The Startup
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The Startup

Exploring intimacy: why we rarely hold hands on a first date

How far would you go on a first date with someone you’d just met?

I polled a number of friends to gauge the general feeling. Of those who expressed no qualms with stranger hook ups, few would even consider hand-holding until they felt they knew the other person — at least a bit.

Remarkable. Who would have thought that palm-to-palm contact would rate higher in the intimacy stakes than lip-on-lip or even groin-on-groin action? That we willingly — enthusiastically, even — exchange bodily fluids with relative strangers, while withholding our seemingly innocuous upper limb for a time when we feel ‘ready’.

Given that skin-skin contact seems intrinsically less invasive than full-blown penetration, the whole notion of ‘intimacy’ clearly goes deeper than I had initially imagined (excuse the pun).

I think the answer lies in the divide between the physical and the emotional realms.

The pleasure derived from intimate, physical human contact is more or less instantaneous. The ‘happy point’ reached after one has their unmentionables oscillated triggers the release of the feel-good hormone dopamine (among others). And like crack addicts chasing the next hit, we continually seek out dopamine-stimulating opportunities for the instant gratification they afford.

The trade-off for this immediate pleasure is minimal. Physical engagement occurs in the moment and necessitates no further action unless explicitly requested by one or both parties. There’s no implied need for subsequent responsibility or commitment.

Then there is emotional intimacy. A different kettle of fish altogether.

Don’t get me wrong; emotional intimacy has just as much ‘feel good’ capacity as does its physical counterpart.

But unlike physical intimacy, emotional intimacy entails follow-through.

When we forge an emotional connection and ensuing attachment with another person, we invariably sign ourselves up for some degree of sacrifice.

We surrender the possibility of pursuing potential alternative mates (polygamous relationships aside). We relinquish the indulgence of selfish decision-making (goodbye Saturday night chick-flick marathons). We render ourselves vulnerable to inevitable conflict (and the compromise required to achieve conciliation).

Given the consequences of emotional intimacy, it’s little wonder that we vigilantly safeguard ourselves from forging such connections willy-nilly. After all, when making a long (or even medium) term investment, we want to make sure it will pay some dividends before handing over the credit card.

To me, hand-holding is a public declaration of emotional intimacy. It’s like a personal billboard on which we proclaim to the world “This is my person. I choose them. Even though they make smacking noises when they chew and their farts are more potent than the fallout from a nuclear meltdown. This is my person. I choose them”.

So next time a special someone goes for that first hand reach, take it as the compliment it is.

Because they must think you’re pretty damn great.

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