A few awkward thoughts on the love language of physical touch.
A few weeks ago, a friend and I were talking about the unfortunate love language of physical touch.
We were joking (kind of) about how the hyper-sexualization of America society has made it very difficult for Christians of all persuasions to incorporate healthy physical contact into our lives.
With every other love language, platonic friendships can fill empty love tanks. Quality time. Gifts. Words of affirmation. Acts of Service. Easy peasy.
But what happens if your love language is physical contact? What do you do if you don’t feel loved, seen, valued, or safe without actual, meaningful, sustained human touch?
Adults just don’t put their hands on each other. If they do, it’s either racy or super fast and super formal. Quick side hug. Pat on the back. Handshake.
Imagine any other love language playing out this way.
Gifts. Rushing into a room to hand someone a gift, then running out the door.
Quality time. “You have 2 minutes! Mark, get set, go!”
Acts of service. 30 seconds of washing the dishes. Done.
Words of affirmation. Running in and yelling, “You are awesome!” at a friend, then running back out. (Okay, that’s hilarious, but still.)
You get what I mean. There’s no other love language that requires such abrupt, formal, measured interaction. Those love languages are all considered “safe,” so our culture has no built-in barriers or limits on how these languages should be offered or received.
But with human touch, lingering too long is always potentially sexual. Especially in a world where every gender match can be romanticized, there’s no possible connection in which it’s 100% given that a long hug is just a long hug.
Hang on. Hear my heart there, please. I don’t write that with an intent to condemn anyone—I write it more with my hands thrown up in the air in desperation, asking, “So now what? What do we do with this longing? Where do we go to get help?”
Most of the touch people I know struggle to even talk about it openly because in a hypersexed world, the public assumes any reference to touch equals a desire for intimacy.
How strongly can I emphasize that this is absolutely not true. Though sex involves touch, it’s not the primary manifestation of this love language. Children hug eachother spontaneously. Mothers cuddle their babies. In other countries, platonic friends walk arm-in-arm and kiss one another on the cheeks. All those things are done as natural out-workings of a love that has absolutely nothing to do with human sexuality.
This love language isn’t rooted in sex drive or lust. It’s about needing to feel safe, anchored, and seen in a world that feels dangerous, chaotic, and anonymous.
It’s about a connection between body and soul that can’t be bridged by generous activity, by cognition, or by conversation any easier than thirst can be satisfied with a photo of a glass of water.
It’s anti-gnostic, if you need a theological excuse for our existence. It’s the wiring of God reaffirming that the flesh and the soul are not entirely separate.
Sadly, human touch people often walk around with a tank so empty, it would take a long, awkward time to fill. Just like a young woman who had never once been praised would not believe a single compliment, adults who carry this need are virtually starved to death.
Last week I watched a therapy session online in which two men were helping a third man process a past wound. At the end of the session, one of the men opened his arms wide and just let the third man bury himself on his chest and weep for as long as he needed.
For as long as he needed it.
All the touch people are letting that phrase hang in the air a while.
The setting was safe. Lots of people were sitting around in the therapy room, so there there was no question of sexual intent. At first, it was just a normal hug. I felt the culturally-appropriate seconds pass, while the person in therapy remained tense. But the counselor didn’t let go after the measured moment was gone. He stayed present.
This is when I watched the magic happen. This grown man’s body melted; I watched his body language yield like a broken child, I watched him gain strength, and I watched him find orientation. I watched him finally start to breathe—really breathe.
If your love language is physical touch, you’re 100% with me right now. You know how rare this is. You remember the few times it’s happened to you—if it has ever happened to you.
Single straight and celibate gays may be tempted to think that hetero marriage makes this love language easier. But that’s not always true.
In fact, in many ways this sort of contact can be almost impossible inside of a sexually-attracted marriage. It’s an old and painful joke that women just “want to be held” sometimes, but if your physical form is evocative to your partner, the best intent to simply embrace someone can become distracting so quickly. (BTW, it’s not just women who want to be held. That stereotype is grossly mistaken.)
And you know what really stinks? A physical touch partner can absolutely tell when the willful decision is being made to engage in platonic contact. We can tell because we can read body language like a book. It’s what we do. That’s when all the “But, I’m TRYING to just hold you!” and “Why do you have to TRY?” tension rises.
It’s funny. It’s not funny. That’s why comedians and sitcoms joke about it.
As far as I can tell, there’s not an easy answer to this. And I think it’s just as complicated in the secular world as it is inside the church.
I’m not a psychologist, but I’m about to risk a guess in the dark here. Forgive me if this doesn’t hit home in your life. But sometimes I wonder if this language gap is why so many non-Christian physical touch people can’t find what they are actually looking for in sexual relationships, even when they have no apprehensions about intimacy outside of marriage.
Sex is beautiful, artistic, exciting, and fulfilling as sex. But sex is not all human touch—nor should it attempt to be.
As you might have guessed by now, this is one of my top two love languages—and I absolutely hate it. In a heartbeat, I would trade with anyone else for any of the other gifts. It feels barbaric and ignorant. Dangerous. Vulnerable. (I have this weird urge to try to somehow prove to you that I’m actually a smart person as I admit that. Why is this?)
My dear, generous husband is an acts of service person whose default reverts to washing the mass of dishes I would easily, even thoughtlessly wash after a five minute hug. Meanwhile, I sit paralyzed, demotivated, frozen instead of jumping up to do the acts of service that would make him feel oriented enough to feel like he had the time to hug me. Welcome to our rat race.
Sometimes it’s difficult for us to work in the same space because he might miss an opportunity to put his hand on my arm or kiss me on the cheek. He’s not being cruel. He loves me. He just doesn’t think like that. But I notice that he didn’t do whatever silly thing it was, and in that vacuum, I deflate. I don’t want to deflate, but I do.
He can literally sit on the opposite side of the couch while watching a movie. (All the physical touch people are dying a little inside.) Once I sat three hours with four feet between us. Miserable the entire time. When it was over, he was happy as he could be, and I was planning to sleep in the basement.
“Great movie! Right?” he asked. He wanted to talk about the plot, feeling totally bonded with me. I nearly screamed.
You can laugh. It’s okay.
And here’s the other side of our mess. I miss opportunities to pick up clutter I left on the table, to change out the laundry I said I’d finish, or to return the comb I borrowed from the particular spot he likes to keep it. These things mean nothing to me but feel so rude to him when I forget. He literally feels unloved when I leave a fast food bag in his car. (The acts of service people are screaming right now. How dare you not pick up your own garbage! You evil person!)
This has been our cycle for over twenty years. Though we’ve read the books, we get busy, and we forget, and we revert to our own default.
When my tank gets dry, the mound of acts of service duties feels like Mount Everest. And I’m sure he has moments when he wants to run and hide from the five-hour hug monster.
In those first months after we were married, we would always wake up on *his* side of the bed, with him dangerously close to falling on the floor, and me wrapped around him like an octopus. In my subconscious state, I was a snuggle banshee. One morning he just patiently got up, walked around, and lay down on the other side as a “reset.” We both had to laugh.
It’s funny. It’s wretched. I’m not sure what the answer is to this dilemma.
But as someone who is married, in a loving and regularly intimate relationship, I thought it might be helpful to say that we still struggle with this. Paul says to marry if you can’t resist lust—but this isn’t lust, nor is it resolved by regular sex.
This is more like an innate need to be constantly surrounded by a mass of golden retriever puppies, the need to constantly stand in the crash of an ocean, or the need to feel breeze on your arms. It’s about aching when you read verses about John resting his head on Christ’s chest.
Sometimes I wonder how much healing would come if the church could figure out how to meet this need in a restorative, non-sexualized way. Every solution I can imagine is too dangerous—too likely to lead to illicit connections or excused indulgence. Especially since this need in many is so deep and so old, I don’t know what would come out at first, if attempts were made to bridge the gulf. It could get ugly fast.
But maybe there’s a benefit to just saying, this is tough. Sometimes confession is a really healthy place to start. This isn’t easy. I wonder what would happen if we could figure it out. And if you are blessed with one of the gifts that’s easy to tend by a platonic friendship, maybe you could pray for those weaker brothers and sisters you know who walk around like this daily, always feeling like they need too much in a virtually touchless world.