Hugs: giving versus taking

“That was a good hug, a really good hug,” said my sort-of-wannabe-boyfriend at the time. He wasn’t talking about a hug between us, but one he had observed another man give me. He was right: it was a good hug, so good that I remember it some 35 years later. It is remarkable how such a simple physical act, given at the right moment and with the right spirit, can so profoundly affect us. Some hugs can offer us more hope, strength, encouragement, and comfort than even the most carefully crafted words.

Hugs are, if you think about it, kind of weird. You stand close to someone and put an arm or more around each other. Sometimes it’s a rather forgettable, almost meaningless gesture. Other times it’s awkward, uncomfortable, or perhaps even unwanted. But, in the best of cases, it’s a precious gift. I was reminded of this when listening to a podcast by a Christian counselor named Karolyn Merriman. I can’t recall which particular episode it was, or the context of her remarks, but she mentioned a time when her husband told her that she was “taking” hugs rather than “giving” them, and how this prompted her to do some prayerful self-examination.

Her personal account raised questions that I’ve since been pondering. Do I hug others only when I am desperate to be hugged, out of my own neediness or — even worse — out of selfishness? Why are some hugs so special, so memorable, even if the person hugging me wasn’t a close friend or loved one? Why are other hugs awkward and off-putting, even offensive?

The whole idea of giving, versus taking, hugs was something I don’t recall ever considering, but it began making perfect sense of my experiences of being hugged. But how do you tell the difference between giving and taking? A giving hug takes into consideration how the other person might feel while being hugged. Is the hug even wanted? Yes, there are clumsy huggers and hug mishaps, but there is a difference between wrapping yourself around someone in a welcome embrace — as opposed to grabbing and yanking them in close to you. It’s not just the “technique”, but the heart attitude that it seems to convey. One communicates, “I want to draw close to you and use my body to comfort you or express my feelings for you”, while the other says, “I want to tug you, even roughly if necessary, towards me because I want the feeling of your body as close to mine as possible…and I don’t really care about your personal feelings or boundaries.” It was easier to begin conducting my hug analysis and categorization with some extreme examples. While I’m not a mind reader and shouldn’t assume people’s attitudes or motives, actions do have a way of speaking louder than words.

The creepy hugger at church. He’s still memorable 35 years later, but in a bad way.  Creepy Hugger Dude would sieze any opportunity in our overly huggy church to grab girls and yank them into a tight full frontal squeeze, ignoring our protests or attempts to wriggle free. I quickly learned, if I couldn’t flee in time, to place both my hands in front of my chest and shove him away. Sometimes it took several attempts.

Supposedly he was “harmless”…just a clueless, lonely jerk, I mean “nice guy”. None of the leaders or other guys in the group would call him out for his behavior, instead preferring to tell the women that we were overreacting to a “sweet” guy who was just being “cute and funny”. He was at best an extreme example of someone who takes hugs, even over the other person’s objections. (Despite my wimpiness back then, I once got up the nerve to insist, “Please don’t hug me”, but he laughed it off and grabbed me anyway. I should have slapped him.) At worst…well, you can draw your own conclusions.

Not everyone who takes hugs is that obvious or that creepy. However, some boyfriends and husbands approach hugging as being primarily about how a hug feels to them, or as serving little or no purpose other than an initial step in foreplay. While their hugs may not make their significant other feel accosted, they are far more about having the woman’s body glommed up close than about giving of himself to her. These hugs communicate “I want to feel your body next to mine” rather than “Let me give you my physical comfort, love and affection”. They are far more an expression of physical desire, even of lust, than of love and true intimacy. Such hugs are selfish and self-centered, perhaps mildly so, extremely so, or somewhere in between. It’s merely a matter of degree. An obvious sign of a taking hug from a husband is if it includes grabbing or groping (unless the wife likes being grabbed and groped mid-hug). That doesn’t mean hugs can’t involve caresses which become increasingly sexual. However, for most women I know, gropes are a different story and feel like unwelcome intrusions, especially during a hug; such actions certainly aren’t giving or loving.

On the other end of the hugging spectrum is…

World’s best hugger. She was proclaimed that, year after year, by those of us at a retreat for sexual trauma survivors. Let that sink in for a minute. That means her hugs felt safe. They were welcome. They came from deep within this amazing, compassionate woman. She expected nothing in return. Her hugs were a gift, a healing embrace, a warm comfort, a haven in the storm, true solace in the dark. She put her heart and her soul into those hugs, and they embodied love. They were the epitome of giving.

She told me that she learned from a man whose hug I’ve written about before:

Then, with my permission, he hugged me oh so carefully, and he leaned his head down towards mine and whispered in my ear in a choked voice, “I am so sorry. I am so sorry they did this to you. I am so sorry.” And this big strong man, this man who didn’t really know me but who chose to identify with my pain and anguish and devastation — he wept for me. I felt his tears fall on my shoulder, like the most precious, healing gift. He knew. He understood. And he wept.

Hugs don’t have to involve weeping. But the best ones, the truly good hugs — the ones we remember with gratitude years and multiple decades later — are the ones that go beyond merely not taking. It’s not just that there are no strings attached and no ulterior motives in the best of hugs. They go far beyond even giving the physical warmth of a close embrace; they give out of the depth of a person’s very being.

Not every hug has that much meaning and emotion behind it, or requires that much of us. We might be giving comfort or encouragement, expressing a joyful greeting, welcoming someone, saying goodbye, or simply being affectionate. However, if we want to be hug-givers rather than hug-takers we should, at the very least, give of ourselves in a way that is appropriate to the situation and circumstances. The hug should be more about the huggee than the hugger. Expecting nothing in return might make some hugs seem to be a more one-sided communication on our part…but that’s the way giving often is.

The hug I mentioned at the beginning of this post caught me by surprise. I knew the hugger mostly as the boyfriend of a friend, as someone who had taken on a bit of a protective older cousin/uncle type role in my life. He was saying goodbye before moving across the country and, right before the hug, he looked me in the eyes and said simply, “Stay safe.” But behind those words were, as we both knew, paragraphs and pages of meaning. The hug spoke volumes, crammed all those paragraphs and pages of words, all the advice he had ever given me, and every word of encouragement, into one embrace. I felt it. The wannabe boyfriend-ish guy could see it. I hope my hug in return spoke volumes as well.

It was a good hug…a gift I still carry in my heart.

Addendum: Here’s a good article about hugs and physical touch: Public Displays of Christian Affection. This article resonated with me because I can remember different seasons of my life when I felt almost desperately starved for affectionate, safe touch, for hugs that gave rather than attempted to take. But, as already mentioned, I’ve also been blessed with people in my life who have given me amazingly wonderful hugs that were more healing and comforting than I could even begin to describe.

Update: edited to rearrange sentences in a hopefully more logical and coherent order.