How to Show Affection When Showing Affection is Hard

I’ve mentioned before that it’s difficult for me to be emotionally intimate with people. That means that it’s hard to tell them that I love them or remind them that they mean a lot to me and basically anything else associated with sappy rainbowvomitness.

In that earlier post, I described why I have this issue, but it can come up for people for all sorts of reasons–a history of abuse, trouble recognizing or connecting to one’s emotions, difficulty with language, speaking, or writing, and so on. And some people just aren’t very emotional or forthcoming, and that’s okay too. It’s not their style.

How do we show love to the special people in our lives when few of the ways we’re taught to do it resonate? I can’t bring myself to write sappy Facebook statuses or have one of those conversations where we just keep talking about how much we love each other. It quite honestly turns my stomach and makes me feel uncomfortable, boxed in, and small. I worry about What It Means to be a person who says those things. Does it mean I’ve once again become everything I worked so hard to stop being?

So I’m writing this post sort of experimentally, more for myself than anyone else. Writing, especially writing publicly, is one of the best ways I have of figuring shit out. I’m curious if the process of writing this will help me uncover ways to connect to people in my life that feel comfortable and authentic for me. So, although it will look like a list of advice, the advice is actually for myself.

I guess this isn’t likely to help that many people because both this issue and my particular situation might not be that common: I have issues with verbal/emotional affection but not physical affection, most of my relationships are long-distance and fairly casual, I’m polyamorous, and I have an easier time being affectionate with people with whom the relationship is strictly platonic. Maybe for other people, it’s physical affection that’s tricky, or it’s harder to express affection for Just Friends outside of the confines of an Established Relationship. I don’t know. Hopefully this will help more people than just me, though.

So, here is what I’m going to try to do, or do more of:

1. Give gifts.

When possible, gifts are a nice way to express appreciation for people that doesn’t necessarily involve a lot of feelings!talk. Sometimes, simply telling someone I care for them can feel very performative and self-centered in a weird way: “Look at me! I have feelings about you! Listen to my feelings! Affirm/reflect my feelings!” Giving a gift, especially a gift that is useful rather than purely A Keepsake To Remind You Of Me, can be a way to decenter myself. That’s why I tend to give lots of books and edible things. I hope that by giving someone an enjoyable experience, I can express affection for them without putting myself at the forefront.

2. Share appreciation for their thoughts, ideas, and actions.

As I’ve mentioned, it’s hard for me to do the “I love you so much you are so special to me I’m so glad you’re in my life you make me so happy” thing. Something that feels more comfortable and also resonates more with the way I experience my close relationships is to tell someone that I respect or appreciate something they’ve said or done. It helps that many of my friends are writers, which means I can express positive thoughts about their work. One of the reasons this is easier for me is because, like with the gifts, it takes the focus off of me and my emotions and keeps it on them and the cool things they say and do; another is that it’s what I would appreciate, because effusive expressions of emotion are somewhat difficult for me to understand and respond to and I much prefer compliments on concrete things that I do. I never want to make someone feel as awkward as I feel when I suddenly get a rainbowvomit message about how much someone cares about me that I don’t know how to respond to, so I feel better when I affirm people in ways that might be a little easier for them to reciprocate or respond to (“Thanks, I’m glad you liked it!” “Thanks, I like your new blog post too!”).

3. Tell them stories about your life.

I want to feel like my friends and partners know me and know what my life is like. Because most of them live so far away, they have no idea unless I tell them–beyond the generalities that I put in my Facebook statuses, which, although they can feel quite personal and intimate, are actually quite filtered and intentionally cheerful. Where do I talk about my successes at work, or how awful I felt when I couldn’t write something that felt important to write,  or the woman who helped me out on the subway? Pretty much nowhere. Maybe spontaneously telling people these things will help them feel like I care enough to want them to know about my life, and I know I’d appreciate hearing those types of things from them to.

4. Do helpful things for them.

The key here being to actually listen to what they need and do the things that they will find helpful, not what you personally think would be helpful. Little acts of service are a big part of the way that I show affection to people, though they might not always realize it. I remember when I was first getting to know my boyfriend over a year ago–before he was my boyfriend, before it would’ve felt at all appropriate to express that I cared in any other way–I knew he wanted a game that was being sold at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Living just a short subway ride away from it, I offered to go and get it for him and bring it to Skepticon, where we would see each other. The fact that I got to use my wonderful city to do a little nice thing for someone made it all the better. Other things I like doing include giving New York touristy tips, editing people’s writing, and carrying heavy things.

5. Use your talents.

This relates closely to the previous one, at least for me. Most of my favorite ways to show affection involve this somehow. For instance, cooking for people is something I take really seriously as a way to demonstrate the fact that I care. Although I love doing it, it is time-consuming and sometimes physically taxing and can take me away from socializing with people–but I do it because that effort is meaningful. (And I really do not exaggerate when I say that my food is amazing.) Other skills I like to use are writing (I might write a nice holiday card for someone, or let them read and respond to a new article before I’ve posted it), listening (when someone needs to rant about something), and observing (when someone needs help dealing with a problem in their lives, and I help them not necessarily by offering advice but by noting things I’ve observed about them and the situation). Although the expectation I sometimes face with everyone from partners to total strangers that I listen to and help with all of their problems just because it’s also my profession can be ridiculously stressful and irritating, I’ve found that when I really, really care for someone, I’ll drop anything to help them out. (With the caveat that if it becomes too frequent or starts to feel like an expectation, we might have a talk.)

6. Connect them with people, events, media, or resources they might like.

I think about the people I care about a lot, although they don’t always realize it because I hate to do the “hey I’m thinking of you” thing (again, it feels really presumptuous, like a demand for their attention). But one way it plays out is that I often come across things that I think people I care about would like, and I like to share those things with them. Most commonly it’s books or places, but I also like introducing people to people they might like or inviting them to events they might like. I have often reached out to friends I knew were job-hunting with listings I thought might work. I like connecting disparate friends together (although I’m also mindful not to expect them to like each other).

7. Ask for their help in little ways.

People like to feel needed in ways that matter to them. It is hard for me to make people feel needed because I like to do everything by myself, whether that’s exploring the city, editing an article, or coping with a difficult time in my life. But there are ways for me to include people in my own processes without compromising my hard-won sense of independence and competence. For instance, I sometimes post requests for practical suggestions or advice on Facebook, which lets people share their own knowledge and experiences. Other times I reach out to individual people to ask if they know of an article about X, or if they can help me think of a word for Y, or–very rarely–if they wouldn’t mind listening to me vent for a while. I only do this with people I value, so I hope it helps them remember that I value them.

8. Sexting.

This is obviously only applicable with certain types of loved ones, and I’ll also caveat it with the fact that sexting is something I find very performative in a way that is fun but also requires a lot of mental energy that I don’t always have. But when I can do it, it’s a nice way to remind a distant partner that I find them sexy without having to belabor the point–a way of showing rather than telling, as it were.

It’s probably easy to look at this list and assume that I just need to get over my intimacy issues and everything will be great. Well, I’ve restarted therapy for mostly this reason, but that’s not going to make noticeable changes immediately (if it ever does). Therapy is not accessible to everyone, and I’m also not sure that disliking rainbowvomit-y emotional expression is necessarily a sign that there’s something “wrong” with you. It’s not the way everyone experiences love and attachment. It’s certainly not the way I experience it anymore.

If you deal with similar issues and have suggestions, please feel free to share them in the comments. (If you do not, then please don’t speculate and offer suggestions anyway; just use this as an opportunity to learn about people who deal with stuff you don’t.)

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How to Show Affection When Showing Affection is Hard

4 thoughts on “How to Show Affection When Showing Affection is Hard

  1. 1

    If you deal with similar issues and have suggestions, please feel free to share them in the comments.


    “Similar issues” – yes, but still not identical, so as you noticed yourself, the value of any suggestion will be very limited. Anyway, a couple of things which I found quite rewarding in my own situation:

    – The use of e-mail. My relationship is not a long distance one, we live together, and exchanging emails was a novelty to both of us. At the start it felt funny: the idea of writing someone whom you are going to meet in a couple of hours seemed strange and unnatural. However, it helped me a lot; I found out that in emails I’m able to discuss at length things which are extremely hard even to mention in conversations.

    – Writing pieces of fiction (like poems and short stories) for her. Ok, I’m not a writer, my audience was just one person, and I will tell you that it was damned difficult! Nevertheless, it was also very gratifying. It meant giving her an access not just to my thoughts, but also to my most intimate fantasies and fears, together with a glimpse of how I actually live with these fears and fantasies. It required a lot of trust … and she knew it.

    – Showing her things which I wrote, mostly anonymously, and which were not meant for her eyes. (Hmm … like my comments here at FtB and elsewhere.) Sounds simple? Well, not to me. Actually it was one of the hardest things to do (perhaps even harder than writing poems, and that means something!). But gratifying and intimate as well – something like “see, I’m your open book, so browse me, please!”.

    Sorry, it’s probably very funny that someone like me can treat such items as the hardcore stuff, while to many people – no doubt – all of them are pretty mild and normal. Ah, well.

  2. 2

    This reminds me of a conversation I had with my Uncle about the expression of affection and love among our family in particular and Dominicans as a whole (btw, I’m a Dominican-American). Basically, we don’t really express our love and affection overtly, but rather through subtle ways. It can be like giving a gift (you’ll enjoy the game of “‘I can’t take it.’/’but you must!'”), asking friends or family members how you’re doing, passing their regards to you, or telling you jokes to cheer you up. We’re not overtly expressive, but we find our ways.

    Indeed, the thought of a family member or friend saying to me “I love you” in person just sounds so awkward and weird that it almost sounds comical – sad to say, but true.

  3. 3

    Oh! I forgot to mention some of the ways I like to express my affection for my friends! Here they are:

    – Recommending and lending novels or other books

    – Buying lunch or dinner: I just paid the whole bill for a good friend of mine at a Thai restaurant. She was so thankful for it, that she offered to buy me a book or pastry. I settled for a pastry at Fay Da Bakery: hmmmm, cream coconut bun *homer drool*. Not only that, but I purchased two of them for my mom and sister: It was the day of charity…and sweet tooth!

    – Doing favors: like helping a friend move some furniture or stuff from his apartment or helping him express his love for a woman through writing.

    – Giving samples of my loose green or black tea leaves

  4. 4

    I, like you have a very difficult time expressing affection. My husband of 11 years is very affectionate and sometimes I feel like I’m drowning. Because I’m not good at this my psychologist has asked that I not only find ways of showing affection that I am comfortable with, but ways of receiving affection. I’m in a panic! My ways of showing affection are doing home repairs so he doesn’t have too. I’m not big on touch, words, or any “rainbowvomit” – I love that word. This article helped me to know I’m not alone. Thanks.

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