Elisha and Ariella are a charismatic couple in their early 30s, with a frisky toddler, and a baby on the way. They generally treat each other well, and enjoy a strong marital friendship. But there has been some tension between them lately, that we’re trying to sort through.
“I just feel pushed away a lot of the time,” Elisha explains. “But then, it’s like there are these mixed messages, where on the one hand, Ariella tells me she feels neglected, and an hour later, she feels, like, smothered, or something... I just don’t know how to read the signals.”
Ariella clearly doesn’t follow, and asks him to explain.
“Take last night, for example. I came home, and I was on the phone when I walked in. You told me a little later on during supper, that you thought it was rude to walk into the house loudly talking to someone else on my blue tooth, and not even acknowledge you with a wave. I understood that, so after supper, when I got another work call, I first asked if you minded my answering, and then made a point of reaching out to you even while I was talking… I thought I did good!”
A look of recognition, followed by frustration flash across Ariella’s face. Then she chimed in:
“Maybe you can help me explain this,” she appeals to me. “I did feel annoyed about the phone thing; it wasn’t the first time. So I told him, and he seemed to understand. I appreciated him checking in before taking the next call. But then while I got busy washing the dishes, and trying to tune out the noise of his phone call, he comes up from behind me and grabs my backside. I guess that’s what he means by ‘he made a point of reaching out’ but that doesn’t feel loving to me. When he touches me like that, honestly, it feels irritating, disrespectful, and a little objectifying, especially if I’m in the middle of housework. You want to show me some love? Take over the dishes..”
Elisha’s faces registers sadness, and then defensiveness, as he replies: “You see what I mean? I can’t win. If I give her space, I’m being rude, if I try to be playful, I’m being a pig..”
Ariella pipes up again: “You see? That’s what it’s started to feel like- two settings; distracted or sexual. I’m ok with a little distracted sometimes; I get busy too. And I like sexual in the bedroom, but I’m missing the connection, the warmth, the tenderness.”
As we discussed further, we realized that the pattern Ariella was having trouble with was Elisha’s tendency to move from non-engagement straight into sexual touch.
Fortunately, they were able and willing to discuss and address this extremely common phenomenon.
I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen a couple describe this dynamic:
“I was just brushing my teeth, and he starts groping me from behind.”
“I told him I needed a hug after a fight with my sister, and at first it was so comforting. Until he started reaching up my shirt.”
“I thought I was so clear that I just wanted to cuddle, but then his hands started wandering…”
What these women are feeling is the difference between affectionate touch and erotic touch. Most women are happy to receive light, spontaneous affectionate touch. But erotic touch for women, often requires some warning, some warm up, some tenderness, or for some, an actual bed.
To clarify the differences: Affectionate touch is G-rated; it’s any type of touch that would be appropriate for expressing warmth to a familiar child. A simple hug, a dry kiss or light caress on the cheek, a soft squeeze of the shoulder or upper arm, a stroke of the hair, rubbing the back.
Erotic touch is more sensual and sexual, and it would be creepy and criminal to offer a child. Any type of touching the primary erogenous zones (like breasts, inner thighs, buttocks, or genitals) or other private areas like the belly, legs, waist, or hips.
For some men, touching or being touched, even superficially, by their beloved, is so pleasurable that the line between affection and seduction becomes blurred, and they take the petting up a notch, thinking they are both feeling the same elevated desire. Meanwhile, the woman often feels startled, taken off guard, annoyed or used.
Another important distinction with touch is:
Whose need is it primarily fulfilling? If the touch you are initiating is primarily indulging your own impulse or desire, first ask yourself: is it something that will be well-received, or am I doing this just for me? Am I looking at my spouse as “person I love and want to pleasure” or “piece of meat for my own amusement”? Ideally touch can often be mutually pleasurable, but this requires sensitivity, communication, attunement, and empathy.
Partners often feel they have the right of touch when it comes to a spouse, whenever they want. But some people need a heads up, a warm up, or a request for permission to proceed. Some are hurt or confused by the idea of having to ask before touching. This is not usually meant as an insult, or means of being controlling; it’s more of a sense of safety and security around one’s own body and self. And it’s a good investment in the relationship.
This is not a conversation that most couples will overtly have, but one that they will often tap dance around nonverbally- either as a theme, or once in awhile.
If you welcome any kind of touch at any time, feel free to let your spouse know that, but don’t assume that the feeling is mutual, especially if you’re getting cues to the contrary. If you are someone who dislikes spontaneous touch, or only enjoys erotic touch under certain circumstances, do speak up compassionately and respectfully, and let your partner know how you feel; chances are if those boundaries are being crossed, it’s due to a lack of awareness or understanding, not from a desire to offend.
This is your cheat sheet for affection vs. seduction: If it’s any private part of the body, and/or any sort of swatting, pinching, grabbing, or nibbling- it’s probably sexual. If it’s gentle, loving, and appropriate for your child, it’s affection. In either case, it’s worth discussing the boundaries and preferences, so that the touching (or abstaining) you do can be received with the love you intend.
Note: I write about these cases using the gender examples in which I see them the most frequently in my practice, but in some cases, the roles are reversed, and I want to acknowledge those couples as well- women who have more desire for sexual activity than their partners/ men who need more space.
*Are you interested in learning how to better prepare the next generation for healthy, holy sexual development and relationships? Check out this material: elishevaliss.com/sacrednotsecret