Keeping Romance Alive

Photo: Katie Tegtmeyer

My wife once told me she felt I wasn’t particularly warm.  She rarely saw me hug anyone, I rarely took her hand spontaneously, or rubbed her back or nuzzled her neck.  And she very much wanted those things, she said.  She needed to feel a sense of connection between us, a sense that we were more than just two people co-habitating in a house or co-parenting a child.  And she didn’t.

I wasn’t exactly shocked to hear this from her, but neither did I entirely agree.  I did hug people, I said.  Sometimes.

“But I can tell you don’t feel comfortable doing it,” she told me.

“How can you tell how I’m feeling?”

“I just can.”

This response irritated me, not because she was presuming to know me better than I know myself, but rather because, I realized, she was right.  More than that, she was right about something I wanted her to be wrong about.

I wanted to be a warmer person.  I wanted the empathy and compassion I so frequently feel for others to find easy expression in a touch, a hug, or a reassuring squeeze.  But though I often felt like doing those things—and therefore, I realized, often gave myself credit internally as if I’d actually done them—I was, in fact, in many circumstances and with many people just as uncomfortable as my wife had suggested.  So I didn’t do them much.

What I realized as I reflected on her complaint about me was that I’d come to view touching as a way not to express romantic feelings but rather as a way to comfort.  When she and friends and family members and patients became upset, a reassuring squeeze of an arm felt easy, appropriate, and comfortable.  But to offer one as a spontaneous gesture of affection?  Much harder.

When others had observed my relative lack of comfort with touching in the past and mentioned it to me, I’d acknowledged it without making any serious effort to change.  It wasn’t that I was cold—just, I would say to myself, a bit left of center of warm.  And I certainly wasn’t entirely uncomfortable with touching.  I seemed simply to prefer not to do it often.

The origins of this preference were obvious:  men, in general, receive subtle and not-so-subtle cues from other men all the time that expressions of emotion aren’t manly.  Certainly many men don’t feel or behave that way at all.  But not the male role models in my life.  Which isn’t by any means to say that my discomfort with it—mild as it was, truly—was anyone’s responsibility but my own.  I could have challenged it many times in the past when others brought it up in casual conversation, but I never did.

Until my wife brought it up in a heated discussion and made me realize how central my warmth—or, I should say, lack thereof—was to our relationship.  As with so many things, even when our partner tells us something is important to them, unless it’s also genuinely important to us, we have a hard time not just believing it but remembering it.

Once I was able to recognize just how important this issue was to my wife, however, I made a determination to change.  I decided I needed to make warm touching a habit, something I wouldn’t have to think about because I knew that eventually, as the sting of our conversation faded amidst the onslaught of new everyday concerns, I wouldn’t remember it.  I needed, in other words, not to make it something I had to remind myself to do but rather something I did automatically.  I needed, in short, to actually become warmer.

So I decided to make seeing my wife itself a trigger.  Every time she’d wake up in the morning, every time I came home in the evening, every time we got into bed to go to sleep, I’d touch her.  A hug, a back rub, a quick kiss.  Walking to the park by our house with our son, I take her hand in mine and squeeze it gently.

I worried at first that her knowing I was doing all this specifically to demonstrate warmth would diminish the significance of the gestures, that because I was clearly needing to work at doing them, they wouldn’t have the desired effect.

“Nonsense,” she told me, and that was that.

But here’s the interesting part:  the desired effect, it turns out, wasn’t on her.  It was on me.  To my great surprise, focusing on the physical act of touching her not for the purpose of comforting her but for expressing feelings of romance and warmth actually made me feel more romantic and warmer toward her.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Studies demonstrate similar effects for smiling, which makes people who do it feel happier, as well as for posing oneself in power positions (e.g., leaning forward meaningfully on a table), which make people feel more in control.  Feeling, in other words, doesn’t only produce action; it follows it .  In my secret heart, I’d always wanted to feel warmer toward my wife and frankly blamed her controlling nature for smothering what warm feelings I had for her.  But I saw now that she wasn’t the cause at all.  The speed with which new-found feelings of warmth toward her erupted inside me after just a few days of practiced physical expression of it was simply astounding.  I’d always thought I’d needed to feel romantic feelings first before I could or would demonstrate them by touching her, and so rarely did.  But now I realized my mistake.

In the end, teaching myself to touch my wife more didn’t just give her what she needed in order to want to stay in our marriage—it gave it to me, too.  I never imagined I could affect how I felt so powerfully merely by acting as if I felt it—especially something I thought had become, through role modeling and personality development, so antithetical to me.

And yet I did.  Sometimes, the path to change is strange and unexpected.  The lesson to me, however, was clear:  though changing ourselves is difficult, sometimes we make it more difficult than it needs to be.  That, and that changing oneself is often the only way to solve a problem.  Because as good as my marriage was before, not in my wife’s eyes but in mine as well, it’s many times better now.

Next WeekI’m on vacation.  Please feel free to browse the archives while I’m gone.

 

18 comments to Keeping Romance Alive

  • Jude Jackson

    I was in a meeting today and the nature of my discussion (the anniversary of my dad’s death) caused me to tear up and I had to leave the room. Two men came out and checked on me and gave me a hug. I was touched by their sincerity. A lot of people are uncomfortable touching others, for whatever reasons. Romance or comfort, an appropriate touch or hug works wonders for us all. Great post. Thanks.

  • Chris

    Is this like the “fake-it-till-you-make-it” principle?

    Chris: You could say so.

    Alex

  • Hazel

    A similar experience happened to me, but I was in the other position: I wanted someone to be more demonstrative. A friend said, “Why don’t you ask them so they know you need this?” and I said, “But if I ask, it won’t feel genuine. It will feel like they just did it because I told them to.” But my friend said—wisely, I thought—that actually the fact that they would do it to please me makes it genuine and thoughtful: they want to show me they care, so they are willing to do whatever it takes to make me feel that way. And, you know, even though I’d ask, it actually didn’t feel inauthentic at all and was just as satisfying as if it had been spontaneous, which was a surprise. And what my friend had said actually made it feel even more special because I felt it had been a special gift to give me exactly what I needed.

    I also realize that I am not aware enough of what I do for my loved ones in this way. Today, I am going to give your idea a go and see my family as triggers to smile or make some affectionate gesture to let them feel loved. I know they will appreciate this because they say I should smile more, which I always feel surprised about because I never realize when I’m not! I guess I never properly registered that though until reading your blog. More smiles from now on. Thanks :o) :o)

  • Michele in FL

    Good post, thanks! In a similar vein, after several people told me that they felt I had become very negative, I was determined to change. Simply by measuring the way that I reacted to situations and changing my emotional response, even though it was forced, brought about a drastic and very welcome change. I had no idea that it was so easy to change the way that I perceived the world. I feel healthier and happier now. And when I find myself reacting negatively, I “backpedal” and change my emotional reaction. It works! Thanks again, Alex. I really appreciate your posts.

  • SQLWitch

    This “feeling follows action” is something that I often suggest to people I advise, and something I make use of myself.

    I’ve sometimes had the suggestion countered with the query that, if the action triggers the feeling, how can we know whether the feeling is genuine?

    I came up with the analogy of priming a pump. It only works if there’s actually water in the well to begin with, i.e., the priming action doesn’t make the feelings, it just lets them manifest themselves more usefully. And, in both the literal and the symbolic sense, you need to do it when the pump hasn’t been in regular use. This seems to match your story; acting the way you wished you felt helped your behaviour and your deepest feelings to get more into synch.

    I rather like it that the analogy also maps rather nicely onto the way that the term “priming” is actually used in cognitive psychology.

  • Mike

    Ah, yes—behavior wags the tail of feelings (a saying from David Reynolds’ Constructive Living books).

    I read recently of a therapist dealing with an arguing angry couple: she nagged, he ignored her. But they both loved their dog and showed affection toward it? The therapist asked them what the dog did so that they could express their affection. The dog was unashamed about what it wanted: it greeted them at the door, jumped on them, sat in their lap, nuzzled them. The dog did what it needed to get the affection it wanted.

    So the therapist told the couple to act like their pet dog. Nuzzle, be happy when they see each other, even make little animal sounds, to express the affection *they* wanted to receive. And of course, it worked.

  • Taryn

    Another excellent post! I especially like the line: “though changing ourselves is difficult, sometimes we make it more difficult than it needs to be. That, and that changing oneself is often the only way to solve a problem.” That is so true, particularly how difficult it is to effect change in oneself. I am very much a person who does not like to be touched. As such, hugging friends as a greeting is uncomfortable for me, but since it is expected behavior I have no trouble going along. Unfortunately this dislike also carries over to my relationship at home and does cause problems. I have tried the approach you did, adding back the gestures to rekindle the affection, but it is extremely difficult for me to maintain. The effort eventually exhausts me and the gestures fade away again. Change can be so hard even when you know it’s important and even when you know it’s the right thing to do. I have personal found inspiration in several of your posts. I hope I can rise to the message given here. Thank you!

  • For the longest time, if I’d had a bad day or was feeling upset about something, my boyfriend would be at a complete loss as to how to help me. He was terrible at it. Then, one day, I gave him a little script. Something he could say when I feel unhappy. I told him to give me a hug and say “Poor Sweetie. It’s going to be okay. I love you.”

    He was happy to have the script because it became his go-to thing whenever he didn’t know what to do about a bad day. And even knowing exactly what he was going to say, it still made me feel better to hear him say it. And even if he does sometimes make it in to a full-fledged “These pretzels are making me thirsty” routine, it makes me laugh and I feel better anyway.

  • Great post!

    I understand the concept of changing to accommodate another person and the positive benefit those actions could evoke. However, I am way too stubborn to expressly change my behavior for anyone. My bad, but it is true.

    Although, I would not want to change my husband either he is perfect with all his imperfections. The best gift you can give one another is total and complete acceptance without any conditions on your (their) affections. That said, it is better to ask for what you want rather than expecting your partner to read your mind. So, if all it takes is more frequent hugs, I can do that. 🙂

  • The more you are deprived of something, the more you crave it, to the point you are nearly starving for it. At least your wife is with someone who eventually “got” it. I have given up on the idea that someone will ever care about meeting any of MY needs for affection.

    I don’t understand why people are so selfish in relationships when, ultimately, their own needs are more likely to be met if they will only take care of their partners’ needs. It becomes a power struggle, a bid for control, rather than being about making somebody else feel loved and wanted. But alas, I am jaded…

  • Bravo.

    “This response irritated me, not because she was presuming to know me better than I know myself, but rather because, I realized, she was right. More than that, she was right about something I wanted her to be wrong about.” Now if we could bottle that and sell it…

    Thanks.

    Bobbi: 😉

    Alex

  • MARGERY

    I’m a very demonstrative person and am married (for 54 years) to someone whose culture was stoicism. Our church service is small and intimate and it’s always easy to see those who were raised not to show open or genuine emotion when we pass the Peace. However, I have heard some people say they enjoy the outward show of caring FROM the other person and have become more demonstrative in the service because they know it will be warmly received…even my spouse.

  • […] as I wrote in another previous post, Keeping Romance Alive, is best accomplished through habit rather than willpower.  Through repetition, we construct a […]

  • sowmya

    I suffer from the same hesitation..and yet to break out of it….

    BTW, its not being “male”…have you checked your MBTI type? It has a lot to do with these tendencies. Can be quite revealing…

  • FANTASTIC post! And yes, often we get stuck needing to feel a certain way before we decide to act or commit but it’s the very act of DOING something that leads to feeling. Which leads to more doing. And so on. Like very few ever really want to work out but by making themselves do it, they end up feeling better and getting fitter. And the fitter we get, the easier it gets to stay fit. Moral—think, be, do. Then have. Tia

  • The most telling part, IMHO, is this: “In my secret heart, I’d always wanted to feel warmer toward my wife and frankly blamed her controlling nature for smothering what warm feelings I had for her. ”

    Everything begins with desire, and if the desire to change wasn’t Alex’s, the modeling/change would have resulted in resentment and failure. For change to stick, we have to own the reason why we want it, and that reason has to be ours. 🙂

  • Yes, M. Petruzzi, and thank God Alex was not buried under too much blame. It is frustrating when resentment blocks the expression of good feelings—I mean, there was a reason you got together in the first place, no?

    I wonder about all the sad and alienated couples: did they once love each other, were they/ did they feel “coerced” into it … why so much dissatisfaction, which of course fuels separation and cheating and more alienation? I wonder why we do this to one another.

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