Hugs/Kisses: Yes or No?

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Another family gathering was coming to a close and I was saying my good-byes. When I was young my family used to joke about “Jewish good-byes,” referring to the fact that we needed to begin the process of saying farewell an hour before we wanted to leave.  I remember my father nudging my mother to begin. There were hugs and kisses for each aunt, uncle and cousin, and, in the midst of that, new conversations would start. The process could take quite a while.

I was never comfortable with that ceremony. Somehow, and I can’t explain it, I was always uneasy with the hugging and kissing. I loved my family, including the extended members, loved our conversations and connections, and I wanted to express warmth – but did it have to include a kiss? Couldn’t we nod and smile at a comfortable distance?

As a young child, the resisting of kisses became a thing. When family came to visit I either begrudgingly gave them my cheek, or I avoided them. It became a running joke with one of Nana’s cousins, who went by the nickname “Knock,” his last name was Nachimow. He would cajole me, he practically chased me around the living room. I tried not to give in. It was a strange combination of funny and upsetting to me.

Many years ago, I remember seeing an old family movie of my brother, Mark, trying to give me a kiss on my cheek. I may have been two years old in the film, which would have made him five (I was probably 30 when I last saw it). The way I remember the film, I was trying to climb out of the backseat of the car and Mark was trying to give me a kiss before I got out. The film had no audio so I don’t know what was being said, and I don’t know who was holding the camera.  I was squirming and pushing him away. I was not surprised seeing the images on the grainy film. I knew this about myself, but it also it made me sad.

Watching our actions, I felt sad for Mark. I don’t think he was doing anything wrong. He was expressing affection for his little sister, but I wanted no part of it. On the one hand, I was entitled to define my boundaries. I certainly felt, and still believe, that a person should have control of their body and their space. On the other hand, what was it about kisses and hugs that made me squirm?

I was probably about 10 when Uncle Terry had a minor surgical procedure. He was recuperating in his bedroom, which was above mine in our house in Canarsie. I think I made a card for him and went up to visit. Knowing my reticence about getting kissed, he told me had a secret for me and when I bent down to listen, he planted a kiss on my cheek. I blushed deeply. “Uncle Terry!” I yelped, I was so surprised (I have always been gullible so falling for the ruse was no surprise.) “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asked. I had to admit it wasn’t.

In junior high school, I had a great social studies teacher. It was toward the end of the year and the class knew his birthday was coming up. Since my grandfather worked at a bakery, I volunteered to bring in a cake. I presented the cake at the end of class, someone else brought paper plates and forks. The class sang ‘happy birthday.’ Mr. Stern was clearly touched. After the little celebration, he gave me a peck on the cheek. I could feel my face burning bright red and I retreated back to my seat. I hoped no one noticed.

When I was in college and I saw how some of my friends interacted with their siblings, it was a revelation. They would greet each other with hugs and kisses. They might sit close together on a couch or put an arm around a shoulder while chatting. That was not how I interacted with my brothers. I’m not sure when the last time I hugged Mark or Steven. But, I don’t doubt our affection for each other. I know they would be there to help, protect or support me, as I would be for them.

But it does strike me as a bit odd. Saying our good-byes at that recent family gathering, I felt some of my usual uneasiness. I certainly give my mom a kiss and hug. My children have no choice – I am getting my hug (unless we are ‘schvitzy’)! After that, it is all iffy. And, for me, there is still some awkwardness about it. With some relatives, the expectations are clear – we will hug, or we will give each other a peck on the cheek.  It is equally clear with my brothers, we will just wish each other well. But for some there is a bit of a dance. Perhaps we should develop signals so people will know what we’re comfortable with.

Now that I’ve written this, I’m sure all my interactions with friends and family will be totally comfortable! No one will try to hug or kiss me ever again! I hope it doesn’t come to that. As with most aspects of human behavior, I am endlessly curious about it. Why are some naturally physically affectionate? Why do others shy away from it? Why am I still conflicted? The search for understanding continues.

11 thoughts on “Hugs/Kisses: Yes or No?

  1. Linda: gee you have hit upon my earliest memory. You were indeed difficult to kiss at age 2 I would chase you around the living room… to no avail.

    As to why we are so different!.? Not an easy question… but how dull it would be but for those differences.

    And no harm done… as Leah for many years and now that Dan has a delightful wife Beth, have (graciously) accepted my kiss goodbyes.

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  2. I totally get that. I have spent years feeling the same way. And, while I have come to more appreciate the value of communicating the affection that is central to that hug and kiss, it would almost be easier if I could just say the words “unconditional positive regard” sometimes. However, even I understand how weird that would be. Thank you.

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    1. I have to say I am glad that you chose not to give voice to that thought! It would be a bit awkward. I also have to say, I have not noticed that uneasiness, so you have handled yourself quite well. Keep it up! 🙂

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  3. I do remember Knock and I might wrongly remember that he was the only one you let kiss you on the cheek. Who knows the answer …maybe I didn’t kiss you enough when you were an infant, but I really don’t think so. I was holding you all the time because of the eye operations. Could you have connected that to your feelings?

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    1. Mom, interesting that you remember me allowing Knock to give me the kiss. I guess we will never know. Either way, I know it was an issue for me. And, if it makes you feel better, I don’t blame you.

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  4. I have learned a good lesson. Every time you are going to say goodbye, I will tell you a s secret. It worked 45 years ago so it should still be effective.
    Uncle Terry

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  5. I felt the same way as a child but have certainly grown to like hugs and cuddles. However, kisses hello and goodbye still perplex me – I’m always afraid I’ll go the wrong direction and kiss someone on the lips! What you may (or may not) find interesting is that I always think of you and Uncle Gary as the most affectionate of my aunts and uncles. You were always touching or had your arms around each other when we were all sitting on the couch, and I don’t remember seeing that from my parents or anyone else.

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  6. I never liked those long family goodbyes when I was I child. My mom would announce everyone I had to kiss. If I missed someone​, she would say very loudly “you forgot to kiss…” Even into my 30’s, she would tell me (loud enough for everyone to hear) who I had to kiss.

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