Loving a Champion Hugger in an Air-Hug Season

Some of us are clearly more suited than others to our current culture of social distancing and virtual get-togethers. My husband and I fall into opposite camps: Seth is a heartfelt, non-ironic hugger from Berkeley, Calif. I am not.

For me, a hybrid of a British dad and Brooklyn-born mom, used to quick and choppy hellos and goodbyes, Seth’s style took some getting used to.

Growing up, my parents mostly hugged and kissed as an act of reconciliation. My dad is a Brit and I learned to express love the way he does: through wisecracks, banter and play fighting. Instead of a hug at my graduation, it was a few pats on my shoulder and a brisk kiss on my cheek.

When Seth and I met, it was spring of my senior year in college in upstate New York: Snow mounds thawed as green buds and tiny bursts of flowers struggled to emerge. After weeks of eyeing each other on our quad, we ran into each other at the bottom of the stairs near the campus apartments. He said something; I don’t remember what. I was close enough to smell patchouli on him and note his scruffy sideburns. As much as I’d fantasized about a moment like this — pulling him close, the ripe potency of our chemistry — in reality, talking to a crush was too excruciating. I flashed a smile and muttered a one-liner my dad would’ve admired, before slipping off to my apartment to be alone with my regrets.

Ten years and 3,000 miles later, both of us had found our own ways out to California. I’d rolled the dice with a one-way ticket to San Francisco, and Seth had moved to Oakland, adjacent to his home turf.


By age 31, I was eager to graduate from the dating world. One day, while I was scrolling through profiles on OkCupid, Seth’s face popped up. I’d recognize those amber eyes anywhere. Fortified by years of therapy and an established career path as a therapist myself, I was as ready as I’d ever be to embark on a relationship with a guy who I’d later find out was the son of a couples’ therapist and neuropsychologist. I pinged him (a virtual embrace).

Three days later, there he was: leaning against the wall of a taqueria in San Francisco, skinnier and more freckled than I remembered. He smiled as I approached and, of course, leaned in for a hug. It was my first taste: warm, close and unwavering — but not awkward. I pulled back in a daze, lest I melt. We ordered burritos and took them to a park. Chomping away, we played the college name game. By the last nub of my burrito, we’d bridged those 10 years.

A few hours later, we sealed the date with a lingering cuddle at a gritty bus stop. We’d kissed at the bar, but it was the hug — our hearts pressed together so intensely — that stayed with me. Ten, 11, 12 seconds passed before we parted. I took that feeling home with me on the bus. Never in 31 years had anyone ever hugged me like that.

Over the next few weeks, I discovered that Seth lived alone with a cat and loved ecstatic dancing and skinny-dipping in cold lakes in the Sierras. But what separated him from a lot of men was his emotional availability. He wasn’t afraid to let people get close. In fact, he invited almost everyone in. At a friend’s party one night, after we’d mutually decided it was time to go, I waved a loud goodbye to everybody before heading out. And then I waited. And waited. Finally, I walked back up the steps and peeped in through the door frame. As it turns out, Seth’s way of saying goodbye is hug-centric: No person left unhugged.

By the one-year mark, we had shifted from rom-com to soap opera drama. My aloofness and privacy triggered Seth’s impulse to connect. His need for closeness clashed with my tendency to seek solitude when I was upset. Neither of us backed down. After an argument, if Seth initiated a makeup hug too early, our bodies remained stiff and unforgiving. Hugging at these times held an emptiness; it became a sham.

What made this relationship different from others I’d had was how we always came back to each other in the end: to talk, to listen, to laugh. Seth learned to give me the time I needed before we talked, even if it felt foreign to him. Then he’d say: “Come here. I need ventral to ventral.” Pressing our hearts and abdomens together was his fast-track return to the type of love and intimacy he grew up with: lifelong friendships, earnest communication with good eye contact, processing feelings over a cup of tea. Over the years, I gradually shared with him shadowy, cobwebbed parts of myself, and grew less fearful and more appreciative of his brand of intimacy. My hugging style evolved: I began to absorb more, and shy away less.

Rapidly, we did everything couples are warned against doing — move in together, plan a wedding, buy a house, get pregnant — all in two years’ time. After a sushi dinner with our parents to celebrate our pregnancy, my father stood up, not to toast us, but to speed the night along. He said, in his quick, slapdash manner: “OK, OK, good night, everybody. What good news, but it’s time to get home.” Then he dodged out the door. The rest of us followed, and watched as Seth’s father chased mine half a block down the street.

“Hold on, I need to hug you goodbye,” he called out, wagging a finger good-naturedly.

“Oh, come on!” my father protested. “We’ve already hugged once!”

“Well,” Seth’s father said, smiling, “Let me give you one more.”

Seth and I have been married for six years, and now have two kids, ages 2 and 5. I’ve had all of this time to embrace the hug, and I’ve made real progress. But now, with the coronavirus pandemic, the world is taking a long hiatus from hugging. Instead of greeting people in the usual way, I’m now raising elbows from six feet away, air-hugging, virtually hugging, even emoji hugging. In this crisis, my husband and daughters are the only people I touch. When I collapse-hug my husband at the end of a long day, or snuggle my daughters at bedtime, I’m aware that the act of embracing transmits compassion, connection and love — an invitation to deepen a relationship.

When Covid-19 is behind us, I hope we return to hugging, outside our families. But meanwhile, I am grateful to be married to a champion hugger, who has passed on his skills to our daughters. I’ve come a long way in the art of hugging, and I still have much to learn.

And I wonder: What will it mean to hug again on the other side of this?

Ariella Cook-Shonkoff is a licensed psychotherapist and art therapist based in Berkeley, Calif.

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