I recently gained an extremely useful social concept that I'd like to propagate. It's called "cuddle orientation".
Different people experience cuddling differently. Some people love to be held, pet, and massaged by others. They're most satisfied with cuddling while taking on the more passive role. These are "cuddle bottoms" (analogous to the BDSM "bottom" orientation). Some people love to hold, pet, and massage others, and they're most satisfied with cuddling when they're doing the active part. These are "cuddle tops". As with sexual orientation, most people probably fall somewhere in the middle. There are likely a lot of true "cuddle switches" who are equally fulfilled by the active and receptive roles, but I expect people cluster toward the poles.
[The following description of my pre-cuddle-revelation experiences should be taken as System 1 attitudes. These phenomena never made it to System 2 consideration, so please don't think I thought hard about it and then went on believing dumb things.]
I am very strongly a cuddle bottom. For a long time, I was not aware of the existence of cuddle tops. I typical minded so hard that I assumed everyone played the active roll for one of three reasons. Either they're counting on reciprocity to bring them passive cuddles in the future, they feel socially obligated to do their time as the active cuddler, or they're just really nice people who tend to prioritize others' pleasure before their own.
I never once took seriously the hypothesis that they might derive pleasure directly from cuddle topping. Given my immersion in BDSM culture, this was a pretty silly mistake. I should have known better.
It was also a costly mistake. I developed an aversion to cuddle puddles, because the more I let myself enjoy being held, pet, and massaged, the more completely I felt I'd bought into an implicit promise to be an active cuddler later. I thought I was building up cuddle debt. I also thought I was costing the other person/people hedons while they waited for their turn. I find this kind of social pressure very painful, so despite my love of being cuddled, I consistently turned down cuddle invitations. (Incidentally, I went through an "I'd really rather not bother with sex" period for exactly the same reason before learning that I'm sexually submissive and that dominants exist.)
When discussing this with a friend recently, I learned that cuddle tops can experience something similar. What he really wants is to keep doing the active cuddling, but he's constantly worried that the other person wants him to stop or isn't enjoying it any time they're not giving very clear "I like this, please keep doing it" signals. And I, for one, am not especially vocal when I'm completely relaxed.
But now that we know these things about each other, cuddling together will be awesome. I'll be completely guilt free and able to relax into the experience, and he'll know that this is exactly what I want. Furthermore, we've set a precedent for open communication on this topic, so if either of us wants to change anything in the moment, we'll be comfortable saying so.
You don't have to guess at this stuff. Don't behave as though we're all expected to read minds. Know yourself, volunteer that knowledge when it's useful, and ask questions when you want to learn about others.
Here's what I want everybody to do, especially if you're in one of my social circles where casual cuddling happens a lot. Figure out your cuddle orientation. Maybe you're a-cuddley (not really into cuddles), maybe you're a top or a bottom, maybe you always want to give and receive simultaneously (don't know what to call that, but I know it exists), or maybe you're a cuddle switch who's happy whenever any sort of cuddling happens.
Then establish a norm of briefly negotiating your cuddle puddle beforehand. If cuddling looks like it's starting--or if you'd like it to start--just say, "I'm a cuddle top. Would anybody like to be cuddled by me?" and then "Bottom, switch, or what?" if they haven't already told you.
This isn't any more difficult than asking for permission before touching someone, which is already an established practice (at least among my friends). It's also an excellent time to find out who likes what kind of touch. Very light caresses in the same area set me on edge after less than a minute, for instance, while deeper pressure and scratching make me melt.
If there are two bottoms, two tops, and three switches, some cuddle puddle configurations will lead to much greater satisfaction than others. The tops might focus on each other, which wouldn't be much fun at all. But even when the complementary roles happen to pair up nicely, common knowledge of cuddle preferences leads to less anxiety, faster and clearer feedback, and therefore much more efficient cuddles.