Mechanisms of Affection

A reflection by Lindsey

The discussion about faith and sexuality features some enduring questions that Sarah and I end up answering at least once a week. One such enduring question is, “What expressions of affection are permissible given a particular form of relationship?” As people in a celibate partnership, we frequently have people asking us how we express affection to each other. Christians as a whole are used to drawing lines around “acceptable” forms of affection. These lines of thought turn affection into a mechanical system of inputs and outputs, assuming that certain affectional inputs will always result in sexual intimacy or at minimum, a near occasion of sin for the unmarried.

I’m an engineer, and I honestly love mechanisms. Mechanisms are cool. I’m always jazzed to encounter something, anything, that has exposed mechanisms. I love seeing how things work. A mechanism is a remarkable thing that converts doable human actions, such as turning a crank, to do any number of things like sharpening a pencil, opening a can of food, sewing, or riding a bike. Assembled rightly, mechanisms allow us to connect input x with logical output y. Mechanisms assume a bounded set of initial conditions, like the switch is either on or off. Mechanisms only work in one or two ways. The crank turns clockwise or counterclockwise. If the crank moves side to side, then it’s either broken or on a slider. I love mechanisms because they are startlingly predictable.

But people don’t work the same way. The process of growing in love for another person is both dynamic and unpredictable. Interactions between two people are incredibly nuanced. The relationship between two people changes all of the time. All sorts of things influence how we interact with one another. The same action has different meaning depending on the context. A hug can offer comfort, intrude into someone’s personal space, signal close friendship, demonstrate one person’s ability to control another person’s movement, assure safety, or welcome more physical intimacy. There is nothing mechanistic about how affection “works.”

Some people I’ve met seem to have a paranoia around physical intimacy. In American Christian churches, any expression of affection gets met with skepticism, mistrust, and anxiety. We seem to be so preoccupied in having “right” forms of intimacy that we miss the point of intimacy all together. Alternately, we may perceive that our culture has rendered sex essential and sees nearly every affectionate action as a prelude to sexual intimacy. Focusing on mechanisms of affection (where again, action x has outcome y) blocks our ability to see critical components of physical intimacy: intentions and circumstances.

When people query how I express affection with Sarah and others, my answer has two components: 1) it depends and 2) it’s none of your business. The first component is the most important to me. There are few, if any, universal precepts to say that a particular form of affection always communicates love. I don’t see myself pulling actions out of an affection toolbox. I am trying to respond to a real person in front of me at a particular time. My responses vary depending on the circumstances in which I find myself. The second component comes because I do not feel obligated to explain why I determined that a particular expression of affection would be loving in a specific instance.

I’ve discerned over time that some actions do more to foster my celibate vocation than other actions do. I find myself surprised at the way regularly eating dinner together, even if that means eating at odd hours, helps me to understand hospitality better. Before I met Sarah, I viewed dinner hospitality as a kind of dinner party that had a solid start time. Dinner is at six! However, I’ve learned that approach simply doesn’t work for us or the people with whom we want to share dinner. Now I see dinner hospitality as an opportunity to create space for others to be themselves while letting them be honest about their needs. Because I’m the person who enjoys cooking, I usually handle preparing the meal. I’ve now come to see meals as a sacred time where people share vulnerably. Along the way, I’ve learned that I’m never just chopping vegetables to make soup… and sharing about the ins-and-outs with someone who wasn’t present frequently seems to impinge on sacred territory. Sometimes it’s best to invite that person over for dinner, knowing that particular dinner will have a mysterious quality to it all its own.

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