#1229: “Is it unfair or mean to only hug some members of a group or family?” (Answer: NOPETY NOPE NOPE NOPETEPUS TO NOPETOWN!)

Hello Captain,

I have a situation with a hug-seeking missile. Is it cruel to exclude one or two people of a family?

I hug my in-laws except two guys my age, 33. My SIL (Becky’s) bf (Matt) wanted to be hugged before I was ready. I acquiesced, not wanting him to feel shunned. But he aggressively goes in for hugs if I freeze, even if I pull away! I lightly said no thanks a couple times, it was ignored. So I became a master at hug dodging. I’d duck out of reach (difficult because I’m disabled,) he’d immediately come for me again. He doesn’t hug my husband or BIL Bart, who don’t usually hug. He didn’t treat it as a joke, he seemed serious and implacable. There’s no way Matt doesn’t know that’s uncomfortable, right? He also seems to try to force eye contact with me on days I dodge him. I can’t stand any eye contact at the best of times so I may be oversensitive to it, but that seems so aggressive to me.

I immaturely asked my husband James to act as a bouncer. He stood between us and gave Matt a firm “NO hugs, go away.” There wasn’t huge fallout, but it will be different when I do it because women’s boundaries aren’t as respected. Matt only stopped for that day.

I know I was ridiculous for dodging so long.

Surely anyone’s feelings would be hurt by being the only one not hugged. It seems cruel to hug every person in a room but one or two. I stopped hugging even my SILs for awhile, but slowly phased that back in. After that, Matt gave up for 3 years until this weekend. I dodged.

I suspect being friendly with Bart is what triggered it. James, Bart, and I hang out lately and I consider him a brother. We don’t hug yet but would if he wanted to, if Matt wasn’t around. I’ve known Bart for 10 years longer than Matt.

I can understand not wanting to be excluded. But Matt’s not a good friend. He monologues instead of conversing, we have to take the mic from him by saying, “Matt, [name] was trying to speak.” Becky has picked up his unpleasant conversation style. This monologuing was a problem previously, which we resolved by having some events we invite Becky and Matt to, but mostly it’s 4 of 5 siblings, and me. We all worry if this is mean of us.

Matt’s seriously drained my benefit of doubt. It’s partly my fault for not firmly saying, “No.” After this weekend I feel ready to say “NO,” or state that I don’t feel comfortable when people ignore clear signs of discomfort like pulling away. I’ve practised in the mirror, but I don’t know how to deal if the larger family points out it’s not fair to hug everyone but Matt. I don’t want to be mean to anyone, but I can’t handle dodging Matt anymore.

Thank you for any advice,

Missile Defense System

Hi Missile Defense System,

I’m not sure I teased out everything about the family and friend dynamic – we’ve got your SIL’s boyfriend Matt, an aggressive pushy hugger, and Bart, a brother-in-law who you like much better than Matt and might want to hug at some point? And your husband, James, who ran interference with Matt that only stuck for one day, and you’ve been having to fend this dude off for the better part of three years?

tl;dr I think it’s okay to like spending time with some family members better than others and to not hug people you don’t enjoy hugging.

tl;dr Part Two: Say it were in fact “rude” to refuse hugs to just some people and not others. Is that somehow ruder or worse than insisting on them from someone you’ve been told doesn’t like them? I would argue: Nope! Please don’t let the fear of being rude force you into complying with someone who is habitually inconsiderate specifically to you.

Let’s say, in the most generous possible interpretation, that Matt genuinely forgot that y’all don’t hug or thought that the rules had changed after a few years. But you dodged him this most recent time, yes? So it’s clear you still don’t like it. If I offer or ask to hug someone and they tell me they aren’t up for it or physically shrink away, here’s what I do: I PROBABLY DON’T HUG THEM EVER AGAIN UNLESS THEY HUG ME FIRST. I don’t chase them around the room with my arms out like a cartoon Frankenstein or mummy every time we see each other, I don’t keep testing to see whether it’s Hugs O’Clock or All Hugging Eve. I don’t pout or decide they are mean. I don’t watch who else they hug like a hawk and think, “A-ha, they hugged that person, so, not throwing away my SHOT!” I just… leave them alone? That way I know absolutely for sure I’m not crossing boundaries or pressuring them, they can always come hug me if they’re feeling it, plus, it would be incredibly upsetting to think someone was only hugging with me because they felt like they couldn’t safely avoid it. (This works with both people and with cats – if a cat wants to be petted, it will let you know. The more you chase it, the more it will avoid you).

Back off, “Matt.” (Image: Velma shoos away a cartoon Mummy)

Fortunately, there are lots of ways to greet people and take our leave: Handshakes, fist-bumps, nods of solidarity to acknowledge our shared membership in the human condition, the words “good to see you, Buddy” and “Hey” and “‘sup?” Matt has choices about what to do, so why does he insist on the thing he knows you don’t want or like? (He’s been told “no” more than once in words so kindly spare me the invocation of Shrödinger’s Autist, the man who only comes out in internet discussions when a woman doesn’t want something from him, ’cause did you see the part where Matt doesn’t insist on hugging the LW’s husband or other men in the room?)

You asked your husband to step in, you’ve said “no” perfectly clearly, the next step (if you haven’t already done so) might be saying to Matt directly: “I thought it was clear that don’t want to hug you. This is getting super-weird and I want it to stop. If I change my mind, I will hug you. Don’t make me have this conversation again.” It’s okay to raise your voice and make it as uncomfortable in the room as he routinely makes you. If he avoids you a little after that and gets the idea you don’t like him? Good? You don’t?

Hugs are supposed to feel good. They are supposed to be friendly, affectionate, warm expressions of a bond. They are not requirements, commands, or rituals you have to unlock before you can get to the next part of exploring the castle full of zombie wizards in a video game [“Answer the sentinel’s riddle and clasp him in a warm embrace to receive the passcode”]. They are totally optional and voluntary* for adults and should fucking well be for children. If people don’t make you feel good with their hugs or you don’t feel good about hugging them, you don’t have to hug them, full stop.

scooby doo mummy
“Not even for Scooby Snacks, Bro! Learn about basic consent!”  (Image: A cartoon Frankenstein chases Scooby Doo with arms outstretched)

You just…don’t. You don’t have to give reasons. You don’t have to explain yourself. You can say, “Oh, no hugs for me, thanks.” “No hugs today.” You can say, “Eh, Matt and I aren’t close like that” or “Yeah, Matt made it super-weird and would never take no for an answer, so it’s just a thing now, where I don’t like hugging him, you should talk to him about that next time, I don’t want to discuss it anymore” or “Matt, when I want a hug I will hug you, until then, back the fuck off, I’m not having this weird interaction every time we meet.” You can do what I did once at an event when a very odious person held out their arms for a hug and I said “Hey [Name]!” and high-fived their hand and sort of ducked under one of the outstretched arms and twisted away, causing a good friend (and equal avoider of said person) who was observing to say, “I never thought of you as particularly graceful, but just now? You moved like a dancer.” 

If the extended family wants to convene a summit about “why specifically don’t you hug Matt” you can go with “Dunno, just don’t! What a weird topic, though, howabout that Giant Subject Change?” if you want. You can drop a little honesty along the lines of  “He always makes it kinda weird and I don’t like it” or “Eh, I told him I’d hug him when and if I felt like it, he knows why” or “Dunno, why don’t you ask him why he keeps trying to hug me when he knows I don’t like it? It’s been like this for three years.You can ask your spouse to be the buffer about all of this, which is not “immature,” you’re disabled and continually dodging clearly costs you, so he can be the one to say, “what a weird thing to ask, nobody has to hug anybody if they don’t want to.

Watch out for the ‘neg’ accusation that you think Matt’s secretly attracted to you, so then you feel pressured to reassure everyone that you don’t think that. It’s a totally a ploy to get you to just shut up and comply! Matt’s intentions don’t actually matter more than the effects of his actions on you, plus someone doesn’t have to be specifically trying to seduce you to be a boundary-crossing creep, some people just habitually try to get away with stuff and pretend it’s all so very unintentional even though it’s an obvious pattern and if you think this is a subtextual dig about prominent politicians or other famous people, you’re probably right, let’s ditch the subtext and say, I think we can do better than leaders who just can’t help pawing every woman they meet like some untrained retriever. Good Impulse Control is kind of a required trait if you want to be in charge of important stuff!

Back to this specific letter:  If your spouse’s family pressures you on behalf of someone who is pressuring you to do stuff you don’t like? Not Cool, Family. If they want things to be less weird, why don’t they go bug the person who is being rude and weird?

You may feel pressure to smooth it all over or comply for Becky’s sake. Don’t. She either knows how he is already or it’s time she knew how he is already. Not your problem. And it’s okay to keep interrupting their monologues when they happen. Neither of them sound like hint-getters or turn-takers, so, time to return awkwardness to sender. Best-case scenario they don’t even really notice the interruption and everybody gets some conversation air time back.

As for Bart, when and if you both feel like hugging each other, hug it out! He seems like a fun dude who understands consent! You don’t have to distribute your hugs (or affection/attention) “fairly” and anyone who makes “fairness” arguments about mundane acts of voluntary physical affection and who is “owed” what is telling on themselves, i.e. “Hi, I’m a pushy creep who likes to exploit social conditioning to get people to touch me when I KNOW they don’t really want to.” Cool story, “Matt(s).” Tell it walking.


*Note on Culture: I’m in the U.S.A. where handshakes are routine for people you don’t know well/aren’t related to or close to. Good news, if your culture is a kissing-on-the-cheek culture, hello! I salute you and love visiting you, and I will generally shake off my Stony New England Personal Bubble and do the friendly air kiss thing, and I’m telling you, if someone in your family or social circle routinely creeps you out during that ritual, it’s okay to pull back! Maybe you feel a cold coming on, you wouldn’t want to spread it, maybe you have to go to la toilette tout de suite, excusez-moi! and will be back in a moment, maybe you can start wearing chic hats with defensively-wide brims, I don’t know, but if someone regularly makes your skin crawl, don’t touch them if you don’t wanna. The pushy person who uses cultural norms and politeness to get away with bullshit knows no borders, sadly.