Ah, friends. They're like family but cooler. Fully customizable. Fall and one of them will be right there to pick you back up. But as great as friends can be, they also do a lot of really stupid stuff. Stuff that blows your mind. Like, sometimes it seems crazy that you even hang out with people who make such crappy decisions. Stuff that, were it to get out, would be mortifying for anyone with even a shred of self-respect. Lucky for your friends, they've got you to ask their deepest, darkest questions for them. And lucky for you, we started this column to answer those most embarrassing of queries.
The situation: Your "friend" was telling you the other day that there are a lot of times when he's just not in the mood to be touched, but his girlfriend is all about it. He feels smothered, boxed in, and a little bit guilty for not wanting to reciprocate. So what's the deal: Is this a sign of some deeper, underlying psychological problem? Or is he just like any normal guy who wants to watch the game in peace without being pawed at?
The reality: "Tell me in a world without pity / Do you think what I'm askin's too much? I just want something to hold on to / And a little of that human touch," Bruce Springsteen once sang. Physical contact is fundamental need, not just for the Boss, but for all mammals. Psychologist Harry Harlow discovered this in his landmark studies raising monkeys with artificial cloth and metal "mothers." It's also nearly universal that physical affection, in gestures large and small, is part of intimate partnerships. "Skin-to-skin contact is a real need," says David Ezell, clinical director of Darien Wellness, a counseling and mental wellness group in Darien, Connecticut. "There is an expectation that that physical need will be met in a relationship." Still, different people desire different durations and frequencies of touch, Ezell says, and there is no "normal" amount of physical affection that we universally crave. Everyone's different.
The worst that is happening: Fear of physical contact is common to abuse survivors, says Christene Lozano, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Glendora, California. "Even if they are older and with someone who is safe, it's relatively common that physical contact will instigate memories of abuse, especially if the touch or setting is similar."
Aversion to touch is also one facet of the autism spectrum, but Ezell says that diagnosis would come with a host of other items on a checklist, including things like an inability to keep eye contact, a sense of humor that seems odd to others, and an inability to interpret emotions. So, yeah, you'd probably have figured out by now if your partner's autistic.
Your friend might also just need to check some of his male privilege, Ezell says. "The world is built for heterosexual men. Most men don't feel a need to understand women because men are in power and decide what's normal and appropriate." So "your friend" might be more inclined to think his approach to physical contact is normal because his past partners—assuming they've all been women—may have been socialized to see his point of view, but he wasn't taught the same importance of seeing theirs.
What's probably happening: Assuming the problem isn't autism or trauma, however, there is another simple way to differentiate between an ordinary dislike and a problem requiring counselling, Ezell says. Is it keeping him from participating in and enjoying daily life? "Avoidance is the primary defense against anxiety," he says. If his routine consists of actively avoiding sofas and love seats, he might want to see a professional.
Bruce W. Cameron, a licensed professional counselor in Dallas, breaks it down: "Does he need to see a therapist? Not unless he is traumatized by touch, not unless goes in to a rage when touched, not unless he has psychogenic pain due to touch."
More likely, your friend and his girlfriend just need to talk and establish an appropriate amount of cuddling time. "I'm thinking there is no diagnosis," Ezell says. "They just need to have a very unsexy conversation about boundaries." Maybe there can be an agreed-upon time and place for spooning. "Maybe if you are watching some stupid sitcom, it's okay," Ezell says. "But if you are watching the game, you want to be left alone."
Lozano also suggests each partner state the duration of their ideal canoodling session, even if one partner's is zero minutes, and come up with a compromise somewhere in between. It's not the fun part of a relationship, but "you need an open discussion so there is not anger."
What you should tell your friend: Unless he has other signs of post-traumatic stress, or being on the spectrum, or avoiding physical contact is an obsession, he probably does not have a psychological issue. But he probably does need to have a serious conversation with his girlfriend about how much touch is too much.
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