As a child, I remember hearing the lines of the song, “Do You Love Me?” in “Fiddler on the Roof,” as the wife, Golde tries to justify her love for her husband, Tevye, who needs to know and hear if she loves him…
Golde: “Do I love you?
For twenty-five years, I’ve washed your clothes,
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house,
Given you children, milked the cow.
After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?”
I did not get why this simple “easy” act of expressing love would be so difficult, growing up in a highly demonstrative and loving Sicilian/Polish family. I thought, if you never say it, if the other person is not sure or does not know, it they have to guess… it doesn’t count, it’s not enough, you don’t get the points.
It wasn’t until I grew up and rubbed shoulders with other cultures, especially the stoic Germans who populate this part of Pennsylvania, and learned how common it is to withhold showing love.
After Todd met me, he found he enjoyed hugging and had no problem returning an embrace to all members of my family, men and women. He then decided he wanted to begin to hug his parents. They are of German descent and they had not touched him since he was very small, Actually, his mother told me that, as a rule, after one or two years old (I think when babies begin to walk), the hugging and the holding stops. I found this horrifying. I sat on my father’s lap as an adult and only stopped because his cancer deteriorated his once very strong body. My parents taught me about love.
What my mother-in-law did not know was that when we hug, touch, or sit close to another human, the chemical oxytocin is released in our brains. Oxytocin is released when our vagus nerves under our skin are stimulated by the pressure of a loved one’s arms, which in turn triggers our brains to release an increase in oxytocin. This hormone is associated with happiness and reduced stress as it actually causes a reduction in blood pressure. Psychologist Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine explains, “The hugging and oxytocin release that comes with it can then have trickle-down effects throughout the body, causing a decrease in heart rate and a drop in the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine.”
Todd did not know all this back then but it didn’t matter. He did not need a scientist to tell him hugging made him feel good. But he had no idea how to start to hug his parents, after over twenty years of abstaining. I told him I would coach him.
I set him up. When we went to visit his parents at their York county home, I lined him up. “I’ll go first. They’ll stand in a line next to the door like they always do. I will hug them first and you come after me, doing just as I do.”
But he wouldn’t do it. We got in the car, and I looked at him and said, “What happened? Why didn’t you do it?”
“I don’t know.”
We worked on this for many months. Maybe the good part of a year. Every time we visited, he tried again.
When Todd finally forced his arms into embracing his mother as he walked out the door, an amazing thing occurred. His mother weeped. And she weeped for years after that, every time her son hugged her. I was blown away at the obvious NEED she had all these years to hug her son and it had never been honored. After a short while, Todd even began to hug his father.
When I was fifteen and a new member of the Blue Mountain Hiking Club, I had good friends, Sarah and Quniten Stoudt, who taught me much about the sport, as many of the members did. Quinten was the grandfather figure I was never fortunate to know. Quinten up and died suddenly on a hike, at a fairly young age (young to me now!) and I did not get to tell him that I loved him and what his friendship meant to me. I sat down and wrote every single person in my life a personal letter, telling them how much I loved and appreciated them and what their presence in my life meant to me. I heard years later, that some saved that letter for many years. Quinten taught me about love.
I had a close friend a decade or so back, Johnny Knabb, who never got off the phone before saying, “I love you.” I took his lead and embraced this habit and now tell all my loved ones that I love them before getting off the phone. Johnny taught me about love.
I have a few Pennsylvania German men friends who have always had a hard time saying “I love you” back on the phone. They might have evolved over the years to say the not as scary, “Me too,” or “love you (forget the scary “I”). One silly boy replies, “Namaste,” because “I love you” is just still over the top for him.
But just these last few months, two of my men friends just bowled me over by saying, rather emotionally, “I love you!” before I even got the chance to say it first. I was shocked. Had I heard right?
Bob Scheidt, my husband’s painting partner, had a hard time saying thank you, you’re welcome, even hello and good bye was not uttered between the two painters when they met and separated for the day. Bob used to laugh and say that, as PA German men, who are not fond of affection, merely grunting a greeting was enough, or they expected the other to know they “thought” hello and that was enough. I thought it pathetic. This borders on simple manners in my book and anyone can be taught manners, although I have been instructing my husband for decades. He is slow to catch on. (“Yo, I sneezed.”)
So when Bob practically shouted, “I love you!” on the phone, I was moved. Then my very good, long term friend, Hoppy May did the same thing, “I love you!” he expressed, cutting me to the chase again. What is happening? So I asked them each.
Bob has been leaving PA every spring to hike a good stretch of the Camino in Spain, Portugal, and France every year. He hikes for 6 weeks and meets pilgrims from all over the world who are walking the path too. “Something changed in me after meeting those people. They displayed an affectionate quality, a better way of living, that is different than many Americans. They are more closely connected to people around them and I wanted that in my life too.”
Now Bob gives his extended family members a hug who might disagree with him on politics and on many different levels, but enjoying a shared hug has proven to be a very good thing for his relationships. “It’s been contagious,” he admits.
“I now give hugs to my painting customers, whom I’ve worked with many decades. It catches them off guard at first. One particular old lady was very grouchy, but after I gave her a hug, her mood changed to be much lighter and more open. It’s who I want to be. I now crave a deeper connection to people.”
“Saying ‘I love you’ is just part of my evolution,” Bob shares. “I am starting to realize my own mortality. I am 64 and lived with juvenile diabetes most of my life, there are so many factors hedging against me. When I had open heart surgery a few years back and thought about the startling fact that a surgeon actually held my heart in his hands and I was so close to death, it hugely impacted me. My grandson is also incredibly loving and thrives on affection. He taught me how to display love.”
Bob believes it can have a trickle-down effect, be contagious, infectious. And if it is true, that we can either spread goodness and light or darkness and pain, and it propels the world and its people in a certain direction.
Like Bob, my friend Hoppy has been feeling his own mortality too, as his aging mother longs for an end and he has to soon face life without a mother on the planet. He too expresses, “I love you” first before I can get to it. At 63, he too has arrived at a place of comfort and security, in allowing himself to express what he feels in his heart, regardless if it felt uncomfortable at first. Hop did not grow up in a family who expressed their affection for one another but now he tells his mother that he loves her too and it makes him very happy.
As the Director of my non-profit, River House PA, where we work with Veterans, helping them heal, I make it a practice to administer hugs to every Veteran as they tumble out of the van after they arrive. Many have been with us before, many others, it’s their first time. I figure this might be the only human contact they have for a long time and no one gets TOO MANY hugs. They also get a hug when they depart too and no one is allowed to get into the van until I get one, or I call them out. It encourages an expression of gratitude too, as they often use that time to thank us for the hike, dinner, campfire. Acknowledging and expressing gratitude is a very important component in healing too.
After thirty-five years of being in Todd’s family and raising two adult children who also love to hug, we have gotten his whole non-hugging German family to the point where it is expected of them to hug hello and good bye at every family get together, and they do it pretty freely. My brother-in-law, however, often tries to hide when he comes into the house, hoping I’ll miss him, but that only makes me seek him out and hug him longer. After an evening’s visit, however, he visibly warms up and his parting hug is much more forthcoming.
In doing research for this blog, I learned that a 2010 study from Ohio State University found that couples with more positive communication behaviors have higher levels of oxytocin and they heal faster from wounds. “Like diet and exercise, you need a steady daily dose of hugging,” Field says. But the quality of the hugging counts, too. “If you get a flimsy hug, that’s not going to do it,” Field says. “You need a firm hug” to stimulate oxytocin release.
Being married to me, Todd still struggles with the frequency or the level of intensity of hugging that I request, (although he has no problem saying “I love you.”) Sometimes I get only a one-armed hug and I will have to say, “Could you please put the other arm around me too.” He might be off in his head thinking about a project, or on his way to a job and hugging seemingly interferes. I tell him wives will be more interested in sex later if they get affection throughout the day. He is a smart man but is slow to make the connection. He is still a German man, however, and a few years younger than me. His parents are not sickly nor close to dying and he has not considered his own mortality at this point in his life, like Hop and Bob. Like Golde in “Fiddler on the Roof,” he still has lots of work to be done. That day will come, however, and both my arms will be ready for a firm and long hug, initiated by him. In the meantime, I have no problem requesting them, especially since I now know about the happy hormone release. As wives, we all want to live with a happy husband. Hugging seems like an easy way to get it.
Posted in: Life's Moments and Lessons