Your Need for Attention Doesn’t Make You Weak
“Can I have a kiss?” I stood on my tiptoes, still unable to reach his mouth.
“No, not right now,” his hand rests against my chest, gentle pressure, overwhelming pressure.
“Why not?” I cocked my head to one side, the curl that bounces in the center of my forehead covering my left eye.
“I don’t want you to get used to it and think you can have it whenever you want.”
“What? Are you serious?”
“Yeah, besides, you shouldn’t need so much attention.” This time his hand wasn’t so gentle as he pushed me to the side.
Did he think I was a dog that would be spoiled by too much petting or too many treats?
I believed this concept for a long time — that I shouldn’t need so much attention and physical touch — that needing it made me weak or flawed.
That’s a bunch of bullshit.
Connection is an innate need
are wired for physical touch and, while each of us has a different threshold for that need (and a point at which we get touched out) none of us is wrong. Like degree of introversion, dislike of vegetables, or love of chocolate, the need for touch exists on a continuum that varies from person to person (although those anti-chocolate types are fairly suspicious).
It would be one thing if the above interaction happened with someone I was casually dating and I could just walk away, but, sadly, it didn’t. It was smack dab in the middle of an eleven-year relationship, and I was sporting a gigantic torpedo-shaped belly that would later turn into a ten-pound boy. And, such interactions were the rule, not the exception.
So, I had two choices, I could stay in a relationship that only served some of my emotional and physical needs, or I could leave. I chose to stay. That decision was easier to make once there was a tiny human who required lots of hugs and snuggles and lowered my desire to be touched otherwise.
But the baby grew older, and my need to be held, kissed, and touched returned. My belief that I was broken, flawed, and wrong returned right along with it. Sure, I made a decision, but that doesn’t mean it was the right one.
So, I started grasping at straws. I needed, craved attention in any shape or form so, I’d do ridiculous stuff like ask my partner to get my lotion from the other room instead of getting it myself. I asked for that because it was something he would actually do, and I was too afraid to ask for what I really wanted. I didn’t want to be weak.
I remember a neighbor friend, someone who had a child around the same time my son was born pointed out the way I’d ask my then-husband to get things for me that I could damn well get myself. At the time, my face burned with embarrassment. But, like all the friendships I had with women back then, I was too afraid to be vulnerable. I couldn’t tell her that I desperately needed attention and that was the only way I knew to get it from him.
I didn’t tell her that because I was afraid that needing attention from my spouse made me needy and weak. I didn’t know it just made me human.
No decision is permanent
The great thing about decisions is that none of them are ever permanent. You can always move forward, change direction, make amends, and try again. Eventually, I got really clear and honest with my partner about my needs. His response was something like, “you knew who I was when we got together, so I’m not changing.”
Once I left that marriage I quickly realized there were plenty of people out there who had a need for affection as big as mine. I also learned that there were plenty of people who were more like my ex-husband.
The point is, that if you search wide enough and get picky enough you’re going to find someone who matches you. Someone is out there who wants to hold hands as much as you do, who needs kisses, hugs, and naked Sunday snuggles just as much as you.
Hold out for that person because the amount of affection you need doesn’t make you broken, it just makes you human. If you find someone whose needs match your own it just makes being married to them easier.
You don’t have to leave the relationship
If you’re in a relationship with someone who’s needed for affection is vastly different from yours, it is not a hopeless relationship. I’m a big believer in trying everything to make a marriage work, especially when there are kids involved. You’re just going to need to get really clear about your minimum threshold for touch. Find the lowest level that will keep you feeling connected and loved and communicate that to your partner. Unless you married a total asshat they’ll be willing to find some middle ground.
If you’re the partner who doesn’t need touch, but your love-bug expressed a need for more than you’re naturally inclined to give set reminders on your phone to kiss them good morning, and to hug them when you return home from work. When you hug them, don’t be the first to let go. Let the partner with a higher need for touch be the one to break contact.
But, if you’re with someone who doesn’t make the effort to meet a need that you carefully, articulately express I’d like you to consider whether or not you can handle that situation indefinitely.
Change is possible, but only with direct action
Think of this like pants. Sometimes, at the end of fall, as a winter chill passes through New England people will find themselves putting on shorts, only to realize, once they step outside, that it’s too damn cold for shorts.
This person identifies a problem: I’m wearing shorts, and the world around me is turning to a tundra.
This person can either change their pants into something more suitable for the weather, remain in shorts and suffer, or deny they’re wearing shorts in the first place.
If the person decides they want to change their pants but doesn’t actively move towards their dresser, discard the shorts, and pull on a pair of fleece-lined trousers, their pants won’t change. They’ll head back outside in shorts and wonder why their legs get frostbite.
If someone decides to press on, wearing shorts despite the chill they made a decision to stay the same, despite the impending change of seasons. The seasons won’t stop just because they didn’t change their pants. Winter doesn’t care if your legs are cold, she storms her way through and leaves piles of snow in your way. Winter is a boss-ass-bitch. (If your partner refuses to change their shorts, please, be winter. Don’t change who you are just because they can’t handle it).
It’s also possible that the person will walk outside, run knee-deep into a snowdrift and deny that they’re even wearing shorts in the first place. They’ll be all, “What, there’s a problem? What problem? I don’t see a problem.” Meanwhile, their toes are numb because Teva’s aren’t built for winter and their legs lost feeling from the knee down.
This person will stand there, in the snow, insisting that they are wearing pants and that you’re confused about the truth of the situation. If you tell your partner there is a problem with their wearing shorts in the winter (or with the amount of attention you’re getting), and they call you crazy and insist that the problem is your perception of pants (or your perception of attention), you’re definitely with the wrong person. Also, that person needs a weather app on his phone with notifications turned on.
Your need for physical attention doesn’t make you needy, or whiney. (Unless you whine about it instead of discussing it like a grown-up). Some of us have a higher need for touch than other people and it’s your job to advocate for those needs within your relationships.
If you advocate for your needs and your partner either refuses to take steps toward changing, or denies that there is a problem (or insists the problem only exists in your mind) it may be time to call in some therapy-style reinforcement, or throw dynamite at the relationship and run for cover. You’re the only one who can make a decision about how much (or little) attention you’re willing to live with.
Maria Chapman is a parent of five, a literacy education expert, and a chronic illness warrior. Follow her newsletter, Lies We Tell Ourselves, for more truth.