One afternoon in the semi-distant past, I gave my fiancé an ultimatum: He needed to get over his aversion to hand-holding or — well, there wasn’t really an or. That was it. I was cranky. We were still a few blocks from home. Begrudgingly, he let me thread my fingers through his and kept walking.
And it was … fine? No, actually, it was worse than fine. Almost immediately, I was acutely aware of all the two-handed things I could no longer do: fix my ponytail, uncap the water bottle in my purse. My hand got sweaty. Every so often, our arm-swing rhythm would get out of sync with our steps, and I’d have to do a little half-skip to reset. I’d spent so long with a man who resisted any attempts at hand-holding that it had never really occurred to me that I might not like it, either.
I was thinking about that earlier this week, when everyone on the internet did a collective squirm over Donald Trump trying and failing and trying and failing to grab Melania’s hand, and then sort of — painfully, awkwardly — succeeding (?). He managed to hold on, at any rate. (If you missed this one, well, it’s nothing that hasn’t happened before.)
Even when both of the hands in question belong to two people who feel genuine affection towards one another, though, hand-holding it a surprisingly polarizing activity. Over at Quartz, writer Jenni Avins used the president’s latest hand-holding debacle to declare that “adult handholding is the worst.” Her argument: palms almost always feel too clammy or too rough or otherwise gross; there’s always that angsty feeling of trying to figure out when it’s gone on long enough; it’s an uncomfortable way to walk. And yeah, fine, I agree with her now. I’m not a hand-holder.
But arriving here made me oddly sad, the kind of sadness that comes with realizing that something you like about yourself isn’t really true. I want to be a hand-holder. I want it in the same way that I want to be a person who likes watching sports, or finds George Clooney attractive, because both seem to be experiences that have brought a lot of joy to a lot of people.
And it’s lonely being on the outside, especially when the experience in question is such a quietly lovely one. Holding hands is the one form of PDA that you can almost always pull off without being obnoxious, and the only one that retains its sweetness across the entire human lifespan. Teens, friends, your parents, your grandparents: all people you don’t want to watch make out, all cute walking around with their fingers laced together. It’s akin to the first time you sleep over at someone’s place without actually sleeping with them — an act steeped in intimacy because of, not in spite of, the fact that it’s sexless.
Psychology research, too, classifies it as A Good Thing. In a pair of studies published in the past year, one in the journal Scientific Reports and the other in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, couples who held hands saw their heartbeats, breathing rates, and brain waves sync up, a phenomenon the authors described as “interpersonal physiological coupling.” And in a similar 2006 study of straight married couples in the journal Psychological Science, women receiving light electric shocks felt less negative emotion when their husbands held their hands during the process.
“We found that holding the hand of really anyone, it made your brain work a little less hard in coping,” psychologist James Coan, lead author of the 2006 paper and now a professor at the University of Virginia, told the New York Times shortly before the research was published. Holding an anonymous researcher’s hand, though, didn’t have as strong of a soothing effect: “With spouse hand-holding you also stop looking for other signs of danger and you start feeling more secure.”
That sounds so nice. The whole thing seems so nice — to be able to think of this gesture first and foremost as emotionally empowering, rather than physically limiting. And to have a brain and a palm and a partner that would cooperate. “Perhaps,” Avins wrote of the Trumps-holding-hands incident, “it’s time to acknowledge a new norm: Some of us just really don’t want to hold hands.” This is very true. Some of us, though, also just really want to be on the other team.