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Background

I have a friend who I met in college (we're both 19 year old males) and we attended the same classes together. Throughout the semesters he was a little "touchy-feely" (e.g. putting his arm around my shoulders in the bro-like fashion more than a normal friend would) towards me. I am sure that he is not gay and he does not have any interest in being anything more than a "bro" to me, thus the most likely reason that I attribute his actions to is that he just has the mentality of a 12 year old and thinks that doing these actions are perfectly normal. (This is just what I tell myself in order to "accept" the fact that I'm being touched by him, however I'm feeling increasingly uncomfortable as the days go by, hence this question)

After we graduated from college, we meet up lesser. However, I am still uncomfortable with him being "touchy-feely" with me when we hang out at the mall.

Question: How do I tell him that I am uncomfortable when he "touches" me without offending him or making our friendship awkward?


Additional Notes

  • We are both straight males.
  • I have a girlfriend, he is single.
  • He does not touch me in a way that suggests he wants to make advances with me.
  • Does he treat everyone that way? – Harper May 4 '18 at 15:22
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    @Harper no, he doesn't. Only to his closer friends. – enlighten_me May 4 '18 at 16:08
  • Doesn't this means that he sees in you a close friend? :) – lukuss May 18 '18 at 14:15
74

I have been the friend in this situation before. It almost ruined a great friendship because my friend did not tell me how much it bothered him. He just shrugged it off for years until finally one day he flipped out on me. Even then he didn't say what it was about. It wasn't until weeks later that we talked again that he finally told me he felt his physical boundaries were being violated.

I like to think that if he had said something like this, I would have stopped bothering him:

"Forklift, you're a great friend, but honestly, I wish you wouldn't touch me so much. I really value our friendship but all of that physical contact makes me uncomfortable enough to not want to hang out sometimes."

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    Excellent, but I would sugest adding something like “I’m just not a very touchy-feely person” or similar. This makes clear that you’re not suggesting he has inappropriate intentions: it’s just about a difference between your and his attitudes towards physical contact between friends. – PLL May 4 '18 at 12:46
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    Feel free to take a crack at it, @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine. I have trouble imagining that extra information sounding like anything other than "I know you're not gay, but you're acting gay" which I don't feel is in the spirit of the solution I've provided. – Forklift May 4 '18 at 13:04
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    This also goes for people who just have a different cultural expectation than you that aren't good friends. The folks who greet you with a hug instead of a handshake at the office, because they do that to everyone. "I'd prefer to shake hands; I'm uncomfortable with being hugged." – JKreft May 6 '18 at 2:54
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One of my friends used to behave like this. Even a good friend may take offence if you immediately call him out on it and complain. That said, the longer you go without bringing it to his attention, the longer he will assume you have no problems with it.

If he for instance puts his arm around your shoulders, simply push his arm away firmly without flinching or looking offended. If he tries it again soon after, this is when you could explicitly say you're not comfortable with it. Sexuality or relationship status shouldn't factor in, so long as he knows it's just an establishment of boundaries and that it's nobody's fault, he should eventually learn to stop. In such a case, it may help to emphasise that you would be like this with everyone (with the possible exception of your girlfriend).

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Your friend might have a love language of physical touch (and no, thats not as weird as it sounds). It means that unlike other people, he values appreciation and camaraderie in a different manner than others, essentially though appropriate physical contact.

I have a friend like this, so I alter how I act around him. Instead of a handshake as greeting, I give him a bro-hug. Instead of just saying "congrats", I clasp him on the shoulder as well. Whenever he (or anyone for that matter, though that is beside the point) uses my shoulder for an elbow rest, I do that same thing to him (which makes for an interesting balancing act). Same for arm around shoulders.

I say all that to provide context. And to highlight how I deal with the situation (And trust me, I am not a physical person, I guard my personal space religiously). Instead of shutting my friend down, I take control of the situation and guide it in a manner that gives him the camaraderie he wants, without overstepping my personal boundaries.

If he still goes too far in your opinion, the other answers cover that pretty well. What I'm suggesting here is looking at it from your friend's point of view, figuring out what he wants/why he does what he does, then controlling the situation rather then reacting to it.

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    So you take control of the situation by, correct me if I'm wrong, giving him some physical touch when appropriate? What if he takes it wrongly and thinks that I'm okay with him touching me? How do I give him the physical touch (acknowledgement?) that he wants without falsefully leading him on? – enlighten_me May 3 '18 at 23:47
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    @enlighten_me - I don't think this approach solves your problem. However, it might be a nice piece of a longer-term solution. – user12334 May 4 '18 at 14:56
  • @enlighten_me I think what this is getting at is that people show love in different ways, and we often show love in ways we also appreciate receiving it. Your friendship could benefit by embracing this "love language" of your friend. – Clint May 4 '18 at 21:38
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This is a normal development in your relationships.

As we mature our boundaries become more assertive and we leave behind our more immature rough and tumble.

It is also a time of many insecurities and wanting reassurance from our current support network. So your friend is probably expressing his need for support and feeling more insecure how things are developing.

Expressing your irritation at certain ways of showing interaction in public can be shown, simply demonstrating things are now changing. It is best this is shown subtly, as irritation, ie stepping away, getting up, making things a little more distant when you need to.

Whether they can grow with you, or stay in their more child like behaviour is going to be their battle. You though need to be assertive and respond to what is happening in your life and how you feel.

I had a best friend who could not cope with me having a girl friend, and it became a simple issue of where my loyalties lay. It was their insecurities in needing fixed reference points that they needed to not change, which they tried to impose on others. This was always going to fail, because life is always a flow of change, nothing is truly static.

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    I question 'child-like behaviour'. Don't know about Singapore, but in France it's common for people - man to man included, to hug and kiss on both cheeks when meeting, or parting. Grown-ups especially. – Tim May 4 '18 at 8:02
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    This amount of physical contact between friends is not at all unusual or seen as immature in much of the world. I think you're conflating a regionalism of yours or perhaps even just a personal preference with maturity. Now what is a mature thing to do is to try to avoid making people uncomfortable unnecessarily, but if that's what your answer was meant to say you're not communicating it very well. – Cubic May 4 '18 at 9:25
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It's a lot less awkward if rather than concentrating on you feeling uncomfortable when he touches you, you phrase it as your comfort level in general; assuming that you would feel the same about someone else, you should say "I'm uncomfortable with people touching me", rather that "I'm uncomfortable with you touching me". Make it about what touch you're comfortable, and try to keep the conversation away from judging. You have one comfort level, your friend has another, and there's nothing wrong with either of them. They happen to be incompatible, and you'd like your friend to accommodate you by reducing the amount he touches you. Comparisons to 12-year-olds you should keep to yourself.

3

People having varying levels of physical contact preference. Some prefer a lot, some a little, some none at all. Generally, the closer you are to them (siblings, good friends), the more often you can expect it, but it really depends on the person.

There is always the independence and strengthening of self-sufficiency that gives you a protective feeling of your space. People get less physical as their bodies get less active, and they settle. As mentioned in comments, some cultures set a norm too, but it's personal preference that will decide whether someone prefers more or lesser physical bonding - both giving and receiving.

Your friend should respect your boundaries if they know of them. By all means, talk to them and make sure they know you're one who prefers less. Forklift provided a solid way to verbally approach that.

Although as their preference is for more contact, they will probably slip up every now and then, as they're comfortable around you.

I'd probably just give them an unimpressed stare if they did that. If it was a longer touch and they kept the offending limb in contact, like hand on shoulder, just firmly take it off with your own hand, that normally brings about a realisation and perhaps a "whoops I forgot" type of apology.

Squirming away is a less assertion of boundaries and more repulsive response, so they might take it personally. In either case, make sure you don't embarrass them during their display of friendliness.

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    Welcome to IPS! Your answer adds an interesting theory in the second paragraph to what might be going on here. I also think your last paragraph is a valuable contribution, expecting that the friend will probably still mess up sometimes; perhaps you could edit to say a little more about how to deal with that or how to keep asserting a boundary. – cactus_pardner May 4 '18 at 19:06
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    Alrighty @cactus_pardner, I added it. Thanks for the welcome. – Phi May 6 '18 at 13:51
  • Awesome expansion, @Phi! :) – cactus_pardner May 6 '18 at 22:05

protected by Monica Cellio May 6 '18 at 18:15

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