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Has your sex life fallen victim to the ‘Bristle Reaction’? Why it happens and how to overcome it

WHISPER it: sometimes your partner’s touch makes you go “ugh”.

It’s hardly the stuff of romantic fiction, is it?

Be honest, sometimes your partner’s touch makes you go ‘ugh’[/caption]
‘Bristle reaction’ is a term recently coined by sex therapist Vanessa Marin to describe that feeling

But if you’ve ever experienced the “bristle reaction” – a term recently coined by sex therapist Vanessa Marin and that’s racked up more than 2.8 million Google searches – you have no reason to feel guilty. 

“Bristling at your partner’s touch involves a knee-jerk reaction to them making contact with you,” says Hayley Quinn, a dating expert at Match.

“If you love your partner, you may not be able to immediately put your finger on why you don’t want to connect physically, but intuitively you’ll want to move your body away when they come near to you.” 

This feeling is more common than you may think, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the love has gone from your relationship, or that it’s doomed to fail.

“In fact, it’s almost inevitable that it will happen during a long-term relationship,” says Hayley.

“That’s because, even if a relationship begins red-hot, over time your circumstances will change and your desires for one another will ebb and flow.”

The question is, how can you overcome this feeling and re-establish a better connection?


Often, the bristle reaction develops if you think – rightly or not – that the sole motive of a partner’s touch is to initiate sex.

It’s the dread of: “He’s kissing my neck, that can only mean one thing and I don’t want it right now.”

Mismatched sex drives are common in relationships and can exacerbate the issue.

“Some people are simply far more comfortable with physical touch than others,” explains Hayley.

“It could mean that physical touch isn’t your preferred love language – touch is one way we express affection, but it isn’t the only way.”

It’s also possible that you might recoil for reasons that have nothing at all to do with your partner.

“It could be a reaction to previous trauma, feelings of unattractiveness or wanting a deeper connection from your partner.” 

Often, the bristle reaction develops if you think – rightly or not – that the sole motive of a partner’s touch is to initiate sex[/caption]


Speak up if you find yourself pulling away when your partner touches you.

“Instead of creating a whole story around why you feel the way you do, simply state what is happening and, if you can, why that is.

“Acknowledging the problem opens communication and can help prevent resentment from building over time,” says Hayley.


Gary Chapman describes five “love languages” in his book on the topic: touch, words of affirmation, acts of service, gifts and quality time.

You can take a quiz online to find out your love language, both how you give and prefer to receive it.

“Not all of us give and receive love in the same way,” Hayley says.

“If you’ve identified that you like and need more personal space, for example, you can choose to communicate this to your partner and reassure them that this doesn’t mean you like them any less.”

Though it’s not rooted in science, some couples find it helpful to avoid feelings of rejection.


You may find yourself withdrawing from your partner, but perhaps this is what you deeply desire anyway.

“Some people have a greater desire for independence within their relationships,” Hayley says.

“This might mean that they choose to spend less time with their partner, or that they want to put time into and nurture other relationships in their life.”

What won’t help your relationship is failing to communicate this to your partner.

“Withdrawing without an explanation could result in them feeling anxious and unloved,” says Hayley.

Try explaining that you do love them, but you need more time alone – and that it is not a reflection on them.

“Provided both partners are understanding of each other’s differing needs, this doesn’t have to be a negative for the relationship, and can actually help foster one based on trust, commitment, happiness and above all, love,” Hayley adds. 


Poor body image could be behind your bristle reaction[/caption]

For some people, poor body image can be behind their bristle reaction.

“If you are feeling unattractive, it can be helpful to do an activity that allows you to connect with your body,” suggests Hayley.

It could be as simple as having your hair done or making time to get to an exercise class – even better if you can do this with your partner.

“Feeling good within yourself may make you more open and accepting of touch,” Hayley says.

If you are feeling unattractive, relaying this to your partner may remind them you need more reassurance from them, too.


Do you and your partner divide tasks equally when it comes to the kids and household chores?

If not, you might have your answer to the bristle reaction.

After a long day at work, followed by an evening chasing the kids around and doing chores, you could be forgiven for resenting your partner’s touch if you feel they are not pulling their weight.

Consider a conversation with them about working more as a team by saying: “It would mean a lot to me if you helped around the house a bit more.”

This can foster more appreciation towards each other.

You may also be “touched out” – when your capacity for human interaction has been depleted after spending all day with children who need your constant attention.

Using the term can be a reference point that reminds your partner not to take it personally.


The bristle reaction was coined by author and host of the Pillow Talks podcast, Vanessa Marin, with a viral TikTok on the subject.

She explained that she and her partner intimately kiss every night to “break the connection between making out and sex”.

The rule is that neither partner can initiate sex during this time.

“This nightly routine has taken the pressure off us to have sex if we start making out,” Vanessa says.

Even if you’re not a touchy-feely person, compromise is important in any relationship.

“Make sure you establish physical contact once a day,” says Hayley.

“You may choose to hold hands as you walk down the street, or to cuddle on the sofa while watching TV to build on that connection with your partner in a way that feels comfortable for you.”


Can’t quite get to the bottom of why you still bristle at physical touch from your partner?

You may truly have the ick – when you don’t connect with them physically any more and may even cringe at the idea.

“Ask yourself questions, such as: ‘Would I like them to put more care into their health and appearance?

“Could we have a frank discussion about what I would need to feel excited by them again?’” says Hayley.

“Even if you feel like you have genuinely gone off your partner, before considering ending the relationship, think about why you no longer desire them.”

If possible, it might be a good idea to speak to a licensed therapist or couple’s counsellor together.

“Or else, reach out to a trusted friend or family member to share how you feel and gain support with those emotions,” Hayley says. 

  • Visit Match.com 
  • The 5 Love Languages: The Secret To Love That Lasts by Gary Chapman (£14.99, Moody) is out now

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