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  • A Network of Care

    A while back, I asked my Facebook friends how they would feel about dating someone with a chronic illness, or a person in a wheelchair. What about someone who is bipolar, an alcoholic or in treatment for cancer? The responses were mostly along the lines of “thanks but no thanks.” Some of the folks who spoke up were the chronically ill themselves, and they talked about how painful it was to read the responses because they were, above all, people who wanted to be loved for who they were…not rejected because of what role a health condition played in their lives. It was still a tough sell; most folks I know are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, and food in their kids’ bellies, and have a hard time squeezing in self-care. Why would anyone willingly and voluntarily fall in love with someone who already had needs that will likely eclipse their own?

     

    Before divorce was a viable option, caring for your partner in times of sickness was an expectation in relationships. My parents were married for 46 years. My mother was 23, my father 34, when they walked to the altar. They shared a life together that included career, home, travel and children. In the last years of my father’s life, he developed dementia, and my mother’s role shifted from wife and lover to mother and caregiver…all while maintaining a full-time job and other professional obligations.  She was able to care for him at home with the assistance of extra caregivers and a great support network, but it was exhausting and demanding, a long five-year stretch. But what if my father had fallen ill within their first few years of marriage? It feels somehow different to take on this sort of role/obligation when a couple has already had 40+ years of symbiotic nurturing than to sign up for it from the get-go.

     

    (NOTE: I’ve known many people who have been in long relationships with people who are chronically ill, and they have talked about the toll it takes on them to be a primary caregiver. Many of them say that if they had known about the challenge, they might not have made that choice. It’s a lot…especially when they didn’t have a great support system of their own….)

     

    In a world where online dating can create the illusion that there are infinite possibilities for potential partners, it’s easy to become swept up in the quest for THE ONE. No longer do we have to “settle” for someone who is less than perfect; we can just keep looking for the person who fulfills all of our needs. Tiny details – like preference for one dog breed over another – can be a deal breaker, but what does it matter? There are hundreds, if not millions, of others out there who also love Labradoodles, and surely one of them will be THE ONE! If it’s easy to reject someone for something as trivial as canine obsession, it’s even easier to reject them for something serious, like fibromyalgia or complex PTSD.

     

    Sadly, this is a model that leaves many out in the cold…and often without human connection and comfort. If you don’t have a partner who can hold you when you’re having a bad day and tell you that everything is going to be all right, then where do you get that support? (And of course, no one talks about the fact that having a partner doesn’t guarantee that they will get this – just as couples often have different sex drives, many couples have different touch drives.)

     

    What happens to those who don’t find themselves paired up, two by two? Do they stand outside the world of relationships, looking in like a homeless person looking at people enjoying a fine meal? If they are lucky, they find themselves with a strong community of friends and family they can call on, but that’s not always the case. In the United States, the number of single people is at an all-time high. While some of them may be in relationships, many find themselves in utter control of their own fiefdoms and fulfilling the roles of breadwinner, caregiver, decision-maker, cheerleader and planner for themselves and others.

     

    To me, it makes so much sense to form relationships that are based not only on sexual attraction but also on platonic touch. It would allow us to give and receive tangible, nurturing support from a network of people, instead of expecting one single person to fulfill all of our needs. And more importantly, this is a model that allows those who are most in need of support and care from others to get it outside of romantic relationships. It would also allow those who are supporting people who are in demanding caregiver roles to get some of their touch needs met when their partners can’t do it for them.

     

    Platonic touch not only provides emotional support, it provides oxytocin, a great aid for physical wellness: it resets the parasympathetic nervous system, reduces inflammation, and can give pain relief. Platonic touch requires no specific skills, equipment, membership or training.  It doesn’t get doled out via prescription, is all-natural and self-generated. And it’s one of the most pleasant forms of self-care out there. It does, however, require making ourselves vulnerable by asking for a type of connection where we don’t yet understand the rules of social engagement because they aren’t carefully scripted.

     

    Of course, it’s easier to continue to believe that the absolute perfect person who will be our everything exists out there, and that they will accept us, warts and all. That they will see past our scars, our history, our traumas, our aging bodies. That someone will see that these things are our strengths, not our flaws, and that they are what make us unique and interesting, and not defective and unworthy.

     

    That person may very well exist…but they are much easier to find when we are already taking care of ourselves. And forming relationships based on nurturing, platonic touch is a fantastic, rarely considered option for doing so, and can make what could be a very long wait much more tolerable…..