The Journal of Best Practices

Marriage, Asperger's, and being a better husband

National Public Display of Affection Day? How Touching!

A day for PDA.

You may or may not be aware of this, but my skillful research department (Twitter) has alerted me that today is National Public Display of Affection Day. I certainly wasn’t aware of it, so I decided to look into the matter a little further by consulting my fact checking people (Yahoo!), and sure enough, today is the day when we as a nation can celebrate the very human impulse to grope, fondle, and tongue-kiss one another in the company of mildly disgusted strangers.

According to the article I read, National PDA Day was conceived at Arizona State University’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communication—which makes perfect sense, because whenever I think about public displays of affection, I immediately think Hugh Downs. It seems the concept of a national gross-out-your-friends day is the result of research commissioned by Nivea as part of the company’s campaign to get people to touch each other more.

I myself have long waged a similar campaign around my wife, Kristen: more physical contact. My goal isn’t constant canoodling—nothing that would interfere with watching Family Guy—but more frequent overt physical displays of affection? Why not? There are a number of people on the autism spectrum who do not enjoy being touched or embraced by others. I am not one of them. I’ve always enjoyed holding hands with Kristen, whether we’re out in public or at home by ourselves. I love when she rubs my shoulder in the car or mindlessly rests her hand on my stomach when we’re watching television. Of all the writers contributing to Psychology Today I’m clearly the least qualified to explain the underlying reasons for this, but when Kristen’s affection manifests itself in touch—an embrace, a kiss goodbye—I just feel better about myself. I feel happier.

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The trick is getting her to do it. Kristen is by no means a cold person, but neither is she touchy-feely. Kristen rarely shows affection through casual touch or romantic gestures. Occasionally I would notice my friends’ wives cuddling up against them or draping their arms around their shoulders and stealing a little smooch, and I’d feel as though I was missing out. Where’s my affection? I’d wonder, looking at Kristen as she cleaned her phone screen. I wanted to initiate the contact, but I always had a decision to make: If I reach for her hand right now, will she take it or just bat it away? With my pride at stake, for years I erred on the side of not being rejected—if I didn’t make the attempt, I couldn’t be denied.

I didn’t realize until recently that when I feel the need for physical contact, I can simply ask for it. And unless she’s busy doing something else—working out, for instance, or trying to wash her hair—Kristen actually enjoys the contact, even though she wouldn’t naturally think to initiate it. I can relate. For example, my brain didn’t develop in such a way that I’d naturally take someone else’s needs or point of view into consideration. Until we discovered that I fit the profile for Asperger’s, this often led to misunderstandings; to Kristen I always appeared incredibly selfish. But now that we understand how my mind works, Kristen knows that I am actually quite eager to tune into her needs and emotions and respond to them, as long as she reminds me to. “I need you to get out of your head for a second,” she’ll say with a smile, cuing me to cast my focus on her for a moment.

It’s maybe not the stuff of a Nicholas Sparks novel, but our system of plainly asking for the things we need works for us. You may never catch us necking on a ballpark Jumbo-Tron, but we show our affection for each other in other ways. An occasional high-five. A daily renewed commitment to making our relationship thrive. A few quiet hours on the couch, cuddled up at my gentle request and talking at hers.

David Finch is a New York Times best-selling humorist, essayist, and public speaker.

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