers and daughters relate that she’s ‘supposed to,’ but she just can’t do it.
The lack of loving words didn’t affect me the most though. That was definitely the touch-starvation. I never got spanked as a kid, so I grew up assuming my upbringing was awesome and loving…I knew kids who DID get hit. But I also never got snuggled, either. I was cared for by a grandmother that hugged and cuddled me when I was a small child, but she passed away when I was eleven. There are pictures of me with my dad, where we are standing semi-close to one another and smiling (kind of…I wrote about this in my piece Smiling), but our arms are folded across our respective chests. My dad didn’t touch me at all from the time I was six until he walked me down the aisle to marry J. And then he danced with me at my wedding reception (those smiles were real! I think…mine were real…pretty sure his were too…)
And he hasn’t touched me since.
There aren’t even many pictures of me with my mom as a kid. I’ve looked, and they are few and far between, plus neither of us looks happy in any of them that do exist. She would reluctantly hug me or rub my back when I was sick or afraid or crying, but she made it verbally clear it was out of duty and she found it unpleasant, and my need for physical affection equated to me ‘acting like a baby.’
My parents didn’t touch my younger brother or each other unless it was out of absolute necessity (save the toddler that fell in the pool from drowning; change a diaper; stop someone inattentive from walking into traffic) either…at least not that I ever saw. I didn’t feel affectionate touch except from my grandmother, and I didn’t even see it as a kid, except in mass media.
I honestly don’t remember being touched with genuine kindness and zero obligation by anyone between when my gramma’s snuggles ended and my first boyfriend reached out to hold my hand when I was fifteen. (I. Was. Terrified. I’m lucky he was a kind, understanding kid.) Dating was obviously really awkward for me. Being touched wasn’t something I thought about longingly, and I was actually panic-level afraid of it. I hadn’t been traumatized by being touched harshly; touch was something I never had. I think I’ve been traumatized by hardly ever being touched at all. All of my friends had their first kisses in late elementary or early middle school. I was almost sixteen before mine. I was a homeowner before I lost my virginity. This history with my family and their either apathetic and distant or practically puritanical views on romantic relationships and sex and their major tendency to victim blame contributed heavily to how I behaved with the boys and men I dated.
I’m still reluctant to touch and be touched. I don’t initiate hugs with friends after a long in-person void, and I often can’t bring myself to initiate one even when I know they need comfort, and I WANT to comfort them. I don’t place my hand on elbows or shoulders when I’m speaking to people or even moving through a friendly crowd. Sometimes even handshakes make me uncomfortable. I don’t like doctor’s appointments or beauty appointments, because a stranger’s hands on me can drive my anxiety to unbearable levels. Even babies and children have to put their arms out to me before I’ll hold them (except my own child…I can and do initiate touch with him…I don’t want him to end up panicky about being touched like me).
Miraculously, though, I have no fear when J touches me, and I’ve never had any. I crave touching him; him touching me. I want to be close enough to touch, to be held. I actually feel at my best when J is touching me. His touch is normally calming and relieving. It soothes and quiets the constant anxiety I feel. I know now that’s because I connected with J emotionally before the first time he touched me. He gave me a lot of time. Like…A LOT of time. So much time I was pretty sure he was going to give me, ‘I think we should just be friends,’ which is a phrase I heard A LOT in my dating life, and I think I got that line so often largely because of my strangeness when it came to being touched.
With J, though? I found myself wanting him to touch me…wanting to touch him. Early on in the relationship. Well before he DID touch me. I wondered for those first couple of weeks why he kept calling me…why he wanted to spend more time with me…without touching me. I was so accustomed to the surface interaction with my family and the established fear I normally had on dates and the cautionary tales I’d been told about interacting with men (‘Men only want one thing…’ ‘Men always want sex…and more than what you’re giving them…’) that this man seeking depth without pawing at me on early dates made me assume ‘just friends,’ but it also was…weird and intriguing and it made me…want him. A lot.
I’m a self-professed romantic, and I know that physical affection isn’t the main part of love. I certainly don’t believe it’s what love is all about. But I do think it’s a big part of love, particularly romantic love, and it’s one of the five love languages if you’re interested in doing some research on that. I didn’t know it was something I needed until I met J, but I do need it. I’ve kind of always needed it, but I never had a safe outlet for it before. It’s a way I express love and a way I enjoy receiving love. When J touches me, I feel protected and safe, something I never felt being touched before I met him…something I rarely felt AT ALL before I met him. And J’s touch doesn’t have to be some passionate toe-curling kiss or embrace, or even very overtly, obviously romantic in nature. J placing one finger on my forearm when we’re out somewhere and he’s concerned about how I’m feeling is a pretty powerful sign of affection to me. It’s a, ‘You okay?’ It’s an, ‘I’m right here.’ It’s a, ‘We can go if you’re feeling anxious here.’ Without words. It’s very reassuring and it makes me feel secure. It’s something I wish I had in my life a long time ago. I wish I met J sooner. I wish J touched me sooner.
And all of this showed up in Building: A Love Story with Jessica. Her fear of affection…that somehow wasn’t there with Alan at all. Her longing for him to touch her. Her insecurity about why he wasn’t touching her. Her heavy relief when he DID touch her. That scene when he’s playful and teasing about going home with her to spend the night and he says, ‘Give me a reason…’ and her answer is that when he’s there beside her…touching her…she feels like nothing can hurt her. That’s all real. Obviously the events aren’t exactly historical…it’s fiction. Alan is NOT J; I am NOT Jessica. But those feelings? Those are all mine. They’re exactly how I feel when J touches me. So today’s love song is Because the Night by Patti Smith.