The Bristle Reaction: Why You Don't Want To Be Touched By Your Partner (And How To Fix It)

We've all been there: your partner comes over to touch you and you immediately recoil at them. But before you start calling your therapist or planning your breakup speech, it's important to know that this is actually a common occurrence for many people in relationships. In fact, it's so common, it's been given a term: the bristle reaction.

Vanessa Marin, a licensed psychotherapist with 20 years of experience in the sex therapy field, recently posted on TikTok about this phenomenon. She explained that the bristle reaction is that cringe-y feeling we get when our partner goes to touch us, even if they are simply giving us a hug or kissing our cheek. With almost 20K likes and hundreds of comments, people finally felt seen and heard, realizing it wasn't just them. Her TikTok had many realizing that they truly do love their partner and they aren't a bad person–they just need to better understand why they have this reaction and how they can stop it from happening.

Why we have the bristle reaction

Being in a long-term relationship has a ton of perks. That comfort we feel when we are around our partner is refreshing and stress-reducing, but it can also lead us to feel less comfortable when it comes to sex. In fact, per Marin, the longer we are together, the less natural it feels to initiate sexual intimacy. Often, when one partner wants to have sex, they express that feeling by touching their partner rather than using words or expressing their feelings directly. After a while, the one on the receiving end of that touch may begin to correlate physical touch with sex, causing them to coil away–or "bristle"– at that touch.

She describes the bristle reaction as "when you become so hyper vigilant to your partner's touch or kisses that you actually can feel yourself bristle." If this happens to you, it may have left your sexual and emotional relationship on the rocks. Here's how to fix it.

How to fix the bristle reaction and stop it from happening

Marin expanded on her TikTok on her website, explaining the bristle reaction further and putting a focus on how the partner with a lower sex drive often feels that touch only happens when sex is involved. Over time, this feeling can become so dominant that there is no space in the relationship for physical touch outside of sexual intimacy.

To get over the bristle reaction, Marin recommends that both partners do what may seem counterproductive and touch more. While this may make you cringe, the idea here is to incorporate touch back into your relationship that isn't sexual or intimate in nature. Instead, Marin recommends having a "touch time" each day that includes any touching that does not lead to sex (even if you both end up wanting it!). She recommends cuddling in bed, playing with your partner's hair, or as Marin and her husband do, making out every night. But you can also simply hold hands, have an extra long hug, or massage each other's shoulders. The biggest thing to take away from this is that the bristle reaction is not a reflection of your feelings or attraction to your partner, you just may have to work a bit harder to get back to yourselves, one non-sexual touch at a time.