Half of a Couple
I will often do Touch Practice with a person who is half of a couple. I’d say maybe 30 percent of the people who have come to Touch Practice would define themselves as “not single.” There’s a whole world to write about there. I think what I’d like to focus on is the variety of reasons why people who are coupled seek out touch practice, the variety of arrangements and “rules” that couples negotiate, and how I navigate my own moral values and judgments in that pretty big sea.
First, there are people who are coupled to a partner of either gender who come to Touch Practice with the knowledge and consent of their partner. They come for the same reason they would seek out a physician, or a massage therapist, or a psychotherapist, a fishing buddy, workout partner, or hiking companion.
They come with the understanding that no matter who your spouse may be, it is unlikely that every single one of your life needs will be perfectly met by that one person. Further, there is no quicker way to overburden and burn out a partner than to expect that they will perfectly meet every single one of your life needs.
And so, many of us in couples turn to someone other than our mates for some of the things we need in life. For some couples, what I do fits easily into all of those other kinds of activities. For some I’m like a massage therapist, for others I’m like a workout partner, or some combination of the two.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, people sometimes seek out Touch Practice without the knowledge or consent of their partners, and sometimes do so knowing their partners would disapprove or feel betrayed if they knew. TP is something they feel they have to do secretly. Often, I do not know anything about the circumstances that bring someone to TP (I don’t need to know in order to hold them) but sometimes people share these things willingly.
I never encourage someone to come to TP secretly or with the feeling that their doing so constitutes some kind of betrayal of partner. I do that not because I have a moral judgment around their behavior (I think that’s up to them) but rather because it sets up a very difficult practice. It is difficult to open to someone and support them without judgment, to sit with someone without shame, if they are in constant self-judgment believing they are doing something shameful. You can’t explore being wide open while focusing on keeping secrets at the same time. It’s very difficult.
And, in terms of TP, for me it’s no fun. It would be like someone who LOVES tennis teaching a tennis lesson to a 12-year-old girl who HATES tennis and is only there because her mother is insisting that she take a tennis lesson. Isn’t that fun.
That said, I don’t make moral evaluations of people who come to Touch Practice, and my agreement with Spirit is, “I will hold who comes.” If who comes is stinky, I hold him. If who comes is Brad Pitt, I hold him. It works out in the end. Spirit has a sense of fairness, and a wicked sense of humor.
One of the head-scratcher questions that will sometimes come up from people is “why would anyone who is happily married come to TP or want to be held by someone other than his partner?” That is a question, inevitably, that comes from people who are either single or who have been married for ten years or less. It is never a question that comes up from people who have been married for 30 or 40 years, because there are many levels and stages and depths of understanding partnership and marriage, and there are different needs at different stages of development.
It is dangerous to generalize, about anything, but in general, newer couples savor alone time, and the function of being alone together helps cement the bonds that hold the relationship together. The new couple’s first task is to build safety and security, and exclusion does that, the same way an electric fence does. Many couples start out being exclusive in many, many ways (the honeymoon being a symbolic example: the couple excludes all known human beings and goes some place where they can be completely alone, completely exclusive, for the first few days of their married life.)
The typical couple will continue to move in this direction for, perhaps, the first 5 or 10 years, but many couples who build the couple purely by exclusion will suffocate sometime during the next decade. Exclusion itself is not enough to build a couple, because exclusion says, “every single human need I have can and will be met by my partner.” And that, in my experience, won’t work. It’s not physically possible. The electric fence will keep hurtful forces out, but it also makes you a prisoner in your own home.
If the first task in coupling is to build safety and security, then the next task is to build variety and richness. Once couples establish security, many become more inclusive. How inclusive is up to the couple. Many couples allow friendships, even deep and close friendships. Many straight guys who have been married for a long time eventually feel starved for the presence of other guys in their lives, and in particular, a close friend, like a “best friend” that we would have had in high school or college. Outside their marriage and family, guys who are lucky enough to be able to maintain one of these friendships seem to value it highly. And many guys I know openly lament the absence of close male friendships in their lives. With men in same-sex couples it can be the opposite, a female friend who knows everything and is a close confidant.
Couples similarly negotiate various arrangements around touch. Some couples “open” the relationship to permit sexual expression outside the couple, while others frown furiously at each other if a friendly hug with a new acquaintance goes on too long or seems too involved. Some couples are able to openly accept anything about each other, no secrets, while others begin the inquisition the moment the partner comes home from work ten minutes later than usual.
Still other couples operate under an arrangement we call Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT.) DADT relies on assumptions; both partners are invited to assume that the other partner is not doing anything they would object to. My observations from watching couples in DADT is that their partners almost always are, and so it ends up looking like a fancy form of denial to me: “if you’re doing something that would make me break up with you, please don’t tell me, so that I won’t have to.”
Americans tend to assume that the majority of committed (married/partner) relationships are sexually exclusive, although the research tells us that most likely 70 percent are not. (Do your own research; I’ve read thousands of pages on this stuff but you can find your own sources.) It looks to me that, on average, 30 percent of monogamous relationships are likely to be sexually exclusive, and that is historically somewhat constant.
(The French, incidentally, make the opposite assumption. Most French people understand clearly the difference between a wife and a mistress, know that many men have both, and don’t understand what the big deal is. The French would be disinclined to assume a monogamous relationship is sexually exclusive. Many Americans even confuse the two terms believing them to mean the same thing.)
On numerous occasions, I have been asked by the French, “do Americans really believe that everyone is sexually exclusive? Why are they so uneducated?” I’m not sure it has to do with lack of education, as much as it has to do with strong Puritanical roots here that can sometimes cut us off from what is actually happening in our bodies and hearts. We substitute our strong sense of how things should be instead of paying really close attention to how things actually are.
Complicated, huh. Fortunately, it’s clear for me; I hold who comes. But there’s a lot of interesting baggage that sometimes has to be left in the waiting room. And lots of interesting conversations I’ve had with people about whether TP is right for them, whether I recommend it for them, what they should tell their spouse, etc. We are all so different. There are as many different kinds of coupling as there are people.
One last interesting observation: some couples have absolutely no problem with a partner coming for Touch Practice specifically because Touch Practice does not involve sex and does not become sexual. The exclusion of sex gives them the safety they need to feel comfortable with it.
Ironically: I have heard from partners in “open” couples (those who permit sex outside the relationship) who are not permitted to explore TP because their partner feels it is “too intimate.” Sex would be fine, but not TP. That shows you not only how varied we are in couples, but the different ways each of us defines what “intimate” is.
Would, for example, the “open” couple I mentioned be ok with partner seeing a psychotherapist, spilling out sordid, secret details of his thought world to a total stranger, making himself completely vulnerable psychologically? I suspect most would be ok with that. Physically? Absolutely not. It’s interesting, isn’t it!
Have thoughts you’d like to share?
Touch Practice is a sacred practice for me, and part of that is keeping confidences sacred. While a name and e-mail address are required to post a comment, feel free to use just your first name, or a pseudonym if you wish. Your e-mail address will never be seen by or shared with anyone. It is used to prevent spam and inappropriate comments from appearing in the blog. I’d really like to hear from you!