4 Boundaries You Must Respect When Dating Someone With Sensory Defensiveness
It takes all kinds of people to make this crazy world go round. So, it's always a bit frustrating when I politely, but assertively mention to new partners, “Hey, just to save us some time and me a lot of anxiety, I'm not big on constant touching, affection, hand-holding in public, etc.,” and they look at me like I just insulted both their favorite band and their favorite pizza topping.
Then they say something to the effect of, “Well, that's just weird.” And I want to say, “Well, maybe you're the weird one for constantly needing some kind of validation of our bond in the form of schmaltzy physical contact.”
But, I don't say that because I can't. No matter how “normal” I feel about my particular quirks, society has nonetheless engrained in me that I am, in fact, the weird one for not lovingly greeting perfect strangers with long, meaningful hugs.
Admittedly, I've realized that hearing “no touching” from someone you have a lot of romantic enthusiasm for can be pretty confusing. “If I can't touch you, how are we going to do this whole thing?” I get your confusion, past and future sex partners. How in the world do you even begin to approach a situation like this?
And, in all fairness, the men I've been upfront with about my condition have not behaved as if I were a ghastly Donald Trump supporter. A good amount have actually been understanding, and they've attempted to navigate my quirks with respect and kindness.
But, I've found that even those with the best of intentions still somehow struggle. Not only with how to approach me physically, but they also struggle with a general understanding of what is emotionally and mentally behind my desire to not be bombarded with physical affection. If you can't understand what's behind it, it's always going to be hard to find the right approach.
So, let's end the confusion and talk about how to approach dating someone who doesn't like to be touched. I know there are many people like me in varying degrees, but we are not all the same. In addition to being painfully private and insanely introverted, I also have a hereditary condition that is somewhere low on the Autism spectrum called sensory defensiveness. It's a general aversion to various sensory stimulations that cause an actual fight-or-flight instinct in the subject.
For me, this basically means I hate bright lights (especially fluorescent), as well as loud, sudden, discordant noises, tight and/or scratchy clothing, scratchy bedding and what is called “light touch” (in contrast to “intense touch,” like sex or massages).
I hate pants, socks, shoes, underwear and bras. They're the worst. I hate rice and pasta. They feel weird in my mouth. I also hate the beach because of the f*cking sand. And, I hate hugs.
All of these things make me angry and upset or cause anxiety. And if the aggravation continues, the fight-or-flight instinct will eventually kick in. It feels like a full-blown, world-ending panic attack when it does.
I wasn't diagnosed with sensory defensiveness until adulthood, so all during college and my early relationships, I thought my whole “back off, no touching” thing was just a quirk, a byproduct of a frigid, solitary childhood. I thought I would simply “grow out of it” when shown enough love and affection.
So, I was always giving the whole touching thing the good old "college try." I figured the only way to be “normal” was to desensitize myself from the things that made me uncomfortable. But, that never worked.
The pressure I was under to be “normal” from my partners led to resentment and anxiety on my part. I resented them for pushing something on me that felt unnatural. I felt like I was flawed or deficient for not living up to the norm, and it triggered a strange performance anxiety.
Slowly, I began to understand that fighting my nature and bearing the anxiety that comes along with it in an attempt to live up to a partner's perceived social norms was absolutely insane. It was both self-destructive and unnecessary. So, as an obvious solution, I simply choose to avoid all the things that trigger my anxiety.
I don't go to the beach. I don't wear tight clothing. I don't hug. I don't pursue relationships with people who have polar opposite requirements regarding affection, and I'm upfront and honest about my condition with romantic partners.
But, sensory defensiveness isn't necessarily the reason why every unaffectionate person doesn't want to be touched. Some people may not be as self-aware or as communicative about their aversions. Some people may simply be low-key and introverted to varying degrees, not requiring excessive affection for contentment. Or, some people may have experienced a trauma that was possibly sexual and/or violent in nature.
Whatever their particular story is, it doesn't matter. What does matter is that you acknowledge there is something real in their aversions, even when they aren't great at communicating with you about them.
All that being said, here are four tips to help guide you through dating someone who does not like to be touched:
When people are brave enough to make themselves vulnerable, acknowledge their words and their issues. Respect what they've said and respect that their issues exist, even if you can't fully understand them yourself.
Be sincere in your acknowledgement. People (especially sensitive people) can sense patronizing and condescension a mile away. Simply saying you understand the issue does absolutely nothing in making you or your partner happy, if then all of your actions and behaviors indicate you aren't taking your partner's words seriously.
People don't enjoy realizing a person they care about views them as a joke. In my past, nothing upset me more than when I'd be very straightforward with people, hear them say something conciliatory and empathetic, and then a day, a week or even an hour later, see them behave toward me physically as if I'd never said anything.
When I would protest again, they'd say something like, “Oh, that? You're still not over that? Really?” Yes, really. Then they'd say something like, “Well, if I just touch you enough and love you enough, you'll get used to it! All you need is some TLC!” You can't just hug this away. In fact, that is precisely what makes it worse.
So, acknowledge your partner's words with sincerity, and respect the fact that, just like within a sexual consent, "no" indisputably means "no."
Now that you've acknowledged your partner's issues, what happens next? Does this mean you're resigning yourself to a joyless, sexless, affection-free relationship? No, not at all.
The key to navigating a relationship with someone who doesn't like to be touched, just like with anyone else, is communication. Again, view this particular catch-22 in terms of general consent guidelines. If you are craving affection, cuddling or you legitimately feel like your partner could use some good ole TLC, the easiest way to ascertain that is to ask permission. It's that easy.
Something as simple as, “Hey, babe. You're looking down. Would a hug help?” Maybe it will. Maybe just the simple act of you asking will bring a smile to his or her face, change his or her whole day and he or she will jump into your arms. The worst response you could get is, "No," so just give it a try.
As relationships progress and grow, you come to be uniquely in tune with each other's moods, quirks, patterns and body language. In time, you won't even need to ask explicitly. You will be able to discern very easily if it's a good moment to take her hand while walking down the street, or give her a sloppy, sweet kiss in public.
If your partner sets clear boundaries, your job is pretty easy: Respect them. Don't overstep them. Don't treat them as a joke (see above). Take them seriously.
If your partner says something like, “Never touch me in my sleep. I'll wake up terrified and anxious,” then your job is simple. Just don't touch your partner, no matter how cute and cuddly he or she looks. Resist the urge. Trust me. You may end up getting karate chopped in the jugular out of pure instinct.
If your partner says, “I totally want to bone, but I just don't think I'm down for cuddling after,” respect that, and don't assume that permission for one act automatically grants permission for the next act.
This works in the opposite way, as well. Never assume that permission to cuddle grants permission for sex, just as with general rules of consent. In fact, never assume that permission for anything grants permission for anything other than the act specified. That would be testing boundaries, the opposite of respecting them.
4. Build Trust
If you've dated someone for a while and followed this approach, then over time, all of this will have built trust between you and your partner. I grow to trust people once I see they have taken my requests seriously, they respect my space and my peace of mind and they respect my body and my comfort.
And once I trust someone wholly, I begin to let my guard down physically. And then, my anxiety begins to subside, and every touch isn't emotionally draining. In fact, touching becomes (mostly) welcome and generally pleasurable, but, of course, still within those respected boundaries.
It's within this environment of mutual trust and respect that dating someone who doesn't like to be touched becomes not a mission, but a pleasure. In that way, building trust is the key to this type of relationship. I'm not saying it's going to be an easy road, but the emotional payoff at the end is well worth the journey.