Black Men Holding Hands

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.

Screen-Shot-2011-08-12-at-3.22.37-PMFirst, 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.

imagesOn 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.

med911021It 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.)

Electric-Fences1The 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.

imgresCouples 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!

  1. James

    It’s almost shocking to me how many self-identified gay and bi men (I’ll leave out self-identified straight men) seem to be comfortable enough if their same-sex partners engage in sex play outside of their coupling while outright forbidding any emotional (etc.) connection with others if it also involves physical connection. I guess the reason it is “almost shocking” to me is that I do not experience sex–or any sustained touch–as something that could NOT be “intimate” — that could not be connecting.

    I’m in a relationship which is nearing two decades in duration. Our policy, so to speak, is that all relating with others is permissible so long as all people involved treat each of the people involved with honesty, dignity, kindness and respect. What many people apparently cannot imagine is that whenever he or I has had another intimate companion which we experienced as a blessing in our lives, our relationship became happier, healthier, stronger….

    • Kevin Smith
      Kevin Smith07-06-2014

      Love is not an expendable, finite resource; love is infinitely renewable and self-generating. So the idea that if a partner gives a little love to someone else, that love has to be “taken away” from the primary partner, is a false concept. Love is not like potato chips, where if I have 12 and give 3 to someone else i only have 9 left for you. Giving love amplifies love. Showing kindness, through touch, or emotional openness, or embrace, makes more kindness available. Exchanging beautiful touch with another human being doesn’t make you less equipped to touch the one who comes after that; in fact, it amplifies your ability to touch the next person, because skill is a factor, and practice increases skill.

      Many of our rules come from thousands of years ago when women were property, and marriage meant the ownership (and transfer) of property. Property DOES work that way: if I let you use my land, uncontested, for a long enough period of time, I lose the rights to that land. If I let you use something of commercial value to me, like a photo, without contesting that, I can lose some of my material rights.

      People are not property. Love is not money. And marriage today does not serve the legal purposes (around property and money) that it served thousands of years ago. In fact it is probably a true statement that people are OPPOSITE property (they do better unfenced and shared) and love is OPPOSITE money (the more you give away the more you have.)

    • Henrique

      James, what a beautiful account of your elegant love experiences. Looks to me like you could consider writing a book about them, or at least posting a video on a social web, for they sound mature enough to be considered as a reference by other folks.

  2. James

    Very well said. I totally agree with all of that.

    Most importantly, I’ve discovered these things to be true in my own experience, despite having to wade upstream against a lifetime of social conditioning which insists otherwise.

    What you say about love, to me, is not a mere personal opinion, but an experiential fact — which thousands or millions of people know to be a fact. The contrary view is an opinion, but it is is so commonly held as an opinion that most people seem to wrongly believe this opinion to be factual.

    I’m looking forward to a paradigm shift in the culture. When the facts about love overturn or replace the popular–though erroneous–opinions, our world will be a much happier and healthier place.

    Thanks for your part in the shift!

  3. Henrique

    Hi, dear Kevin.
    Loved especially this paragraph: ” 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,” because it seems to be so grounding, and there´s a sense of humor in it, too.
    Regarding what you mentioned in the paragraph before the last, the way I view it, quite a good deal of folks use sex to avoid intimacy, uncounsciously, of course.
    Do you agree with that?

    • Kevin Smith
      Kevin Smith08-23-2014

      Hi Henrique: sex is like fire; it doesn’t “mean” anything by itself, but it depends on the intention one brings to it. Fire can be something you use to cook your neighbor a nice meal, or something you use to burn his house down. The fire itself is neutral. Sex is not love (although it can be a tool used to express love.) Sex is not intimacy, although it can be used to accomplish intimacy. Sex can also be play, it can be a tool of violence or oppression, a form of self-expression, or a form of initiation or membership in a club. Sex can used for many things and can mean many things. Intimacy is but one of them.

  4. James

    Henrique’s suggestion that many guys “use sex to avoid intimacy” seems to me about half true. It seems to me that many men don’t so much use sex to avoid intimacy as they unconsciously act out a cultural script which considers sex to be “the ultimate intimacy,” while also having very little depth of understanding about what intimacy really is and can be.

    But I now see I must add the word loving here: … what loving intimacy is and can be. Because its the “loving” that is more explanatory than the “intimacy”.

    One of the reasons Touch Practice is so potent a healing practice (and there are many) is because it involves time-extended non-sexual touch (embrace) between men, which (in my experience) initiates a process of dissolving many layers of socialization and conditioning about the relation of love, touch, and sex. TP — or any soulfull analogue — liberates all three of these from confused, fixated and immature notions and psychic patterns about each of these. By not having love, touch and sex all glued together too tightly, we’re able to appreciate each as the distinct and glorious wonder which it is. What love, touch and sex need is a lot more room to breathe, more space — less boxed-in-ness.

    I’ve not yet formally engaged in Touch Practice, per se. I’m holding off on that until I’ve attended a workshop with Kevin. But in recent months I’ve been cuddling with non-sexual and non-romantic buddies … and discovering the powerful expression and experience of love which can emerge and bloom in the warmth of embrace. One consequence of this is that the social anxiety I was suffering from has diminished almost into disappearance. Another consequence is that I’m living a life of passionate devotion and service to my community, the Earth and humanity. I’m less afraid of doing so than I was, and it flows naturally and spontaneously because it’s the natural way of the human heart — for all of us — if only we’ll let it be so.

    Nothing is more conducive to happiness than giving, which is love.

  5. James

    I said: “One of the reasons Touch Practice is so potent a healing practice (and there are many) is because it involves time-extended non-sexual touch (embrace) between men, which (in my experience) initiates a process …”, which was a little misleading, especially since I’ve also said that I’ve not yet engaged in TP, per se.

    Today, re-reading my post, I caught my error. What I have experienced, I believe, are what I later called “soulfull analogue[s]” of Touch Practice which are deeply inspired by Kevin Smith’s words about TP. But I’ll never quite know just how similar my experience is to TP, per se, until I experience TP, per se. And I’ve decided I won’t really know what that is until I’ve experienced TP with Kevin or with one of his well-practiced students.

    The reason for this is that I’ve had an ongoing email exchange with Kevin, who has often insisted that words are extremely limited as a conveyance of TP and that TP really needs to be “hand delvered”.

    I know of a guy who lives in my town who has been basically advertising himself as a provider of Touch Practice, who has never been to a Touch Practice workshop, or explored TP with someone who has. Oddly, he doesn’t even tell people where he learned of Touch Practice. And I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t understand my reluctance to presume to offer Touch Practice myself. What I have offered (and had offered in kind) were clothed, non-sexual / non-romantic cuddling sessions with friends. These have never (yet) quite had the subtle intensity I imagine actual TP to have. And one of the main things I, personally, have gained by these has been a creation of experiential and conceptual space in which I’ve been able to largely un-glue, so to speak, time-extended touching from sexuality. This has allowed me to discover another aspect of eros which our culture has not often acknowledged, or allowed much space for. I’ve descovered experientially that intense, even passionate erotic energy need not be sexualized in the least, and that it’s very best friend is probably touch — though I suspect eye-gazing and other intimate practices can also be equally potent means of such communion.

    In any case, this eros I speak of is of the body (and the body is of the heart and of the soul and of the spirit). It never shows up anywhere where bodies are not.

    As the poet, Allen Ginberg put it in his poem, Song,


    yes, yes,

    that’s what

    I wanted,

    I always wanted,

    I always wanted,

    to return

    to my body

    where I was born.

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