Feeling Our Way

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How Do You Handle Huggers?

Defining what's appropriate, and what's welcome.

A former student told me that her therapist says to her at the end of most sessions, “Can I give you a hug?” The student, a woman, guarantees that there is no sexual motivation, which I accept. But the woman still does not want to hug the therapist, for reasons she does not understand.

If only she had a relationship with a benign but curious guide who could create a space with her in which her associations and reactions to the idea of hugging her therapist could be explored. . .

My female colleagues often initiate hugs with their students; I do not. Perhaps men are more cautious than women about imposing their bodies on younger adults. I don't think my colleagues initiate hugs with their therapy patients, though, so I am distinguishing two separate issues—the hugging of patients and the hugging of others. And of course, there are many kinds of hugs: the quasi-sexual hug of women in my social life I find attractive; the warm, loving hug of friends and relatives (my sons especially); the all-around hug reserved only for my wife; the make-the-hurt-go-away hug that I never give (I’ve been a therapist too long for that); the congratulatory hug; and so on.

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With former students, there may come a time when we are socializing rather than revisiting our student-teacher relationship. These people I hug, but only if it’s mutual. As I said to my son when he asked me about kissing girls in middle school: You lean forward and if she leans forward, you keep leaning forward, but if she leans back, you lean back. To me, a hug also has to be mutual, so when a male friend extends his hand at the end of the evening, I shake it. Other friends of mine parry the hand and move in. I don’t like this, even if the other person is a good-looking woman.

I'll admit it: I’m a prude outside of my sex life. I hate it when people leer at strangers, turn unsuspecting students into sex objects, or impose on other people’s tact to get a quick feel of someone’s waist or shoulder. There are several beautiful women in my life, and with them I prefer the head hug, where the primary contact and pressure of intimacy is carried by the sides of our heads. It’s not just that I don’t want to be seen as a lech, although there is that; it is also that I identify with the woman, and I hated it when people I wasn’t interested in would kiss me on the mouth or press themselves against me (though the frequency has declined markedly with age).

I don’t see how a hug can be mutual when one person dictates that it will happen. If one party has power over the other, as in a teaching relationship, then the more powerful person’s initiation of a hug will almost always be dictatorial, because even if the student wants a hug, they can’t have made a choice. And once the hug is seen as imposed, it’s pretty unappealing.

I was upset when one of my kids told me in first grade that on Valentine’s Day, you had to give everyone a card, or no one. Like T-ball for love, no one should ever feel bad (or correct their behavior to get what they want). Later, he was told that at the first dance in middle school, you had to accept if someone asked you to dance. I wondered whether they would have enforced that rule for homosexual offers.

In therapy, the rule on whether to hug is much less complicated, but things become much more complicated when it actually happens. The whole idea of therapy is to create an exploratory space in which things are discussed rather than enacted. Different schools explain the reasons for this differently: extinction of punished behaviors, discovery of hidden identity elements, or teaching reflection and metacommunication as conflict resolution strategies, for example. But the key element is analysis rather than action.

A hug defeats the whole structure and purpose of therapy. Therapists who don’t understand that should be daycare workers—or some other profession that provides a useful service by exchanging bodily contact for money.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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