On intimacy and being in love with your friends

When I was visiting a close friend of mine during break, on my second day in North Dakota — the second-coldest state in the U.S. — my friend and I went to the supermarket together to buy groceries for the whole house. We exited the car, and I, not being used to frozen parking lots, wobbled like a penguin holding her hand the entire time. 

“Babe, we are going to be the most famous gay couple in the town,” she laughed. I responded with a muffled giggle and a comment on how we would be kicked out for being a lesbian interracial couple. 

We continued through the supermarket, with me carrying the basket in my right hand and holding my friend’s hand in my left hand. The only times we let go were times when I had to grab something from the taller shelves and when we were packing our groceries at the self-service register.

Throughout the entirety of winter break, we slept in the same bed, hugged each other from the back as a surprise and occasionally snuggled on the couch during the day. It almost seems as if we are a couple, doesn’t it? Well, we are not.

The ideas that society and media continually feed us about “the perfect relationship” have led us to a state of obsession over finding the perfect partner. On top of these expectations, there are the social constructs of sexuality and weakness associated with emotions and affection. We do not want to show affection towards people who are not our significant other. Because of this, we act cold towards instances where affection is being shown among each other, thinking that apathy will somehow make us look mature and strong in front of others. This severe deprivation of physical affection has led to us convincing ourselves that we don’t actually want it

How many times have you heard someone say “I am not a hugger”? And yet the same person that said that will jump on their feet the second they see a dog or a cat to hug and pet them. It is only in the context of a romantic relationship, and sometimes family, that physical affection seems justified. And what this mindset has done is keep us away from building deeper and stronger relationships with the people in our lives. As a kid, my mom would sometimes gently stroke my arm. I loved the feeling of her fingertips slowly moving around my wrist, and the occasional flicker of a nail that would leave a ticklish feeling. Today when I ask her to do that, her response is often to “get a boyfriend that will do it for you”. Because, you know, having physical touch with another human is obviously only in the case of a romantic relationship. What a great life lesson, Mom.

Touch doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Studies have shown that hugging acts as a stress-reliever and can improve our overall health. When you hug someone for longer than 20 seconds, your body starts producing oxytocin, a hormone that is associated with a calming and loving feeling, and hence the reason some call it the cuddle hormone. When was the last time you hugged someone for over 20 seconds? Or even had a proper hug? And by a proper hug, I don’t mean the awkward touching of shoulders when you see your friends and then pretending it never happened. Or the scenario where you hug your friend for a split millisecond, and then had to add “but no homo”.

If hugging, holding hands, and cuddling is a way of showing affection and feeling close to the people you love, what is the point of constraining ourselves so much? Why are we holding ourselves back until we are in a relationship? Has it ever crossed your mind that maybe if physical affection among friends was encouraged, fewer people would end up in toxic relationships just to quench their loneliness? Throughout my high school boarding experience, my friends and I would do dance routines that would require physical contact, cuddle (and on a few occasions take naps) in each other’s beds, give each other hugs every time we saw each other, have hair-braiding sessions, massage sessions and plainly forget about the concept of personal space when we are together. There was never a moment where I felt lonely or deprived of affection. With the passage of time, I came to slowly fall in love with all of my closest friends.

Now, I have told this to a couple of people already and have been met with the usual response of a combination of a worried look and the question “Have you told them yet?” To which my response would be, “Imma stop you right there.” What is truly meant here when I say that I am in love with my friends is not that I want to be in a romantic relationship with them, but that we have reached such a level of mutual caring and understanding for each other that simply saying “I love my friends” doesn’t feel strong enough to describe my feelings towards them. Where I am today with my friends is something that I wouldn’t have been able to achieve if we were afraid of showing affection and being all cuddly with each other.

No matter how you turn it around, this is a symptom of the culture in modern American society. Back home, when you meet with someone it is the most common thing to kiss each other on the cheek three times, though that custom is slowly dying out with newer generations. In the Middle East, it’s common to see male friends walking together in the street while holding hands. However, the more areas continue to urbanize and encourage a more fast-paced lifestyle, the more distant and colder we become. There is no place in our busy schedules to be all cuddly with our friends. That is now reserved only for our romantic partners.

When the idea for this article was created, the world of social distancing wasn’t the reality we were living in. It will be more than a strange time adjusting back when we all come back to our once everyday routines and start seeing each other in person again, and not over a Zoom or Google Meet video. The number of parties and casual hookups will most likely skyrocket. However, it will be a time where being affectionate with your friends will be needed more than ever. Where the value of a warm hug from a friend will hopefully finally surpass the cold and drunk kisses in Sig’s basement on a Friday night. When we finally get the green light for seeing each other again at a distance less than six feet, do hug your friends whom you have been missing all this time. And don’t feel shy about continuing to do so in the future.

Please though, just don’t say “no homo” when you do it, ok?