Picture a quiet evening in front of the fireplace. The wife snuggles up on the couch next to her husband. His arms surround her in a comforting hug.

Domestic bliss? Not necessarily.

There is, it seems, a whole lot more to hugging than many of us have realized. For some couples, the simple fireside embrace may bring, not bliss, but discord.

That's one of the findings of Dr. Marc H. Hollender, chairman of the department of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, who for the past dozen years has studied the role of hugging between adult men and women.

In snuggling up to her husband, Hollender says, the wife may be seeking "a sense of closeness" or a feeling of "being protected," feeling secure, being loved." What she may not want at this particular moment is sex.

Women, he says, appear "able to separate the wish to be held as an end in itself from the wish to be held as a prelude to sex." While many men may initially make the same differentiation, they "may be less able to hold to it than women." For men, "Being held and holding is much more likely to lead to sexual arousal."

What can result is a communications problem and then a rift in the marriage.

"When a woman wishes to be cuddled and nothing more," says Hollender, "her message may be, and often is, misunderstood by her husband. She separates her desire to be held from her wish for sexual activity; her husband is much less likely to do so.

"When a man responds sexually to the woman who only wants to be held, she feels put upon. When the woman rebuffs the man's advances, he feels she has misled him.

"Clearly, there are crossed wires in the communication system."

In some cases, Hollender says, a woman who simply wants to be held, "often barters sex, giving the man what he desires (coitus) for what she desires (cuddling). Indeed, this craving is sometimes the key determinant of promiscuity."

One woman told him:

"I want somebody to hold me. I just wanted someone to put their arms around me and to let me just relax for a minute. And it just seems to me like one thing goes with another -- if I do go to bed with someone that they would hold me for a little while anyhow."

And another said of her husband: "If he was interested in sexual intercourse and I wasn't, I would allow him to do it and I would just enjoy being held, whether I was interested in it (sex) or not."

But, says Hollender, "Being held is, of course, usually a natural accompaniment of sexual intercourse."

Hollender, 64, says he became interested in the subject of hugging and sex when his women patients "called my attention to it. They expressed frustration at not deriving the comfort they were seeking. For many of them, hugging provided a feeling of security. Their need was greater when they felt depressed or anxious."

In a series of studies over the years involving more than 1,000 women (and men), he has tried to "find out how important their wish was to be held or cuddled and what they would do to get it fulfilled."

To some, the idea of research into hugging may sound fanciful, but for Hollender, "The more we understand about people's needs, desires and wishes and how they affect relationships, the more they can be helped."

In some cases, he says, people who have read about his work have written him "pleased that we defended them when their spouses were complaining they were frigid."

Hollender has found, not unexpectedly, that both men and women desire cuddling, for a variety of reasons.

Women told him it meant "security, protection, comfort, contentment and love." Said one: "When I am held, I am happy, very content and I feel safe, and I feel that there is nothing in the world that can go wrong because I am being held."

The male response was not much different: "When something would go wrong . . . or I had an extra hard time and I was depressed, then I wanted my wife to hold me."

"The chief differences between men and women," says Hollender, "were the trend for women to favor being held over holding" and the intensity of their longing. More women indicated a greater desire to be held. For men as a group, "holding was preferred to being held."

These findings, he believes, "are in keeping with the early conditioning of female and male infants in our culture. Girls are expected to be cuddly, boys are not; women are encouraged to be passive and receptive, while men are encouraged to be active and aggressive."

Hugging, says Hollender, can be a part of a marriage or other union on two levels: "Being held or holding may be a component of a sexual relationship -- and as such a part of foreplay. Or it may be the expression of nonsexual longings -- and as such a derivative of the earliest parent-child relationship."

In the first case, the relationship between the couple is husband-wife; in the second, it is "mother and child or father and child."

As one man said about himself and his wife:

"You know, sometimes it is like you are a father. Then at other times it is like you are a husband. At times when she is upset or something and needs to be held, she puts you into the position of being a father to her and then at times she wants to be held as a woman, as equal to you."

There are needs, says Hollender, "that exist early in life and exist throughout life. What I'm saying is, the early needs persist but the cast of characters change. In a compatible marriage, nonsexual as well as sexual desires -- childlike as well as more adult needs -- are satisfied."

However, he says, the desire "to be held or cuddled is only one of many factors that have a bearing on marital compatibility. For some couples it may be an important issue. For most it has some significance but it is not paramount."

Still, he maintains, marriage counselors should inquire about hugging compatibility as routinely as they take sexual histories.

For couples who suspect they have such a problem, he suggests they "talk over their differences and be aware of them. They should see if they can make a mutual adjustment.

"Usually," he says, "a discrepancy is not huge. If people really want to get along, it's not going to be a great problem."