Touch, Intimacy and Boundaries: Negotiating safety within relationship


I have some exciting news.  The next WINGS conference will be held on September 11th and 12th.  If you don’t know about the WINGS foundation, they are an amazing organization that provides peer-led and therapist-facilitated groups for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and their loved ones.  I have been co-facilitating a group in Aurora since July of 2014.  It has been (and continues to be) one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.

This fall, I’ll be presenting at the conference, with the assistance of my ever-awesome co-facilitator, Masako Suzuki.   I thought long and hard about the subject matter for my talk.  I decided that I wanted to present on something that is not frequently discussed:  touch.

Touch has a multitude of health benefits.  It has been shown to lower blood pressure and support healthy immune function.  It releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone that increases trust and reduces stress.  While modern humans in the US rarely touch each other, our non-human ancestors were much more hands-on in their relationships.  Primates spend 10-20 percent of their day grooming each other.  For many domestic animals, grooming and cuddling is an important part of any social interaction.  Have you ever looked at two cats, curled up together on the couch and felt jealous?  I know I do.  Both of my cats are fixed, of course, so I know it isn’t about sex.  Yet, they have an instinctual wisdom that draws them together, for safety and comfort.  I am often saddened that humans do not have this with each other.

Part of the reason for this is trauma.  For some of us, we have been so injured by inappropriate or violent touch that friendly affection feels threatening.  “Touch ambivalence” is a commonly recognized trauma symptom.  We might crave the sense of security that comes with touch, but when we actually receive touch, we instantly become uncomfortable.

Some trauma survivors have told me that they just don’t like to be touched.  I always respect their boundary and do not challenge their assessment of themselves.  At the same time, they often come to an awareness that this isn’t 100% true, 100% of the time.  Often, they do not like to be touched without warning. They do not like to be touched without permission.  They do not like to be touched unless they initiate touch.  These are all completely acceptable boundaries, and all of us have the right to set them.   We even have the right to say that we want to be touched, and then change our mind two seconds later.  This is an example of trusting our own nervous system, an essential step toward healing.

I decided to give a presentation for survivors who want to have a healthier relationship to touch.  I’ll be providing further details as we get closer to the conference, but here’s a brief description:

Current research on mental health and neurological development indicates that touch is a basic human need.  Unfortunately, those of us who experienced sexual abuse may find touch extremely triggering.  We may be aware of wanting hugs or other forms of affection, but fearful that our boundaries will be violated if anybody touches us.  This workshop will focus how to ask for what we need while empowering our ability to say “no” to what we do NOT need. While physical touch will not be a part of this workshop, we will participate in experiential exercises on setting healthy boundaries.

I’ll also be providing more updates about the conference in general.  We always have a number of skilled presenters, offering workshops geared toward survivors, loved ones and clinicians.  I hope to see you there.

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