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For many of us, there’s nothing like a big, warm hug to make our hearts soar and our stress melt away. As human beings, it’s natural to crave physical contact from others, but for survivors of domestic violence, any type of touch, no matter how innocent the intention, can be a painful experience.
Aaron Kipnis, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, author and professor of psychology at that Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif., explains why this is. “Abuse leaves an imprint that touch is dangerous. It’s very common post-trauma. For abuse survivors they may flinch, withdraw or retract when hugged, even though they’re longing for physical contact.”
Of course, many survivors of domestic violence are pro-hug and are OK with intimate touch, even with strangers. Healing happens at different paces when it comes to the aftermath of trauma. Some abuse survivors, particularly those who are used to being physically overpowered, can feel threatened when it comes to a close-up moment like a hug. Just as many survivors like to sit with their backs up against a wall, says Kipnis— “They don’t like anyone sneaking up on them”—so, too, do they need to feel in control of intimacy. “Abuse is a very profound kind of trauma.” He says that this adverse reaction to a simple hug can profoundly affect relationships, from friendships to more intimate relationships.
But the good news is there are several ways to modify the traditional hug so that abuse survivors can feel safe. Kipnis explains two types below.
French Hug. Kipnis says he noticed, while traveling in Europe, that French women had a very different kind of hugging style than in America, particularly when they encountered people they were familiar with, but not close with. A woman would place both of her hands on the front of the other person’s shoulders, lean in and give a light kiss on the cheek, which, of course, is optional. The important part to note, says Kipnis, is that “the woman lets in the other person as close as they wish, or they can push them back. This type of hug gives a woman control over her personal space.”
Handshake Hug. This is the type of hug Kipnis says he reverts to often when working with boys who have been through abuse, though he says he would work for any age or gender. For this hug, Kipnis extends his hand for a handshake while putting his other hand on the person’s shoulder. “Like the French hug, the hands are between you, so there’s always opportunity to push away or control the degree of intimacy that will occur in the hug. It feels safe for survivors,” says Kipnis.
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