What the bristle reaction means for your relationship

TFor this reason, the beginning of a relationship is often referred to as the honeymoon phase. Characterized by spending time together, flirting, intense chemistry, this first phase of a new romance can feel like an exciting whirlwind. But that rosy hue fades as the couple becomes more comfortable and more shared responsibilities and challenges arise. After all, physical touch can only come as a prelude to sex. As a result, some people can develop what a sex therapist calls the “bristle reaction” when they physically shy away from touching their partner.

According to sex therapist Vanessa Marin, LMFT, the bristle reaction is an involuntary response. It’s subtle, but it can be very confusing and even annoying for the person on the receiving end. “It’s someone you probably love and trust, but you have this very intense response to this very simple touch,” she says. But struggling doesn’t mean the relationship is doomed, and it’s a response that can be rewired over time.

Why someone can develop a bristle reaction

Compared to the early days of courtship, the amount of physical touching tends to decrease the longer a couple is together. Usually, an irritable reaction develops when partners initiate this type of affection just as a form of foreplay, which can make simple gestures charged and feel like means to an end—hence someone can get annoyed by such advances, whether they’re unprepared or not in the mood. “We start to make this association that if my partner touches me or tries to kiss me, it’s supposed to lead to sex, so it can lead us to develop this extreme alertness to our partner’s touch,” explains Marin.

“We start to make this association that if my partner touches me or tries to kiss me, it’s supposed to lead to sex, so it can lead us to develop this extreme alertness to our partner’s touch.” – Vanessa Marin , LMFT

Coupled with this, many people in longer-term relationships stop clearly initiating sex with their words, meaning the cues that someone desires sex are mostly physical. They may know each other well enough to read each other’s nonverbal cues, but relying solely on that is inaccurate and can even be chilling and confusing, especially when you’re not in the headspace for sex. “If you’re not in the mood at that moment and you sense your partner coming in for hookup, your walls of protection will come up,” says Marin. In these moments, it’s important to remember that the testy response is an involuntary response and may not reflect how you really feel about your partner’s offers of affection

What the bristle reaction means

While that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re no longer attracted to your partner, an irritable reaction is a good indication that there’s something worth investigating. Marin says it could mean a lack of communication, it could indicate that you’re feeling disconnected, or that unresolved tensions are at play. And it’s not a fundamentally negative reaction, but rather a surprised one.

Whatever the reason, Kiana Reeves, somatic sex educator and chief content officer at sex wellness company Foria, recommends not pushing through the stormy response right now, as involuntary physical responses offer a chance to dig deeper and examine what underneath happens what hasn’t already been expressed, she says. It could mean that you don’t feel like having sex or that you don’t feel comfortable being touched in that particular way at that moment.

To find out why you’re resisting, Reeves recommends following this protocol in the moment: stop, perceive the emotion, communicate the emotion, and identify the need. “Usually, when you start paying attention to the sensation, an emotion arises,” she says. For example, you may notice that you are feeling lonely, and in turn you may tell your partner that you would rather be held or kissed than sex.

This initial conversation can be with yourself, but it could eventually be an avenue for a longer, honest dialogue with your partner that they feel could increase intimacy. “It might actually be a nice opening in a relationship to say, ‘I love it when you touch me and kiss me, but you only do that when you want sex and it makes me feel objectified,’ or ‘I love it when you kiss me, but when you put your tongue towards me, it’s too intense,'” says Reeves.

3 ways to overcome the bristle reaction

1. Ask your partner to use their words to initiate sex

A major cause of the bristle reaction is the element of surprise. Marin recommends couples initiate sex instead of touching so the request is clear. “If we’re not clear with our communication, there are so many opportunities to miss each other and miscommunicate,” she says. Direct verbal initiation takes all the guesswork out of the equation. If you’re in the mood to have sex, tell your partner clearly.

2. Incorporate more touches into your daily life that are not tied to sex

Another important factor underlying the bristle response is the association with physical touch leading to sex. “You want to break the connection that touch is supposed to lead to sex,” says Marin. Couples should try to incorporate more kisses, hugs, back rubs, and massages into their daily lives, just because.

3. Tell your partner your favorite way to be touched

Marin says another cause of the bristle reaction is being touched in an unwanted way or in a place you don’t like. For example, not everyone will appreciate being slapped on the butt or grazed on the arm or leg. But instead of listing all the things they’re doing wrong, she recommends letting your partner know exactly how you’d like to be touched; She says that many couples don’t share this information with each other and that this is a great opportunity to do so. “It’s easier and more fun to share your favorite ways that you want to be touched with,” she says. “Pick your top 3 and say, ‘I love it when you touch me like this in this place.'”

So to repeat

If you get excited when you touch your partner, it doesn’t automatically mean that you no longer love them or are attracted to them. Very often it’s an indicator that some underlying, unspoken emotion is at play – not entirely untypical of long-term relationships. So before you go any further, it’s a good idea to first see if you can identify how physical touch is making you feel or what need is unmet, and then share that information with your partner. There is a chance that there is a communication disorder somewhere that needs to be addressed, and the most effective way to clear the air is by speaking honestly, clearly and directly. It’s the quickest way to turn bristles back into butterflies.

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