What Is the Bristle Reaction and Does It Mean Something Is Wrong in My Relationship?

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There’s a reason the beginning of a relationship is often called the honeymoon phase. Characterized by that first kiss, spending lots of time together, flirting, and intense chemistry, this first stage of a new romance can feel like an exciting whirlwind. But that rosy tint fades as the couple grows more comfortable with one another and accrues more shared responsibility and challenges. Eventually, physical touch may only come as a prelude to sex. And as a result, some people may develop what one sex therapist calls the "bristle reaction," when they physically recoil from their partner’s touch.

Experts In This Article
  • Kiana Reeves, somatic sex expert, chief brand educator at Foria, a sex and wellness company.
  • Vanessa Marin, licensed psychotherapist and sex therapist

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 upsetting to both partners. “It’s someone you presumably love and trust, yet you’re having this very intense reaction to this very simple touch,” she says. But bristling doesn't mean the relationship is doomed, and it's a reaction that can be rewired with time.

Why someone may develop a bristle reaction

Compared to the early days of courting, the amount of physical touch tends to lessen the longer a couple is together. A bristle reaction may develop if the only time partners initiate this type of affection is as a form of foreplay, which can make simple gestures feel loaded and like a means to an end—hence why someone may bristle at such advances if they're caught off guard or not in the mood. “We start to make this association that when my partner touches me or tries to kiss me, it's supposed to lead to sex, so it can lead us to develop this hyper-vigilance to our partner’s touch,” Marin explains.

"We start to make this association that when my partner touches me or tries to kiss me it's supposed to lead to sex, so it can lead us to develop this hyper-vigilance to our partner’s touch."—Vanessa Marin, LMFT

Coupled with this, many people in longer-term relationships may stop initiating sex clearly with their words, which means the hints that someone desires sex are mostly physical. They may know each other so well that they can read each other’s non-verbal cues, but relying only on this is imprecise and can even be jarring and confusing, especially when you’re not in the headspace for sex. “If you’re not in the mood at that moment and you feel your partner coming in for some contact, your walls are going to go up as a protective mechanism,” Marin says. In these moment's it's important to remember that the bristle reaction is an involuntary response, and may not reflect how you genuinely feel about bids for affection from your S.O.

What the bristle reaction means

While it doesn’t necessarily mean you're no longer attracted to your partner, a bristle reaction is a good indication that there’s something worth examining. Marin says it could mean there’s some communication missing, it could indicate you feel disconnected, or that there is unresolved tension at play. And it’s not an inherently negative reaction, but more of a surprised one.

No matter the reason, Kiana Reeves, somatic sex educator and chief content officer of sexual wellness company Foria, recommends not pushing through the bristle reaction in the moment because involuntary bodily responses are chances to go deeper and examine what's happening underneath that hasn’t been expressed. It could mean that you’re not in the mood for sex, or you don’t feel comfortable being touched in that specific way at that moment.

To figure out why you are bristling, Reeves recommends following this protocol in the moment: pause, notice the emotion, communicate the emotion, and identify the need. "Usually when you start to pay attention to the sensation, an emotion rises with it," she says. For example, maybe you notice that you feel lonely, and you in turn communicate to your partner that rather than have sex, you'd like to be held or kissed instead.

This initial conversation can be with yourself, but it could eventually be an avenue for a longer, honest dialogue with your partner, which she says could increase intimacy. “It actually could be a beautiful opening in a relationship to say ‘I love 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 when you kiss me, but when you come at me with your tongue it’s too intense,’” Reeves says.

3 ways to get over the bristle reaction

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

A key cause of the bristle reaction is the element of surprise. Marin recommends couples initiate sex with their words, rather than by 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 any guesswork out of the equation. When you’re in the mood to have sex, tell your partner clearly.

2. Incorporate more touch in your daily life that isn’t tied to sex

Another key underlying factor of the bristle reaction is the association with physical touch leading to sex. Touching each other more often without sex involved helps disentangle this connection. “You want to break the connection that touch is supposed to lead to sex,” Marin says. Couples should try incorporating more kisses, hugs, back rubs, and massages into their day-to-day routine just because.

3. Tell your partner your favorite ways to be touched

Marin says that another cause of the bristle reaction is being touched in an unwelcome way or in a place you don't like. For example, not everyone will appreciate being smacked on the butt or having their arm or leg grazed. But rather than listing all the things they’re doing wrong, she recommends letting your partner know exactly how you’d like to be touched; she says 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 you’d like to be touched,” she says. “Pick your top three and say, ‘I love it when you touch me in this place, in this way.’”

So to recap

If you find yourself involuntarily bristling at your partner's touch, know that this doesn't automatically mean you no longer love them or are attracted to them. Quite often, it's an indicator that there is some underlying, unexpressed emotions at play—not totally atypical in long-term relationships. So before you go any further, the first thing you want to do is see if you can identify what feelings the physical touch is bringing up for you or what need is going unmet, then share that info with your partner. Chances are there is a breakdown in communication somewhere that needs to be sorted out. And remember that the most effective way to clear the air is through honest, clear, direct talking. It's the fastest way to turn bristling back into butterflies.

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