Can I Pop Your Zit? Reprinting an old post on relationships and grooming

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.

14 thoughts on “Can I Pop Your Zit? Reprinting an old post on relationships and grooming

  1. I just read this out loud to my husband and he’s laughing. I do this to him ALL.THE.TIME. He’s glad to know he’s not alone.

  2. My husband constantly picks at stuff on my skin. I don’t really mind, but I must say, I share your lack of desire to reciprocate. Ick.

  3. I am happy to say that such shenanigans do not take place in this house. Ick is the word.

    Anyway, we both have lovely skin. So there’s no need.

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  5. Haha it’s mostly the woman in our relationship who does the grooming but my partner sometimes picks dead skin off my nose or things like that. He also actively asks me to groom him, which I’m more than happy to do. For us, it’s definitely a moment of peculiar intimacy that often develops into a back rub for him or cuddling together. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who is fasciated with grooming my spouse, though!

  6. Consent, consent, consent–that’s key. Don’t do it to someone who doesn’t want it done–back off–no matter how young they are. If it hurts, that’s not benign any more. And if it makes them feel like some kind of ugly freak because they’ve never heard of anyone else having to put up with it, that’s not benign either. That isn’t in any way funny. And if you really think you have to do it, you also have to let it be done to you. Monkeys take turns, I believe; humans should be at least as considerate. Or else go pop bubble-wrap instead. Seriously. Some of us don’t need anyone claiming to find more imperfections that need to be fixed.
    “Normal marital sadism”? I’m glad I’m a celibate. If the person you live with is driving you nuts, talk it out or go get some fresh air. “Pushing someone to transform”? So having what you think is a less than perfect complexion is something that you have to push someone to transform, like it was their fault? No thanks.
    Whatever happened to “you’re fine just the way you are”??
    All I can say is, anyone ever tries that crap on me again, they’re going to lose a couple of fingers. At least.
    Folks that really are into that, find someone that is likewise, and don’t force it on anyone that never wanted any part of it to start with. What consenting adults do, I don’t care, but if I saw that someone was being subjected against their will to what I once went thru…I don’t know what I’d do.
    Too many media influences already telling us our bodies aren’t all right, before we are even out of kindergarten–we don’t need more of it from those who claim to love us.
    I hope something gets me before I get old and helpless, that’s all. I’d rather be dead than be violated again.

  7. It’s weird to me that you’d try and cast grooming as gendered. I engage it all the time (though the format differs; not necessarily picking, but hair brushing is a pretty common way for me to manifest. I think foot rubbing is the same behaviour, and I think holding up a jacket so my partner can get into it more easily is the same impulse). But if you think there’s some gendered component, why don’t you make an effort to groom your wife?

  8. Thanks, John and Theresa for making me feel a bit less isolated.
    Brushing someone’s hair and holding their coat are one thing; finding things “wrong” with them that “need” some sort of painful “treatment” is another.
    We are not apes, even though our bodies evolved from theirs. We don’t have a lot of hair to pick bugs out of any more. We have the choice of which of their behaviors we can imitate. We also have the chance to develop whole new ones, and the intelligence to put some thought into it. Like, figuring out that if someone doesn’t want it done to them, don’t. Like asking what gives us the right to judge any part of another’s body as imperfect, let alone start trying to change it.
    Thanks to Hugo for kicking this mess out into the light of day. It’s not pretty, but it has to be looked at–and stomped into oblivion.

  9. As someone who does feel that particular urge to groom – if your partner is insistent on that sort of grooming, it has nothing to do with a lack of grooming on your part, or a desire to ‘fix’ you on their part. It means they’re looking at you, really looking, consistently. These little things start to nag when you’re paying such close attention to someone, and the urge to take care of it – it’s the same as the urge to push hair out of a lover’s face. It’s about getting rid of the distractions in order to look more. It’s also an excuse to be touching in a not-overtly-sexual way, still engaging in intimacy but without necessarily initiating sex. On top of that, allowing these little liberties is a way of letting your partner know that you are open to them, available for casual contact, that they can enter your personal space at will and that you won’t consider it intruding.

  10. That still doesn’t mean everyone wants to submit to it. And if they don’t, if there is any doubt, the person can bloody well go find something inanimate, free of nerve endings, to “groom”.
    If something about one’s body is a distraction, partners (or whoever) can probably find other parts of said body to look at. Or maybe just learn to enjoy it with eyes closed, perhaps by sense of touch.
    I don’t allow “little liberties”, and decided long ago not to force them on others, and have never regretted that decision.

  11. Me and my boyfriend generally don’t do that, neither of us. Would find it weird to just do it without asking.

    I’ll tell my boyfriend if he has something in his eye, on his nose or teeth, but I won’t go up and remove it myself.

  12. Ah, I think some of the previous commenters are taking this a bit too.. uh, well I don’t want to say “seriously” but the negative reactions seem a bit misplaced, in my mind.

    Picking at one’s spouse/partner seems to be more appropriately up there with things like, sorting one’s vegetables away from other food groups on their plate, preferring wheat bread or skim milk to some other variety, a tendency to always forget to put the cap back on the toothpaste, particular word choices that always seem to creep up in their sentences that you really think are far too over used but it’s just a particular idiosyncracy of theirs– in short, one of the many mundane variables that people in long-term relationships either learn to hate or learn to love in each other. Some people find such habits annoying enough to avoid in partners, others just don’t care.

    I, for one, am a nearly compulsive group-groomer, but can’t even imagine inflicting it on a partner that really found it objectionable.

  13. If you’d grown up having it done to you against your will no matter how you protested, you might not find the negative reactions that misplaced. Someone doing something to you that hurts, and makes you feel abnormal, when you can’t defend yourself, is on a whole different level of magnitude than the annoying or just different/idiosyncratic habits you describe.
    What happens between *entirely consenting* adults, though…I won’t presume to judge that.

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