A reprint from February 2008, inspired by a comment in this post by Glenden Brown.
I’ve been married four times and lived with a couple of other women for extended periods. (I never did single well, evidently, from the time I was seventeen). And just about every last one of the women with whom I have lived in or out of wedlock has developed a fascination with grooming me. Whether it was searching my back for acne or patrolling my beard line looking for ingrown hairs, virtually everyone with whom I’ve been in a long-term relationship has had a strong desire to explore, poke, pluck, and pop various parts of my body. I have never once felt even the remotest desire to reciprocate.
Mind you, I like my wife’s grooming. Though it’s periodically painful to have tiny hairs torn out, zits punctured and so forth, I take it as evidence of affection. It’s obviously a behavior we humans share with a wide variety of our fellow animals; everyone from primates to penguins seems to delight in removing impurities from a loved one’s skin, fur, or feathers. Despite more than twenty years studying or teaching gender and sexuality, I’ve never given much thought to the cultural or psychological implications of this behavior in humans. In my experience, at least, this sort of grooming in heterosexual relationships is rarely reciprocal — it seems to be initiated mostly by the female partner, and is submitted to with varying degrees of willingness by the male. (In the animal kingdom, it does appear to be a gender-neutral behavior, and enthusiastically mutual.)
Honestly, by the time I was in my third or fourth relationship with a woman who wanted to dig around for ingrown hairs or pimples, I began to wonder if I was uniquely in need of such grooming. Was I not washing or shaving often enough? Did I need to change my razor even more often? I remember bringing it up with my friend Joseph a decade or so ago, asking him if his long-time girlfriend ever did something similar. Joe got very excited: “Oh hell yes, she does. All the time.” We swapped “horror” stories of particularly painful “procedures” to which we had submitted at the hands of more than one woman. It was a relief to both of us to discover that this behavior on the part of our lovers was not a response to our own uniquely problematic hygiene!
It’s easy to psychoanalyze, I suppose. Digging in someone’s skin for what is dirty or stuck is a visible and tactile method of removing impurities. If there are things about one’s partner that you wish you could “root out”, it’s a good deal easier to pop that annoying zit on his shoulder or pluck that fascinating hair on his jaw than it is to transform a more deep-seated problem! The trouble with that theory is that in my (considerable) experience, my partner’s desire to groom me is not in any way linked to the health of our relationship. It’s not as if my wife only wants to poke and pluck and explore when we’re struggling. Indeed, this “grooming urge” seems fairly constant for her (and for my previous lovers and spouses). It would be too simplistic to posit that it is primarily a response to trouble in the relationship.
The wonderful psychologist David Schnarch wrote my favorite book about sex in long-term relationships, one I highly recommend to everyone: Passionate Marriage. One of his chapters talks about the hilarious, wince-inducing topic familiar to anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship: “Normal Marital Sadism.” Sometimes, Schnarch says, no matter how good our partnership is, we’re going to have urges to be cruel to each other. Mind you, he’s not talking about domestic violence; he’s talking about everything from petty remarks to sexual withholding! The trick to successful marriage, he suggests, is recognizing NMS for what it is, and not being terrified by its emergence.
NMS is a post for another day (read his book), but it seems to tie in nicely to this “grooming compulsion.” One of the purposes of relationship is for each partner to help the other grow and transform; sexual intimacy and enduring commitment can become vehicles for personal and mutual transformation. Husbands and wives must always live in that difficult tension between radical acceptance of th other and the obligation to push the other to transform. And one small, fascinating way in which some folks seem to enjoy facilitating transformation lies in picking zits off a lover’s back. There’s no denying my wife’s delight in this small aspect of “marriage maintenance”; you should hear her crows of triumph when she gets out a “difficult” ingrown hair from my five o’clock shadow. She doesn’t invite me to reciprocate, and I’m fine with that. Some marriage practices ought to be radically mutual, while others can be decidedly unilateral. I’m happy to have the poking, plucking, popping be entirely in her bailiwick.
Your stories or comments are welcome.