Neurology-based advice for a spouse who craves physical affection and a chastened chatterbox
Dear Dr Ash,
I’ve been married fifteen years and feel fortunate that my husband is as passionate as when we first met, despite the physical changes that come with age and two children. I should be purring like a cat, but the problem is he shows little or no affection outside the bedroom. I get a quick hug on my birthday and Christmas, but otherwise he keeps physically separate. When I get home after a hard day I long to be wrapped in comforting arms, but he always dodges the moment and I end up cuddling the dog instead. He’s also undemonstrative with the children, even though I – and they – know he loves them dearly. This isn’t something I feel able to discuss with friends, since unlike most of them I’m utterly spoilt for orgasmic bliss. Nor can I broach it with him. Where would I start? He hates discussing feelings. But I miss that tender day-to-day affection. My mother has diagnosed the classic middle-class, British-male problem of him being sent away to school at seven. But is it that simple? And can he (or I) change?
Lonely in Lancaster
One summer, many, many years ago now, I travelled from my home in rural Ohio to live with a family in France as part of a foreign exchange. Before we left, we were given a few preliminary classes in which we were taught a few basic greetings and useful phrases, briefed on French traditions surrounding family life, then packed off onto our transatlantic flights. Eventually I found myself at the train station in Angers, and when I stepped down onto the platform my lovely host mother Nicole rushed forward to greet me. I was a bit taken aback when she kissed me on both cheeks, just as she was taken aback when I threw my arms around her in a big hug. What was casual to each of us was intimate to the other, and for years we have laughed about the fact that both of our first impressions were that the other was unusually, even pathologically, loving. It is surprising that something as fundamentally human as touch can be so dependent on culture.
But there is no doubt that, cultural variations notwithstanding, British children of a certain era and class were poorly served by an overly mechanical method of raising children. The wealthy elite in post-war Britain held that, as long as the nutritional needs of children were met, scientifically-run, rational institutions could provide a better upbringing for them than their mothers. A brilliant researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr Harry Harlow, put this controversial theory to the test in the 1950s with a series of famous experiments. He separated baby monkeys from their mothers and provided them with surrogate maternal puppets. The puppets were either covered with soft, comforting wool, or made from cold, bare wire but equipped with a bottle of food. He found that the babies overwhelmingly preferred the soft and comforting puppet, only visiting the bare wire puppet when they absolutely needed to feed. Furthermore, babies who had access to the soft puppet showed a greater ability to adapt to their environment and cope with stressful noises, while babies with access only to the wire puppet either hid or remained motionless, ultimately becoming emaciated and ill. Harlow’s methods seem incredibly cruel now, but his conclusions were compassionate: that physical contact, comfort and love are as essential for development as food and water.
Today we know that raising children is not just a matter of inputs and outputs, and that every child needs to feel loved. Modern research has taken us further still, demonstrating that physical touch, even in adults, lowers blood pressure, reduces heart rate, and protects against the toxic effects of stress hormones. The evidence is so overwhelming, in fact, that if we could package the effects of a hug into a pill it would be a Nobel Prize-winning breakthrough. Your need for non-sexual, physical affection is not a whim or an accessory in an otherwise fulfilled life, but an essential requirement for your health and the health of your children.
Your husband probably knows he is unable to provide what you need, but he won’t know what to do about it. Until our culture recognises that for generations we have systematically traumatised and deprived children by subjecting them to institutional upbringings, we will not be able to heal the wounds those children bear. You can make a start in your own family, though. First, recognise that your husband was separated from his mother too early in life, that this was not his fault, and that it has probably left him lacking in certain emotional skills. Demonstrate physical affection to him in small ways: a gentle touch on the back or simply standing close to him. Focus your efforts on giving rather than receiving – the mental and physical health benefits will be the same for you no matter what. Over time, your husband may learn how to use small amounts of physical touch; and even if he doesn’t, you will have changed the culture around touch within your family – a much more healthy legacy to leave for your children.