Graphing Physical and Emotional Closeness

Hello readers! My name’s Jo, and I’m excited to be on board as a new contributor at The Asexual Agenda. You can find out a little more about me on the contributors’ page, or at my own blog, A Life Unexamined. I look forward to writing for you all.

I thought I’d start my first post here with some discussion of physical affection and emotional connection, following on from some interesting threads I’ve been reading on AVEN recently.

Often in society at large, we get the idea that the more physically close you are to someone, the more emotionally close you are to them as well, and the closer your relationship is in general. This manifests in a view of relationships as progressive, based on criteria of physical behaviour: you start spending time with someone, you kiss, you make out, you progress to other sexual activity, and all the while you become more emotionally invested in and connected to the other person. There are other models as well, but this one seems to be the dominant, heteronormative idea (although I’ve found this pattern of relationship progression is also reflected in portrayals of queer, sexual relationships).

Asexuality can throw some major spanners into the works, because for most asexual people (and many non-ace people too) that progression won’t work. That’s asexuality 101. Physical affection doesn’t always equal emotional connection, and some people only ever experience one or the other. Others find that both are closely entwined, but only up to a certain point, where everything stops making sense.

Emotional connection can be hard to define, and I’m not sure I could even give an explanation that would make sense to other people. In general terms, I’d say that emotional connection means feeling invested in someone else’s emotional well-being, and that you automatically put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Suffice to say, what qualifies and defines emotional connection differs from individual to individual. As for physical affection? Well, I’d say it includes all forms of physical closeness and touch that aren’t considered necessary in everyday situations – for example, holding hands with someone is affection, but shaking hands with your boss isn’t.

In the AVEN thread that was discussing this, many people said that physical affection increased how emotionally close they felt to someone, sometimes even creating emotional feelings. Many also said that anything physical had to be based on emotional connection already being there, or that the two had to exist at the same time. Of course, there were also people who said that physical affection and sensual things did nothing for them whatsoever.

Personally – as an aromantic ace who somehow ended up in a platonic relationship – I sit somewhere between the ends of the scale. Physical affection isn’t necessary for me to be emotionally close to someone, but where it does exist, my feelings of emotional connection increase. Hugs (which I am very free with), holding hands, cuddling and snuggling up together are all things that make me feel emotionally closer to someone, though the last three are predicated on there already being a great deal of emotional intimacy in a relationship, and as such I’ve only done them with my partner. But anything that could be seen as progressing from there – kisses, for example – suddenly doesn’t increase that feeling of emotional intimacy anymore. It’s good and fine, but it’s like the second and third bites of a piece of pizza: tasty, but nowhere near as good as the first bite.

Because aces seem to like graphs, I drew one as an example, to explain this further:

I can’t do computer graphics, so I hand draw things. The graph has two axes, with physical closeness on the x-axis (and a range of behaviours from hugging to making out) and emotional connection on the y-axis. The line of the graph increases sharply and then flattens out, peaking around cuddling for me. At kissing, the lines becomes dotted, indicating the boundaries of my close relationships.

Emotional closeness and physical closeness for me are like an exponential curve, which basically hits a maximum at cuddling and then continues for a little while before breaking off completely. However, there are lots of different configurations that could appear as well.

What if the curve were inverted, for example? It’s quite easy to imagine that things like holding hands and cuddling might only lead to a small increase in emotional connection, while things like kissing and more sexual activities could lead to a more rapid increase in emotional connection. This seems to reflect the dominant model of relationships, where ‘mucking around’ is all fine and good, but everything suddenly gets a lot more complicated when sex gets involved.

Other people might find that their curve has several peaks, or fluctuates a lot, or isn’t a curve but a straight line. Or, it reaches its limit quite suddenly and then drops off entirely, because going beyond that point physically is a no-go. Someone who is repulsed by physical contact might have a line that doesn’t leave the x-axis or that dips into the negative. By the same token, your graph might not look anything like the graph I drew for myself, but have different axes and different labels altogether. Maybe kissing feels less physically intimate than holding hands to you. There doesn’t always have to be a progression involved at all.

So what does all this mean? Well, it’s really just a fancy way of conceptualising that emotional and physical intimacy are less of a package than they are often presented as by non-asexual culture. Sometimes they exist in correlation with each other, sometimes as results of each other, and other times they only influence each other partially, if at all. Often the assumption about asexual people is that because we don’t experience sexual attraction, and many of us don’t partake in much sexual activity, we don’t participate in any other sort of physical intimacy at all. This isn’t true, of course, because like most things, physical affection exists on a scale that is different for everyone.

For this reason, being able to look at your relationships with people and see how they work – what makes you feel close to someone, and what doesn’t – is really important. And the next step is being able to communicate about that with the people in your life, especially in asexual and mixed relationships. Even though you might love hugging anyone and everyone, someone else might think that hugs are only nice if they already feel significantly emotionally connected to that person.

How do physical and emotional closeness interact in your relationships – romantic, sexual or otherwise? What would your graph look like?

About Jo

Jo is an ancient history honours student in Australia, with a particular interest in gender and sexuality in antiquity. In her free time she devours books, tea and Doctor Who, but is honestly not that into cake, and proudly calls herself a feminist and an activist. She identifies an an aromantic asexual a little bit more every day. Jo also blogs at A Life Unexamined on feminism and asexuality.
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11 Responses to Graphing Physical and Emotional Closeness

  1. Jo says:

    Reblogged this on A life unexamined and commented:

    Hi everyone!

    I’ve recently been accepted as a new contributor to The Asexual Agenda, a collaborative blog focused on writing on asexuality and its intersections from a non-101 perspective. It’s largely a place for people on the asexual spectrum to go on big rambles together while theorising on the side, but other readers might enjoy it too.

    This is the first post I’ve written for the blog: I hope you enjoy it!

  2. Effi says:

    Graph all the things! I should take another look at my behavioral preference curves…

    So I probably have a longer comment coming in the near future, but I wanted to share something I found recently on measuring emotional connection. From a neat post about conceptualizing relationships at :

    “Emotional importance runs from ‘complete strangers’ to ‘focus people’, with focus people being the term I’m using for ‘most important people’ – people who would be your ‘hostages’ for the second task of the Triwizard Tournament, who would be the best targets if someone wanted to blackmail you into something or haunt you with visions of horrors, for whom you would drop everything if they needed you or were in trouble.”

    I have trouble wrestling my feelings about people onto a one-dimensional axis, but I like that quote and could definitely point to my “focus people.” Even within that group though, lots of variation in the level of touch I’m interested in.

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  7. cjhwrites says:

    I’ve been tiptoeing into the asexual world of friends on occasion and your graph has prompted an observation of my own… nobody bats an eyelid at established relationships of a specific age group (I’m thinking of the ancient, the old and the wrinkly). A teen is considered to be… anytime, anyplace; the twenties are when the opportunity arises but is also “let’s see if we can cause the opportunity to arise”. The thirties are slowly slinking to the bedroom only and it’s either premeditated by one partner or pure blind luck. The forties are ever hopeful but they appreciate the drive is not what it once was….
    now come the latter years. Who sees an older couple and comments that they’re not all over each other? Who thinks it strange that holding hands is a dearer moment? Nobody thinks it strange that an emotional attachment does not have to equate to lust and desire?
    So to all you asexual guys and girls… you’re not unusual, you’re just more mentally mature than the rest of us 😉

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  10. DasTenna says:

    After coming out to myself and suddenly having words for how I feel, it was possible to take a closer look and to understand what happens when I´m physically close to someone. Emotional and physical closeness often occur together for me, but only to a certain point. The moment the physical acts turn sexual, the emotional connection breaks completely off. I cannot follow there. I can force myself to go there, but only physically. Kissing in a non-sexual way is ok, stroking softly, cuddling (with clothes on or naked), taking a shower together is all fine and makes me feel emotionally and physically close. But french kisses, sexual stimulation, being touched in a harder way disconnects me from the other person. I would say that sexual intimacy separates me from a partner.

    • luvtheheaven says:

      I relate to this for sure. I felt the emotional distance grow once making out sexual kissing or further sexual things were happening between me and the two people I ever did any of those things with in 2012 and 2013. I do think though the right kind of physical closeness adds to emotional closeness for me for sure 💛

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