Has your partner ever gone in for a hug or touched you and you kind of tensed up or flinched? Not because you were mad at them for some reason or feeling yucky at the moment. But because you thought that touch meant they would expect to get busy.
Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist and author of Sex Talks: The Five Conversations That Will Transform Your Love Life, calls that response the “bristle reaction.”
Never heard of it? Neither had I until I came across a recent article about the topic in the New York Times. The story was interesting, but what really popped out to me was the response. More than 800 readers left comments. Some were glad to finally have the words to describe what they had been feeling and others were glad (but also saddened) that they weren’t the only ones experiencing it in their relationship.
In other words, this bristle reaction is common; people just hadn’t been talking about it. Since the readers were anonymous, they let it all out in the comments. Some people were very candid about why they bristle. For instance, one person said her partner thinks he knows what women want but doesn’t know what she wants at all. Another talked about how she would bristle and then her husband would pout and act childish, which turned her off even more and led to more bristling. And other women admitted they bristle because they’re too tired to even think about sex after doing way too much (oftentimes without any help from the partner).
Some people even chimed in about what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the bristle. And, of course, there were folks who, for some unknown reason, didn’t seem to understand why touch couldn’t always lead to sex.
So, the conversation was very interesting, to say the least. And relatable. And many of the sister friends we checked with said they’ve been there and done that too. If you’re in the same boat, here’s a breakdown of why the bristle reaction happens and what it means for your relationship.
Why touch becomes problematic
According to Marin, unfortunately, in long-term relationships, some people stop hugging and kissing as much as they did before ,and it gets to the point that the only time you’re touching is when someone’s trying to initiate sex. That leads to one or both partners associating touch with sex. So then if you’re not in the mood and your partner goes in to touch you, you recoil because you think there’s a motive.
That makes sense.
Another possible reason for the bristle reaction is the way your partner tries to initiate sex, says Marin. Think holding you a little longer during a hug or trying to slip you the tongue during a kiss, hoping it will lead to something more. That makes you start to feel they have a hidden agenda any time they touch you. Cue the bristle reaction.
The timing of the touch could be a factor too. Say, you’re busy getting dinner ready or it’s only 9 a.m. and you already have twenty things on your to-do list. One of the women we asked about this topic mentioned that her husband often tries to cop a feel when she’s doing something so not sexy, like cleaning the toilet. Ugh, no. She said it’s gotten to the point that if he even comes near her when she’s doing certain chores, she tenses up.
Fortunately, the bristle reaction doesn’t mean you (or your partner, if they’re the one doing it) are no longer attracted to one another or in love. “It just means you've gotten stuck in a rut and it tells you that maybe there needs to be a shake-up in the relationship,” says Luree Benjamin, a licensed marriage and family therapist associate who specializes in sex therapy and owner of Connecting the Dots Therapy in the Raleigh-Durham area, North Carolina.
How to fix it:
Figure out the why. If you’re the bristler, Benjamin says it’s a good idea to try to determine why you’re feeling the way you do. Is it that things have gotten predictable and you know your partner’s signature “let’s do the do” moves? Are said moves no longer working for you? Are you stressed and not really in the mood? Or maybe your partner really does only touch you strictly for sex.
Also, when did it begin happening? Sometimes around the perimenopause or menopause period, physical changes can cause issues that may make you want to pull away from sexual intimacy, Benjamin says. And certain issues in a relationship, like resentment, infidelity or emotional distance, can definitely cause someone to bristle, she adds. Once you figure out what’s causing the reaction, you can better begin to work on it.
Talk about it. This is one of those situations where you have to communicate with your partner. You might say something like, “A lot of times I feel that the only time you touch me is when you're interested in being sexual. I really need for us to switch this up so that when you touch me, I know it's not just only that,” says Benjamin. Your partner may not have even realized this is a pattern.
If it’s the way your partner is initiating that’s turning you off (for instance, grabbing your breast or pretending they want a hug and then trying to take it further), speak up about that too. Now, don’t necessarily say they’re turning you off, but Benjamin recommends sharing the ways you like to be touched or how you would like them to initiate sex. For example, “If you want to have sex, grabbing my breast doesn’t work for me, but I love it when you…” Or, “I really like it when you rub my neck here or massage my thigh like this.”
Touch more. Yes, that may seem counterproductive when it’s the touch that’s causing your response in the first place. However, Benjamin says prioritizing non-sexual touch will help you go from the idea that, “He or she must want sex” to “This is just a regular part of how we are engaging each other on a consistent daily basis.” The result: you no longer think touch automatically means sex. She recommends doing simple things like wrapping your arms around your spouse while they’re doing something like standing at the ‘fridge, holding hands during a car ride, or giving a quick (or long) hug or kiss at random times of the day.
Rebuild emotional intimacy without touch. In her book, Marin suggests what she calls a touch-free couples ritual. For instance, maybe that’s you and your spouse having a drink on the patio to unwind after work. Or engaging in deep conversations. Or it could be reading a book aloud together in bed.
Bring in a third. If you think your bristle response may be related to something like stress or changes due to perimenopause or menopause, schedule an appointment with your doctor.
Benjamin says it’s a good idea to see a therapist who has training in sexual matters if you’re having trouble shaking off the bristle reaction or you and your partner are having a hard time connecting intimately.
The good news: Although it may take some time to get rid of the bristle reaction (especially if you’ve been experiencing it for a while), if you both put in the effort, you can go back to melting in your partner’s hand as you did before.