I recently visited with my mother in the small room that is now her home. After travelling hours by airplane and car, my foot was swollen and sore. Having few options for relief, I lifted it and placed it beside her. She reached out, softly touched it, and asked how my foot, which had an injury, was healing.
This small, nearly unnoticeable moment was packed with great meaning and warmed tender places inside of me. Mostly it represented healthy touch in a healthy relationship. Odd as the behaviour might have looked to an outsider, it fit the interaction between a particular mother and daughter. Permission was sought and given. I could seek relief from discomfort. I could physically move into my mother’s space, nudging my foot alongside her leg. She could reciprocate with a gentle brushing of my skin. She demonstrated care, inquiring about my well-being. So much happening in a 30-second interaction.
What makes touch pleasant and welcome? What turns touch into something that is hurtful and undesirable? I offer a few guidelines, framed as a series of questions. Our perspectives are shaped by culture, personality, community and training, which might lead to different answers.
First, we ask ourselves what level of touch is appropriate given the relationship. The most intimate relationships, those between spouses, within families and in close friendships, are ones where touch is generally sorted out over time. Experience guides what is offered and received. In more casual relationships, less is known, and therefore more explicit negotiations are warranted.
Another question relates to the power dynamics. Is the power relatively equal in the relationship, or is there a moderate to extreme power imbalance? For example, within a doctor-patient relationship, a doctor has significant power of knowledge, strength and position over the patient. Touch within such a setting should follow careful practice. Recently, I’ve had interactions with two physiotherapists, both of whom sought permission before touching me, and explained the treatment they offered. I appreciated this sensitivity; it increased my trust.
As a pastor and counsellor, I recognize the vulnerability of those who come to my office for care. I want to offer touch for the good of others with their explicitly stated permission. This means asking, “Would you like a hug?” And respecting the answer. Even with my best efforts, I know that sometimes I misjudge. My eagerness to embrace can override the other’s hesitation. Since we do not always know if an individual has experienced abuse, or has difficulty saying no, it is important to be cautious with one’s assumptions. Preferably, the person receiving care initiates the contact.
Finally, how is the touch perceived by the recipient? This is one of the most important questions. Hopefully the touch is intended to be caring and beneficial. When someone signals that touch is not welcome—by verbal refusal, by nonverbal signals such as stepping away or putting hands up in a “stop” gesture, by a stiffening posture—it is necessary to refrain from touching. If the touch is unwanted, it will contaminate the intended care.
As I write, I recall the biblical injunction to “greet each other with a holy kiss.” These may or may not be familiar words; they may strike us as strange, or even alarming. Some of us, though, have memories of this church practice, and it is common in many churches today, including those in Anabaptist and Eastern Orthodox traditions. The principles behind the holy kiss—extending the love of Christ, mutual respect and a motivation of wholesome affection—can guide us towards healthy touch.
Melissa Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) has a passion for helping people develop healthy, vibrant relationships with God, self and others.