I used to have an aloof cat that I practically chased, trying to show her affection. She, indifferent, would sprint the other way when I entered a room.

It’s strange that I long to be affectionate with an aloof cat, and yet when it comes to those I love the most, I struggle deeply with showing my love via touch. It’s been a conundrum many years. And I’m deeply ashamed about it. I wish this kind of affection came naturally to me.

Affection was not Instinctual

When my now-adult children were younger, maternal boo-boo kissing and comforting after crying did not automatically spring up from motherland. I didn’t have that instinct the baby books seemed to promise would materialize. I wanted my children so desperately (and I mean desperately) to know I loved them, so I made the choice to become affectionate.

When Sophie skinned her knee, I gave myself a mental talking to. “Mary, bend low, clean and bandage the knee, and then hug it out.”

When Aidan hollered from some sort of toddler injustice, I would coach myself, “Mary, he is sad. He needs a hug from his mom. So grab him and hug him.”

When Julia cried and simply wanted to be held, I reminded myself to hold her longer, kiss her head, and let her cry until the tears wept themselves clear.

And with my husband Patrick, I have had to do the same sort of exercise. Making a choice to hold his hand, kiss him. I know…hardly romantic.

We Need a heart Change

After all this self-coaching, I am getting better. Even more effective than my internal coaching, though, has been asking Jesus to please-please-please heal the broken parts of my affection issue. Because rote obedience to yourself only lasts so long. A true heart change accomplishes much, much more.

My fallback is to chase the aloof. My fear is to pour affection on the people who see all of me, and I run the risk of true rejection from the ones who matter the most.

At least with the cat, I know she’ll not return the favor. She is safe in that way. I can hug her and not expect a feline embrace–every single time.

But to hug my family is to risk. It’s to be as vulnerable as I know how to be. I wish that sexual abuse had nothing to do with this struggle. But it does. Because when you’re abused in the most intimate part of who you are, you start the lifelong battle of fear–fear that it will happen again. And to be vulnerable with affection is to open yourself up for more abuse.

I know none of this makes logical sense. Of course my family won’t harm me in this way. But because the abuse happened when I was so young, my fear of anything smacking of affection cut a deep rut into my natural responses. It’s my very powerful fall back to be afraid that I’ll be used or violated. And retraining something that was so damaged in childhood sometimes feels impossible.

It’s easier to chase the aloof than risk with the loving.

And yet, I know the abundant, sweet life Jesus has for me involves risking in relationships, of hugging my spouse and kids, of not being so darned afraid all the time.

All this to say, I am a work in progress. I chase cats and sometimes still have tell myself to be affectionate with the ones I love. Perhaps you’re like me in this regard? If so, we can at least rejoice that we’re not alone in this struggle, right? And I can encourage you that progress does come, maybe not monumentally, but incrementally. It starts by recognizing the problem, then asking Jesus to revolutionize your heart.

Today I have a different cat who, oddly, loves me and allows me to pick her up. She purrs in my embrace. My children are grown, and my husband and I are holding hands more often. This is what grace looks like. This is what walking the healing journey has done. I’m not fully healed (and that won’t happen until heaven’s shores), but I’m a little farther along. That’s my hope for you.

I share about sexual abuse recovery in We Too. Pick up your copy here.


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