The physical embrace, in my humble view, comes with one simple rule: when in doubt, don’t.
A long-suffering wife recently wrote to Dear Prudence over at Slate about the inescapable manhandling grip of her husband, who insists on making her hug him at the worst possible times like some kind of psychotic teddy bear. She writes:
Q. Hug Toll: My husband forces me to give him hugs. I know this sounds like a really stupid problem to have. He has created a “hug toll,” and he won’t let me leave the room until I give him a hug. Here are some examples. I am running late for work and need to rush out the door. He will physically block my exit until I give him a hug. He doesn’t do this in a way that will hurt me; he’ll just pick me up until I give him his hug then he’ll let me go. Another scenario is when we are downstairs and I have to use the bathroom. He will block the stairs until I hug him. It’s really annoying. Sometimes I just don’t feel like giving hugs. I have told him this, but he just laughed at me. The hug “tax” is really obnoxious. How do I make it stop? He is 100 pounds heavier than me and a foot taller, so I can’t push my way out. How can I make it stop, Prudence? I love hugging him, just not on command. He’s a hug bully.
First thing’s first: A truly loving spouse wouldn’t “force” you to do anything. Affection of any kind is not compulsory, even in romantic partnerships. Nowadays we discourage parents from making their children hug anyone, including relatives, in order to stop sending the message that their bodies are not their own simply because someone else’s feelings might get hurt. Grandma may want a hug, but since when does that mean she gets it?
So yes, ideally, two people in love express it with physical affection, in which hugs can play a lovely part. But the second you turn something meant to be given freely into a chore that must be completed before you can even empty your bladder is now entering sinister batshit territory.
Speaking of batshit, in discussing this letter with friends, one of them pointed out that if the forced hugger were a woman, this probably wouldn’t have been tolerated. “This isn’t playing around on the sofa,” she said. “It’s blocking doors when someone is trying to leave.” Typically, women don’t wield physical power over men in this way, and it’s interesting how on some level this woman, and many women, accept as a fundamental the notion that men will enter our space in ways we find uncomfortable, and it’s up to us to navigate this territory without angering them.
I’m not the most touchy-feely person, so someone who demands that I be that way—particularly when I’m not feeling it—earns my frustration and annoyance. I’ve had to relax this stance both after having a kid and after moving to Los Angeles, where there seems to be a higher percentage of huggy greeters. Still, lock me in a too-long embrace not of my own choosing and I quickly begin to squirm. Hugs are weird: something that may seem warm and safe in one context can become creepy, invasive, or threatening with the slightest shift.
Anecdotally, most women I know have been forcibly held against their will by men in some capacity, either teasingly or otherwise—pinned down, held back from leaving, not let out of a car, trapped in a doorway. It can be playful, but with it often comes the unease of knowing if things took some unpredictable turn, you’d be at their mercy. But for the letter writer, this isn’t just some dude—it’s her husband. This is someone she ostensibly knows well and ought to be able to simply tell to stop (and maybe she has, but for whatever reason he won’t listen, a reaction at best oblivious and at worst controlling or borderline abusive).
This quandary also brings up another significant issue: just as there is no right amount of sex, there is also no right amount of touching. How much you like to be touched or not touched and when and where and how is highly individual. Much of this is sorted out in an unspoken way, through trial and error, in the long process of getting to know someone. But at an absolute bare minimum, we operate within the notion that if you tell someone you don’t want them touching you, they will stop.
But one gets the feeling this letter-writer has definitely asked her husband to stop before already, which is why she’s reaching out. Prudie bears down pretty hard on this, advising her, “People treat their pets with more respect for their autonomy than he’s giving you. You need to tell him this has to stop—now.”
You’d think that two lovers would enjoy hugging. But what if one of you doesn’t? Could you ethically meet a stranger to take care of your hug needs? Online, sadly, there are a shitload of articles about spouses who are frustrated to no end by hug disparity. For example, a wife who used to be touchy-feely but now isn’t, or a husband who simply isn’t affectionate anymore.
In voluntary adult romantic partnerships, disparities in affection can occur for any number of reasons, and some advice columnists rightly make the distinction between putting up with a disparity that you decide is ultimately worth it because you love someone, versus accepting a relationship in which that disparity constitutes a kind of fundamental disappointment.
In the case of this letter writer, it sounds like she’s in the latter group. And assuming she can get past the door, I’d advise her to make a run for it.
Image via FOX/Arrested Development.