What's A Bristle Reaction And Can It Signal Something Serious?

Often in the early days of a relationship, physical attraction is high, and you and your partner can't keep your hands off each other — you might affectionately caress your partner's neck or hold hands even in non-romantic settings like lunch with friends. Yet one of the realities of committed relationships is that, over time, the dynamics can shift — and this is normal. But, if years later one of you bristles at being touched — i.e. pulls away to avoid touch, or stiffens like a threatened animal with its fur standing up — it might signal something serious. 

Speaking to Newsweek, licensed sex therapist Vanessa Marin, explains, "The bristling up term came from the way it feels at the time. You can also get the feeling when a stranger comes up too close to you, and it's a feeling that they're too near."

As couples become more comfortable over time and the frequency of sex dwindles, one partner may bristle when being touched because their partner's outreach has evolved to mean sex and only sex. If you find yourself agitated by even a hint of physical contact, you might be having a bristle reaction, which can easily lead to bewilderment and hurt feelings. An open discussion can help you both unpack what's really going on. It's important to find ways to be direct with your partner during this conversation to get to the root of the problem — and to get you both on the same page. 

What causes bristle reaction?

One cause of bristling is that we feel ambushed. Marin explains, "In long-term relationships, we touch each other less and it only comes about in the lead-up to sex. So we make this connection that touch means we're going to have sex. It makes us feel very put on the spot like it's a pop quiz about to happen. That can make us feel off guard ... so our walls come up."

Another reason partners might recoil to avoid intimacy is that, over time, the attraction can fade. One person might be evolving faster than the other, there could have been an affair, or the partners have become overly familiar with each other, forming one unit, and they've left their individual needs behind.

The energy is different in a long-term couple vs. an exciting new relationship. Sometimes the rush of positive, relaxing hormones with a new partner — oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin — can temporarily obscure their true personality. When a person has PTSD and those hormones wear off, PTSD symptoms like avoidance, frustration, and anxiety can emerge. A partner with PTSD may have difficulty connecting emotionally, a negative self-image, and may have lost interest in fun activities. If they bristle, it's not necessarily the first thing to address and overcome; there are deeper issues that only they can heal.

How to address a bristle reaction

The real answer to addressing a bristle reaction depends on the emotional maturity of the relationship. Respectfully sharing concerns helps each person feel fully expressed and seen. After you explain what you've been experiencing, both of you can discuss how and where you like to be touched, then use your intuition. Marin encourages non-sexual touch, like massage, cuddling, and even making out. This normalizes affectionate intimacy so that touch isn't always loaded with sexual expectations. 

Acting on your intuition is also crucial in life for your safety. Despite the first impression from her TEDx talk, "You Can't Always Trust Your Gut About Dating & Mating," licensed psychotherapist LeslieBeth Wish is very much in favor of using your intuition. Our gut is nicknamed the "second brain" because it has neurons that alert the brain when something has gone awry. Wish says being over-optimistic about a partner can override intuition. Instead, we see what we want to see, ignoring actual red flags.

Another remedy for bristling is that whoever wants sex can use spoken language to initiate it. Make a deal with your partner to try this for a period of time. You may also discover that doing this reinvigorates clear boundaries around consent, which everyone deserves. You might even find benefits from deciding to schedule sex (which is totally normal) — write it into your calendars together to help manage your expectations more clearly.