In the penultimate episode of the first season of HBO’s Succession, Kendall Roy, the drug-addled insecure stress case angling to take over his family’s media empire, greets his estranged wife Rava during his sister’s wedding. After she expresses her very justified concern over his well-being, Kendall unloads a bucket of sociopathic, coke-fueled bile at his estranged wife as a metallic sound effect plays in the background. It’s a brilliant but uncomfortable scene, precipitated by a casual moment of intimacy: Rava tenderly rubbing the fabric of Kendall’s jacket to wipe away an unseen stain.
The outburst reveals that Kendall is a monster. But the impetus of his rage reveals a known truth: Many adults hate when their spouse picks stuff of them, wipes their face, smoothes down their collar, or futzes with their appearance in any way — especially in public. But why does such an seemingly intimate, protective moment provoke such rage in so many people? And why are some of us so compelled to do it anyway?
When couples groom each other — let’s call it “crooming” for couple grooming — it’s a fleeting, low-impact moment that has a lot going on under the surface. An evolutionary urge that helped bring our distant primate ancestors together compels us to clean each other. But, since we live far different lives than primates, that intimate cleaning can often be a nuisance threatening to pull couples apart.
As members of the global elite, Kendall and Rava enjoy sophistication and luxury that’s out of reach to 99.9 percent of the world’s population. But once Rava reaches for her ex’s jacket, they’re no different than monkeys.
“Primates pick at each other’s skin,” San Diego-based therapist Craig Lambert tells Fatherly. “They pick ticks, all kinds of things. You’ve seen that right on National Geographic.”
Primates rely on friendly fingers to probe their fur for parasites, mosquitos, and so forth. But social grooming, or allogrooming, doesn’t just benefit a primate’s individual health. It also binds primates closer together. Humans don’t have to worry about parasites but we still reap practical benefits from social grooming.
“A lot of these behaviors, like smoothing your partner’s shirt and picking things off that they don’t see, have to do with helping to clean up your guy,” Lambert said. “And there are important romantic consequences for that.”
Lambert views social grooming as a sign of a healthy relationship, noting social science research indicating that couples who groom each other are more satisfied than couples who don’t. Still, he acknowledged that it can be unwelcome for those who aren’t comfortable with the intimacy it entails.
Primates appear to calm down when they’re groomed. The body language they adopt during anxiety and aggression disappear. When they’re in stressful situations, they scratch and pick at their skin and fur, indicating an instinctive need for grooming. There may be an instinctive drive to groom other animals as well. Research indicates that animals who groom also display signs of reduced feelings of distress.
For animals, grooming is mutually beneficial. But for humans it could be much more one-sided. It’s easy to imagine a spouse start picking at their partners’ appearance when they feel anxious. It’s equally easy to imagine the spouse, a human being with access to dry cleaning, showers, soap, and other modern cleaning methods, could be annoyed.
There’s a fairly compelling case that humans have evolved beyond the need for social grooming. In his 1996 book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, Oxford University evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar said simians use social grooming to communicate and form bonds. Dunbar postulated that humans developed language to serve the same purpose and left behind social grooming when language, particularly gossip, proved to be more efficient.
Gossip aside, it’s a sentiment echoed by New Jersey dad of one Scott. “I don’t mind when my wife tells me there’s something wrong with my clothes,” he said. “If my fly’s down or something I want her to tell me. It just bugs me when she fixes it herself.”
Author and therapist Jed Diamond has studied and treated men’s mental health for 40 years. He said his clients see grooming as an unwanted intrusion into their personal space.
“I have one client that said, ‘She’s always moving my hat around a little bit,” Diamond said. “‘It’s like she never accepts how I am and she’s always trying to change me in little ways.’ He sees it, and I’ve seen this with other men, as being intrusive and almost a judgment of the person.”
Some men don’t process “crooming” as help. They see it as needling criticism by a person eager to point out their shortcomings. Nobody likes a nitpicker. And that’s telling, considering how the word nitpicker originally described a form of social grooming: removing lice eggs, AKA nits, from individual strands of hair.
Some adults find that being groomed strips them of their adulthood. For Ben, a father of two from New York, when his wife straightens his clothes, he feels like he’s being lumped in with his children.
“I think my wife gets into a rhythm,” he said. “She’ll make sure the boys are presentable and tucked in and move on to me and try to do the same thing. But I’m 40. I mean, I can zip up my own fleece.”
Diamond said that for many men, grooming flashes them back to uncomfortable moments from their childhood.
“It’s what our mothers did when we were boys and often we didn’t like it,” Diamond said. “They’d rub the side of your cheek, say ‘You’ve got some dirt on your nose’ or ‘Your hair isn’t right, here let me fix that,’ and it wasn’t appreciated certainly when you were a little kid. When your wife or girlfriend does it it feels similar.”
Parents don’t wipe dirt off a kid’s shirt just to clean them up. It’s also a low-key form of discipline and asserting control. When parents hike up a kid’s pants and button up their shirt, they’re telling the kid they did something wrong and that they have to face consequences. It’s a scenario nearly all of us are happy to outgrow. Grooming snaps us right back into it.
“[Grooming] triggers parental criticism and I think that’s often at the core of the discomfort,” Diamond said.
The key, as it often is with most relationship-related advice, might be compromise. If one partner doesn’t like to be fussed over but the other person can’t help him or herself, both need to work on their habits. The groomee needs to not freak out so much and the groomer needs to understand that, for whatever reasons, their actions annoy or upset the other. Otherwise, we’re no better than the animals.