This summer, I went on my first date after the end of a three-year relationship. The guy was really sweet and we had a great conversation about spirituality, but I just wasn’t attracted enough to want a sexual relationship with him. He did, however, meet my standards for a cuddle buddy. So, at the end of the night, I invited him up to cuddle — no more.
At first, I was nervous that he’d expect something else, or that he’d be insulted that I didn’t want to go further. Instead, he just felt excited that I wanted to cuddle with him and told me how much he enjoyed it.
Years of guilt I’d carried for “leading guys on” melted off me, as did years of men pressuring me into sex just for making physical contact with them.
After my date left, I felt an endorphin rush similar to what I’d get after sex — which makes sense biologically, according to psychologist and sex therapist Laurie Mintz. “Cuddling and kissing release feel-good hormones like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, leaving you feeling happy, relaxed, and de-stressed,” she says.
“Oxytocin also helps you feel affectionate and connected to your partner.”
I saw him one more time, and again, after dinner and a walk, we just cuddled. It felt so empowering for me to be the one to set the limits. Too often in the past, I’d been compromising, going further with guys just because I wanted some kind of physical contact and felt bad about drawing that line.
Not Everyone Is Into It
A few months later, when I met a guy on Tinder who I was once again somewhat attracted to, but not enough to sleep with him, I was honest about just wanting to kiss and cuddle. This time, he pressed me to explain why I didn’t want to take it further.
I had trouble answering him — or getting him to see that I didn’t owe him an explanation. There was no precedent for these kinds of relationships, at least for adults.
I’d learned that wanting to just kiss and cuddle was for teenagers who weren’t ready to have sex yet, but that as a 20-something, all affection should lead to sex eventually.
Was I the only adult, I wondered, with relationships like these?
Apparently not — and people have all different reasons for getting into them:
- Olivia Carvalho, a 23-year-old recruiter in Toronto, has had partners she only cuddled and kissed because she just wasn't convinced they'd be great at sex.
- One 22-year-old in Detroit had sex with a friend and it wasn't good, so they became kiss- and cuddle-buddies.
- Bob O'Boyle, a 38-year-old archivist in Maryland, says basically all his relationships are like this because he's asexual.
Unconventional as they may seem, these relationships are perfectly healthy.
Just Cuddling Can Be a Good Thing
"So often, people default to sex when what they are craving most is simply physical affection and intimacy," says marriage and family therapist Esther Boykin.
"Not only does this meet people’s need for connection — it’s also a great way to practice setting clear boundaries, talking about your desires, and communicating consent."
“We all crave affection and connection,” Mintz agrees. “Many times, we are tired, busy, stressed — and don’t feel like having sex, but do feel like some caring and affection to help us relax, connect, and de-stress.”
In fact, even when couples are having sex, Mintz encourages them to spend time just cuddling and kissing, because this helps them connect without experiencing any pressure to go further. “Therapists have long touted that pressure and sex don’t mix well,” she says.
This kind of relationship can be especially healing for people who have been pressured into sexual activity in the past, Mintz adds:
“It will help you learn that not everyone will pressure you and that you can be cared for — and show affection physically — without being pushed.”
This is often important for women, who have been socialized to please their partners above all else. However, it can also apply to men, who have been taught that they should always want sex, and that wanting to take things slow or forego sexual activity compromises their masculinity.
Asking yourself how far you truly want to go with someone, knowing that just cuddling or kissing is an option, is a useful exercise in tuning into your body and getting in touch with what you really want — especially if you’re used to jumping right to sex or letting your partner run the show. As Boykin puts it:
“Having affection without sex offers a safe space to really be curious about your own desire and learn to communicate it to another person.”
What my kiss and cuddle buddies taught me is that in relationships, there are no rules. Cuddling doesn’t have to lead to kissing. Dating doesn’t have to lead to sex. And because there are no rules, the only way to get exactly what you want is to communicate it clearly.
Someone’s response to that communication will speak volumes about how trustworthy a partner they are. Those who protest are giving you the chance to find people willing to accommodate your wishes and boundaries instead — and partners who will show you that respect can change your life.