To put it pretty bluntly, my husband totally sucks at being affectionate. We rarely hug or kiss or hold hands or touch or whisper sweet nothings to one another unless a) I am forcing him to or b) he’s hoping it will lead to sex. Matt’s explanation is that it just isn’t who he is — he doesn’t feel comfortable being so touchy feely, and he never has. For years, I’ve sworn that he’d like it if he just tried a little harder, and we’d be much happier as a result. I mean, there has to be a direct correlation between how affectionate a couple is with each other and how happy they are together, right? And if that’s true, then maybe we’d be more in love if we cuddled more, too.
Unfortunately, that line of reasoning wasn’t getting me very far, until finally I found a new angle: oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone which, in short, makes us feel warm and fuzzy. It’s the stuff that makes you look at your baby and fall deeply in love (I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever loved all of the things more than I did right after I’d given birth to my twins), and it’s also the hormone that bonds us in romantic relationships. Dr. Paul Zak, a California-based scientist who is one of “the world’s most prominent experts” on oxytocin, according to The Guardian, believes that, essentially, oxytocin is the “social glue that keeps society together.” It affects things like morality, trust, affection, love and monogamy, and it happens without us even realizing it. But the part that really got me? If you want your oxytocin levels to increase, it’s as simple as just getting more hugs.
Reading about Zak’s work, I couldn’t help but think of Matt, a guy who cuddles so rarely (and cries pretty much never), that I can only assume his oxytocin levels are more or less non-existent. And I wondered: if more cuddles equaled more oxytocin, could deliberate cuddling more make us feel closer (and, dare I say, more affectionate over the long term)?
I wasn’t sure — but I definitely wanted to try and find out.
Bolstered by the prospect of a little more PDA, I asked Matt if he’d be up for attempting to increase our non-sexual loving in a big way for seven days (thankfully, he agreed!). Zak recommends at least eight hugs a day, but we also instituted some other parameters: no phones or gadgets in the evening so that we could have actual conversations with actual eye contact; real heartfelt hugs and proper kisses; and no more going to bed at wildly different times — for this week, at least, we’d both go to bed (phone-less!) at the same time, and snuggle before we fell asleep.
At the end of the experiment, we’d check in again to see if we felt any different about each other, and we’d also see if he felt any more comfortable with affection than he did at the beginning.
Off To A Rough Start
On the first evening of our experiment, Matt was able to come home early enough so that we could have dinner together and put the kids to bed as a team (which is approximately a gazillion times easier than doing it alone). He’d had a hard day, and I could almost feel the stress oozing from his pores, so I suggested that we stop and hug it out.
Matt agreed, but he agreed in the way he usually does, where he physically hugs me, but it is painfully obvious that he is not enjoying it and is just waiting for me to let him know he can stop. I chose to ignore it this time, but he pulled away before I was ready, and I stumbled backwards and hit the wall. And then, uh, I kind of lost it. “Why do you hate hugging me? Couldn’t you just try to pretend like you want to hug me? Is that so hard?!”
It was, honestly, the most “plugged-in” to one another we had been in so long that I can’t even remember the last time I'd felt that way. It felt so nice to have a real conversation.
I was totally overreacting, but I was tired and annoyed. Not exactly the beginning I was hoping for. After we put the kids down, I got into bed, ready for some Netflix vegging out. Matt had a little bit of time before he had to leave to go play hockey, so he came in and suggested we have a cuddle. I was a bit skeptical. “You want to snuggle? Like, a snuggle snuggle? Or a sexy snuggle?”
"No," he said, "like a real one. We agreed to snuggle, so let's snuggle." His words were music to my ears. And I was really appreciative that he was willing to take this experiment seriously. Our first day hadn't started off so well, but by the end of day one, I felt hopeful that this could actually be a really great experience.
To Spoon Or Not To Spoon?
The next night, Matt had to work really late, so by the time he got home, I was already in bed and halfway through Meet The Patels on Netflix (highly recommended, by the way!). It was one of those nights where we were both tired and wouldn't usually talk much because we had already retreated to our invisible bubbles of introversion. But when Matt got into bed he said, “hey, I thought we weren’t doing computers in bed!”
Oh, right, I did say that. But I was watching Meet The Patels! Sigh. I reluctantly put my laptop away (mostly because I had always insisted that he was the one with the gadgets-in-bed problem and I didn’t want to be wrong about that), and we had a pre-sleep cuddle.
It struck me instantly how rarely we did this, and how incredibly sad that was. We spent so much time NOT touching each other, and so much time ignoring each other in favor of other, meaningless things, like Netflix documentaries (guilty) or hockey updates on his phone (totally him). I burrowed in a little more and we talked about our days and about all of the things we had going on and how stressed out we were about the kids and his job and a trip the twins and I were going to take soon. It was, honestly, the most “plugged-in” to one another we had been in so long that I can’t even remember the last time I'd felt that way. It felt so nice to have a real conversation.
As we settled down for sleep, we spooned like I always tell Matt I want to do, even though he argues that he doesn't like it. I felt pretty pleased with myself — I was finally getting the affection I'd been wanting. But then something unexpected happened: as I lied there, I realized I don’t actually like spooning either! In theory, snuggling to sleep seemed so lovely, but in practice I was just hot and uncomfortable. About two minutes in, I gave up. “OK, thanks, I’m done, goodnight!”
Matt laughed and rolled back over to his side of the bed — but thankfully he didn’t say, “I told you so.”
Maybe I Was Wrong ...?
Matt got home late from work Monday, and it had been a particularly challenging day for me alone with the kids. But when he got in the door, he offered to take over bedtime duty solo so that I could go to bed — which, in case you're wondering, is the perfect way to woo your partner when she’s been at home all day with two fighting 3 year olds. I went upstairs and figured I’d just check Facebook and then get an early night, but of course that turned into Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest/Facebook, because of course it did. When Matt came to bed, he promptly started scrolling through his phone as usual.
When I started this experiment, I was so incredibly excited: this would finally be a way to get my super unaffectionate, no-longer-even-sort-of-romantic husband to love on me all day long, and maybe at the end of the week, he’d actually like it! And yet, there I was, turning down the sincere affection he was freely giving me, because I didn’t really want it.
I realized we were totally wasting this opportunity to connect and cuddle, especially since he’d been so supportive when he came home. But the thing was, I didn’t really want to — and that was really surprising to me. Even though I had a man lying next to me who was game for a cuddle, even though he was super loving despite having a super stressful day himself at work, I didn't actually want his affection. How could that be?
About a year after Matt and I got married, we saw a couples’ therapist on the recommendation of a neurologist I was seeing for chronic pain caused by provoked vestubulodynia. Before we started our sessions, I was secretly feeling pretty smug: this would be my chance to have an objective third party explain to him all of the frustrating things he never actually listens to when I try to bring them up! In my head, this therapist was totally going to be on my side, and Matt would hopefully listen to her as a voice of reason, and then our relationship would be perfect because he’d finally become everything I wanted him to be (I know, I know).
Well, unsurprisingly to probably everyone but me, that’s not at all what happened. Not even close. We sat there in her office, and Matt was totally open and comfortable, answering all her questions honestly, and generally being sweet and understanding. But me? I was defensive, emotional, and extremely uncomfortable opening up. We lasted three sessions before I insisted we stop going.
That night in bed, when I wanted to watch Netflix instead of cuddle, I was reminded of the giant wake-up call that was couples’ therapy. When I started this experiment, I was so incredibly excited: this would finally be a way to get my super unaffectionate, no-longer-even-sort-of-romantic husband to love on me all day long, and maybe at the end of the week, he’d actually like it! And yet, there I was, turning down the sincere affection he was freely giving me, because I didn’t really want it. I’d spent years believing I was starving for hugs and kisses and cuddles, when in reality, the reason we weren’t super affectionate is because neither of us is really that comfortable with it.
Don’t get me wrong, a little loving here and there is totally welcome. It’d be great if Matt would hold my hand more, or put his arm around me while we’re watching TV. A kiss when he leaves for work in the morning would be nice. But beyond that? I’m not so sure. I’d been pushing for us to hug and kiss and cuddle and vomit love on one another when this experiment started, but as we approached the end of the week, I realized that, just like our stint in couples’ therapy, I’d called this one wrong. I went into it thinking that the answer was more touching, more oxytocin, more closeness, more happiness. But if this was our life everyday — if he were always wanting to kiss me and hug me and touch me and spoon in bed when I just want to lie on my stomach and sprawl out on the cool side of the pillow? That would, truthfully, probably just skeeve me out.
It's Not You, It's Me
When I began this experiment, I thought this it would be about Matt: his romantic shortcomings, his dislike of PDA, his inability to understand that I need more love. I’d be in super oxytocin-boosting mode for seven days, and then at the end, hopefully he’d have changed. But the week came and went, and there’s nothing different about him. Because this was my issue, not his. And it was always my issue.
Matt and I have been together almost 12 years now, and it’d be a huge understatement to say that the honeymoon period has long passed us by. It’s far too easy sometimes to start thinking about what life would be like if we’d chosen differently — if we hadn’t met so young, if we’d dated around and then settled down in our late 20s with people who were better suited to who we are at almost-30 versus who we were at almost-20. And in my grass-is-greener scenario, I imagine what it would be like to be with someone more passionate, more openly loving, someone who’d always say nice things to me and who’d hold my hand in public without me having to ask.
What I needed (and what we all need, probably), was a reminder that relationship satisfaction isn’t just about brain chemicals and evolution.
But then, there are the moments where I’m turning down a cuddle with the man I love because I’d rather watch Inside Amy Schumer, and I realize how wrong I am. I didn’t end up with Matt by mistake, because we were both young and didn’t know better. I ended up with him because he knows that sometimes I need him to put the kids to bed so I can be alone, even though his day was just as hard as mine. I ended up with him because he keeps an open mind when I tell him he has to hug and kiss and cuddle me without complaining about it for a week, whether he wants to or not. And I ended up with him because he's the guy who goes to couples' therapy when his wife wants to prove a point, even though he knows the whole time that she is the one not letting him in, not the other way around.
So does giving up sex in lieu of cuddling boost oxytocin and make your relationship stronger? I have no idea. But did it teach me a huge lesson about checking my relationship expectations at the door? You bet.
I don’t need more love or closeness — and, it turns out, I’ve never needed that. What I needed (and what we all need, probably), was a reminder that relationship satisfaction isn’t just about brain chemicals and evolution. It’s about coming back down to reality and appreciating everything your partner is, instead of letting yourself get stuck in fantasies about all of the things he isn’t.