Photo: Katie Tegtmeyer

My wife once told me she felt I wasn't particularly warm. She rarely saw me hug anyone, I rarely took her hand spontaneously, or rubbed her back or nuzzled her neck. And she very much wanted those things, she said. She needed to feel a sense of connection between us, a sense that we were more than just two people co-habitating in a house or co-parenting a child. And she didn't.

I wasn't exactly shocked to hear this from her, but neither did I entirely agree. I did hug people, I said. Sometimes.

"But I can tell you don't feel comfortable doing it," she told me.

"How can you tell how I'm feeling?"

"I just can."

This response irritated me, not because she was presuming to know me better than I know myself, but rather because, I realized, she was right. More than that, she was right about something I wanted her to be wrong about.

I wanted to be a warmer person. I wanted the empathy and compassion I so frequently feel for others to find easy expression in a touch, a hug, or a reassuring squeeze. But though I often felt like doing those things—and therefore, I realized, often gave myself credit internally as if I'd actually done them—I was, in fact, in many circumstances and with many people just as uncomfortable as my wife had suggested. So I didn't do them much.

What I realized as I reflected on her complaint about me was that I'd come to view touching as a way not to express romantic feelings but rather as a way to comfort. When she and friends and family members and patients became upset, a reassuring squeeze of an arm felt easy, appropriate, and comfortable. But to offer one as a spontaneous gesture of affection? Much harder.

When others had observed my relative lack of comfort with touching in the past and mentioned it to me, I'd acknowledged it without making any serious effort to change. It wasn't that I was cold—just, I would say to myself, a bit left of center of warm. And I certainly wasn't entirely uncomfortable with touching. I seemed simply to prefer not to do it often.

The origins of this preference were obvious: men, in general, receive subtle and not-so-subtle cues from other men all the time that expressions of emotion aren't manly. Certainly many men don't feel or behave that way at all. But not the male role models in my life. Which isn't by any means to say that my discomfort with it—mild as it was, truly—was anyone's responsibility but my own. I could have challenged it many times in the past when others brought it up in casual conversation, but I never did.

Until my wife brought it up in a heated discussion and made me realize how central my warmth—or, I should say, lack thereof—was to our relationship. As with so many things, even when our partner tells us something is important to them, unless it's also genuinely important to us, we have a hard time not just believing it but remembering it.

Once I was able to recognize just how important this issue was to my wife, however, I made a determination to change. I decided I needed to make warm touching a habit, something I wouldn't have to think about because I knew that eventually, as the sting of our conversation faded amidst the onslaught of new everyday concerns, I wouldn't remember it. I needed, in other words, not to make it something I had to remind myself to do but rather something I did automatically. I needed, in short, to actually become warmer.

So I decided to make seeing my wife itself a trigger. Every time she'd wake up in the morning, every time I came home in the evening, every time we got into bed to go to sleep, I'd touch her. A hug, a back rub, a quick kiss. Walking to the park by our house with our son, I take her hand in mine and squeeze it gently.

I worried at first that her knowing I was doing all this specifically to demonstrate warmth would diminish the significance of the gestures, that because I was clearly needing to work at doing them, they wouldn't have the desired effect.

"Nonsense," she told me, and that was that.

But here's the interesting part: the desired effect, it turns out, wasn't on her. It was on me. To my great surprise, focusing on the physical act of touching her not for the purpose of comforting her but for expressing feelings of romance and warmth actually made me feel more romantic and warmer toward her.

In retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised. Studies demonstrate similar effects for smiling, which makes people who do it feel happier, as well as for posing oneself in power positions (e.g., leaning forward meaningfully on a table), which make people feel more in control. Feeling, in other words, doesn't only produce action; it follows it. In my secret heart, I'd always wanted to feel warmer toward my wife and frankly blamed her controlling nature for smothering what warm feelings I had for her. But I saw now that she wasn't the cause at all. The speed with which new-found feelings of warmth toward her erupted inside me after just a few days of practiced physical expression of it was simply astounding. I'd always thought I'd needed to feel romantic feelings first before I could or would demonstrate them by touching her, and so rarely did. But now I realized my mistake.

In the end, teaching myself to touch my wife more didn't just give her what she needed in order to want to stay in our marriage—it gave it to me, too. I never imagined I could affect how I felt so powerfully merely by acting as if I felt it—especially something I thought had become, through role modeling and personality development, so antithetical to me.

And yet I did. Sometimes, the path to change is strange and unexpected. The lesson to me, however, was clear: though changing ourselves is difficult, sometimes we make it more difficult than it needs to be. That, and that changing oneself is often the only way to solve a problem. Because as good as my marriage was before, not in my wife's eyes but in mine as well, it's many times better now.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to visit Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

About the Author

Alex Lickerman, M.D.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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