When husbands hate their wives

“The problem is…my brother-in-law didn’t [come] out of nowhere and become a murderer. These people are cultivated, they’re raised by families, they’re raised by friends, they’re raised by churches, they’re raised by their educational institutions, and they are chronic bullies from a very young age. I knew him, my friends knew him, my family knew him, and all along the signs were there, and they start small, and they turn big, and this is what it comes down to.” — Aleksandr Katane, brother of Lyuba Savenok who was murdered this past week by an abusive husband

To donate to Lyuba’s children, go here.

My podcast episode addressing this tragic situation can be found here.

Questions about hugs

Note: This is a follow-up to my previous post: Hugs: giving versus taking

Where can I find someone who will teach me how to hug in a giving way? Apparently my technique is all wrong.

Even though Nick Vujicic was born without limbs, people say he gives the best hugs.

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How is that possible? As one high schooler says, “Nick hugs with his heart.” Go and do likewise.

Then again, that might be your problem. (See the final question below.)

If I ask a friend for a hug, does that make me a hug-taker?

No. It probably just makes you a hug-receiver. With good friends, sometimes we may need a shoulder to cry on and other times we may be the one offering that shoulder. But if we are always, or even just usually, the needy one — without ever giving in turn — that’s not healthy.

There is another aspect to this as well. Even the neediest of hug-receivers may end up giving far more than they realize. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has found myself blessed and comforted by the very person I’m trying to comfort. If nothing else, you can receive the hug with gratitude, and your hug in return can express that.

Once again, it’s a heart issue and the difference between giving and taking can seem subtle. Consider asking the Holy Spirit to reveal to you the hidden places and motives of your heart — that’s usually far better than endless introspection. If you purpose to become the sort of person who gives graciously to others, you probably will. At least that’s my hope for myself!

Can’t I just hug without all this analysis and soul-searching? 

Of course. Hug away. Just make sure your hugs are welcome and not an intrusion or imposition. Try to think of the other person when you hug, and don’t be self-centered or use their body for personal gratification.

What if I’m the “high desire for non-sexual physical affection” spouse in a marriage with a husband who: a) only “hugs” me during sex; b) refuses to give or receive hugs except as foreplay; or c) is a hug-taker on the level of Creepy Hugger Guy?

First, a disclaimer lest the “Not All Guys!” police manage to catch wind of this post and denounce me as a female chauvinist pig: I know that there are probably husbands with a higher desire for hugs and non-sexual physical touch than their wives. However, what I’ve heard/read tends to confirm the stereotype. Before you say, “Well, that’s because you’re a woman and so guys don’t tell you these things”, let me offer this: back in my single days, I worked with a lot of married men. Some asked me for “the female perspective” on their marriage issues. Others trotted out the “my wife doesn’t understand me” line. So I heard plenty from husbands who thought their wives were unreasonable for wanting physical affection outside of sex, but not a word from any husband longing to give or receive more hugs. (By the way: I also learned the best way to shut down a guy claiming “my wife doesn’t understand me” is to say excitedly, “Your wife sounds just like me!” Only once did I have to ramp it up a notch and say I’d love to meet her.)

After that long disclaimer, back to the question. Maybe you’ve tried everything you can think of, even marriage counseling, and your husband, an otherwise fairly good guy, can’t or won’t change. Maybe physical touch isn’t his love language. Maybe, when he was growing up, his parents taught him that hugs were wrong and bad. Maybe he was abused. Maybe he’s simply not wired for intimacy. Maybe he has other reasons for not appreciating hugs. Maybe he thinks there is nothing wrong with being Creepy Hugger Husband and you can’t convince him that selfish or forced hugs and gropings aren’t working for you. Maybe he actually hates hugs unless sex is involved. Maybe he just doesn’t have very much to give. The bottom line is that some guys will never “get it”, and will never change, even if they wish they could.

You can’t change anyone but yourself. Sad and frustrating, but true. Once you face reality, you have two choices:

  1. Dump the dude and find a guy who gives good hugs from the heart.
  2. Learn how to live with the dude you’ve got.

There’s a theory about the disparity in male versus female desire/need for physical affection. Some say it is God’s design; after all, we are the ones who breastfeed and nurture babies and children. However, that feature seems more like a bug if you don’t have babies to cuddle, and it does nothing to protect you from the hug-taker.

What to do? I’m not a marriage counselor by any stretch of the imagination, and probably not the best source of marriage advice, but this is my 2 cents worth, which might not be worth even that:

If you are married to a hug-taker, recognize that you might become increasingly reluctant to give him hugs, since you feel depleted already. Unfortunately, this may turn things into a vicious cycle. It’s hard to give, give, give when there is no mutuality, and when your gift is turned into another opportunity for someone to take from you. Unless you have experienced this dynamic for any length of time, what I’ve written here may sound whiny and overly sensitive. What’s the big deal? It’s only a hug! But if you are a high-desire-for-real-hugs spouse married to a hug-taker, you know exactly how difficult the struggle can be. I have no idea what to tell you, other than perhaps you might consider doing some boundary work to protect your heart.

Recognize that your husband will never meet all your needs. No one can. Find people who will give and receive good hugs. Years ago, I met an older woman who was on a personal crusade to make sure the people in her life got three hugs a day. She even had cute little cards printed up. I loved it! I could count on at least two good hugs every time I saw her. Cultivate a hugging culture among your friends and in your social group. It can really fill that void, and meet your need for physical touch. 

Cuddle babies. Pet cute little puppies. But don’t stop there. Hand out hugs to teenagers. Hug lonely widows. In other words, give hugs to those who will appreciate them. You never know the difference you might make in the lives of people who sometimes go days, weeks, even months, without a single giving hug. Meet your need for hugs by meeting the same need in others. (For the sake of your marriage, it’s wisest to limit or avoid hugs with warm, attractive, emotionally available men.)

What if my wife claims I’m a hug-taker? Or what if I am the low-desire-for-hugs spouse? Or what if even the briefest hug fills me with an uncontrollable desire to have sex immediately, so I avoid any except as foreplay? Or what if I think hugs are wrong or stupid? Or what if I happen to like grabbing and groping my wife and think she needs to get over herself? Or what if I just don’t feel like hugging my wife unless there is something in it for me, like sex or at least getting to feel her up?

I don’t know. Maybe you should ask your wife and be willing to listen, really listen, without defensiveness. Then again, she may be way past the talking stage on this one, especially if lack of physical affection has been an ongoing issue in your marriage. You might try reading articles addressing low sexual desire in marriage and adapting the advice for hugs rather than sex (e.g., how to be an eager and willing hug partner even if you are never in the mood to hug). Personal therapy might help you figure yourself out. At the very least, try getting lots of prayer…for you and your wife.

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.

For husbands of survivors| Trauma Tuesday

This short video is an excellent resource for Christian husbands of survivors, although I would urge caution about one of the recommendations made by the speaker.

My reaction to this video was almost entirely positive. I especially liked what the speaker said about husbands pursuing their own healing and growing in sexual purity. The husband who takes this video to heart would truly end up being a tremendous blessing to his wife as well as receiving much blessing in return.

However, I do want to voice a few serious cautions to husbands about seeking support from other men:

  1. Only disclose your wife’s sexual trauma to someone with her full knowledge and consent. Do not pressure her — not all women are ready to go public with the most traumatic events of their lives, especially trauma of a sexual nature, and the thought of a man knowing can be especially frightening, shameful, and humiliating. Your wife’s ability to trust you and feel safe should trump your need or desire to tell “the guys”. A therapist might be a far better source for support, since not many men are equipped to offer the wisdom, insight, and confidentiality you need.
  2. Choose your confidante carefully. We like to pretend that men don’t gossip, but this is sadly not the case. Furthermore, the last thing you should want is to confide in a man who believes in rape myths, insists that your wife made the whole thing up, tells you to “make her submit!” or even angrily confronts your wife about “crying rape just because she regrets her slutty behavior, and is making up a lame excuse to withhold sex”. (One woman had to deal with more than one such angry confrontation after her husband confided in his men’s group at church.)
  3. Choose as a confidante only a respectful, godly, tender-hearted, safe, loving, compassionate man who is a friend of your marriage. Such a man should not press you for details about what happened to your wife or about any of her current sexual struggles. (Those issues should probably be dealt with in therapy anyway.) Instead, he should encourage you to be more Christ-like. One husband was shocked, and later convicted, that the man he confided in was moved to tears — in marked contrast to the husband’s own lack of tenderness and compassion. The best confidante will challenge you to grow in sacrificial love, rather than further enable you in selfish indifference or impatience.
  4. Be prepared that telling people may make your wife the target of gossip, false accusations, harassment, intimidation, and even worse. One wife was continually harassed by a man who accused her of lying about her sexual assault because, as he insisted to her, “you are too ugly to rape”. Some survivors have had to endure “rape jokes” or “incest jokes” supposedly in order to get us to lighten up and not take ourselves so seriously. Men have attempted to intimidate rape survivors with, “I hope someone rapes you again.” Even more frightening, a woman was confronted in her own home by a “friend” of her husband who threatened, “I could rape you too, you know, and this time no one would believe you.” The worst case I know about personally is the woman who was assaulted by her “pastor” after he learned of her past sexual trauma. Predators and abusers don’t usually identify themselves as such in advance, and are all too often the last person we would suspect.

Obviously I am not suggesting rape survivors hide in silence. After all, I’ve gone public. But it should be our own choice, and we should not be outed as survivors without our consent — especially not by the very men who have vowed to love, honor, and cherish us.