A few years ago, Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist in Santa Barbara, Calif., noticed an interesting pattern among her clients in long-term relationships: They would complain that their partners only touched them to initiate sex. The gesture, a back rub or a playful grab, would make them flinch.
This was so prevalent that Marin, author of “Sex Talks: The Five Conversations That Will Transform Your Love Life,” started calling it the “bristle reaction.” It’s what happens when your partner’s touch makes your entire body tense, “because you know it can mean just one thing,” she said.
The “bristle reaction” is not necessarily a sign that your connection is fraying, Marin said. At the beginning of a relationship, couples are frequently entwined, she explained, but with time, physical affection can wane.
Holding hands in line at the dry cleaners gives way to kissing only as foreplay, and eventually any touching is interpreted as a prelude to sex. The touch can feel “loaded,” because an expectation is attached to it, said Marin, whose TikTok post on the topic has over eight million views.
The resulting flinch is what biologists call an “‘honest signal,’ or one that you can’t really hide,” said Justin Garcia, executive director of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University. In this case, “the body is going into a defensive response and saying, ‘Nope, not interested,’” Dr. Garcia said.
The initiator often feels rejected and embarrassed, said Marin, while the bristler might feel resentful or guilty. Here are some ways to interrupt this cycle.
Practice nonsexual touching.
Make a habit of holding hands or gently reaching for each other in passing, Dr. Garcia said. These small gestures can “de-escalate the bristle moments,” and help to train partners that not all touch is about sex, he said.
Marin recommended a daily six-second kiss, an intimacy-building exercise also recommended by John and Julie Gottman, the married relationship researchers who co-founded the Gottman Institute. They say six seconds is long enough to establish connection and promote feelings of trust and safety.
Or try hugging your partner for at least 20 seconds a day, said Shamyra Howard, a sex therapist and the author of “Use Your Mouth.” Research suggests that hugging can increase oxytocin levels and lower blood pressure.
Pay attention to your partner’s reaction.
When one person is bristling, both people need to examine their roles in the scenario, Howard said.
If you repeatedly encounter bristles when you make a move, it might be time to change up your tactics and “read the room,” she said. Approaching while your loved one is cooking or cleaning “can make them feel unseen and emotionally disconnected,” Howard said.
If you’re the bristler, acknowledge how vulnerable your partner feels when he or she initiates sex, and honor your partner’s attempts to connect with you, Dr. Garcia said. “You can say something like ‘Oh, sorry, honey, you startled me, let’s circle back to this tonight,’” he said.
Establish ‘erotic time zones.’
All three experts advise having a conversation about your preferred initiation style. Talking about sex, said Howard, increases not only sexual fulfillment but overall relationship satisfaction. She suggested asking your partner: When do you feel most sexual? How can I initiate sex better? When do you prefer having sex?
That last question, she said, can be a game changer: “I call it the erotic time zone, or E.T.Z.”
You can also share your three favorite places to be touched on your body, being as specific as possible about how and where, Marin added. “I told my husband I love gentle, almost tickling fingernail scratches on the back of my neck,” she said.
The more you talk about your preferences, the better, Marin said. “I tell couples, you’re not opponents. You both want to experience intimacy and closeness,” she said. “You just want to do it in a way that feels good to the two of you.”
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