If you feel yourself flinching or tensing up when your partner unexpectedly hugs or kisses you — even when the physical affection is more than welcome — you could be experiencing what is called the "the bristle reaction."
The term, which has gained more than 106 million views on TikTok, was originally coined by author and sex therapist Vanessa Marin. "It describes the feeling of your body bristling (or tensing up) when your partner tries to touch you," she says. Whether it's a hug, a kiss, or a little caress on the back, you may feel your body tense up in resistance to the touch.
Of course, this reaction can feel confusing for both partners, especially when you don't know where the "ick" is coming from. But the truth is, the bristle reaction is a common experience that many people in long-term relationships may have to navigate. And though it may seem discouraging and like there's nothing that can make the bristle reaction go away, there are some solutions.
Below, Marin and clinical psychologist Lisa Lawless, PhD, CEO of Holistic Wisdom, explain more about the bristle reaction, including what it is and how to prevent it from happening.
What Is the Bristle Reaction?
The bristle reaction is what happens when a partner feels their body tense up and resist physical touch by their partner — almost always when the partner is doing it in a loving way. But it's not a real, clinical term, says Dr. Lawless. In psychology, this visceral reaction may be called something like tactile defensiveness, tactical sensitivity, or tactile hypersensitivity, depending on the root of why someone feels resistant to the touch, she says. For context, tactile defensiveness, tactical sensitivity, and tactile hypersensitivity are terms used to describe when someone is sensitive to touch.
Though you may think the bristle reaction sounds a whole lot like getting the ick, it's different. For one, the ick normally happens early on while dating, and the bristle reaction typically manifests over time in long-term relationships, says Marin. Another big difference is that the bristle reaction is usually a physical manifestation of intimacy issues, while the ick is discovering anything random about a person that you simply don't like.
Why Do People Have Bristle Reactions?
It's important to clarify that it is always valid and OK to not want to be touched, and you don't always need to provide a reason for why you don't want to be touched. (This is especially true if you have experienced trauma or are neurodivergent, says Lawless.) But if you are open to receiving affection, yet still find yourself bristling when you receive any sort of unexpected physical touch from your partner, this could be happening for a couple of reasons, says Marin:
- You and your partner don't often touch each other in a nonsexual way. "You tend to touch and kiss only in the moments leading up to sex or during sex, so you've come to associate touch with sex. So if your partner reaches out to touch you, but you're not in the mood, you'll bristle," she says.
- You and your partner don't initiate sex clearly and directly. "Your partner initiates by trying to extend a hug or a kiss a little longer, and hoping you pick up what they're trying to do. Over time, you start to become hypervigilant to their touch, especially when you know you're not in the mood."
Dr. Lawless notes that while the bristle reaction could relate directly to a relationship issue, it's also possible there is an underlying condition or mental health reason for the reaction. "There are mental health diagnoses that can have challenges around being touched due to sensory processing difficulties, tactile sensitivity, or issues with trauma or abuse," she confirms. This includes autism, PTSD, OCD, and more.
How to Get Out of the Bristle Reaction Phase
The easiest way to get out of the bristle phase (or prevent the bristle reaction completely) is by initiating more physical touch in your relationship without it leading to sex, says Marin. In a viral TikTok video, Marin discusses that she and her husband actually make out every night with tongue, without it leading to sex, in order to "break the connection between touch and sex."
Comment if you want to hear more about what we do in our relationship to to keep intimacy a priority! #forcouples #couplestherapy #relationshiptok #intimacy #grwm #marriedlife Get Ready With Me Advice For Couples Relationship Tips Relationship Therapist♬ original sound - Vanessa + Xander Marin
She also says it could be helpful to initiate "skin to skin time," every day with your partner. This is a designated time where you can enjoy physical contact with your partner — again, without it leading to sex. "The point is not having sex after touch time," she reiterates.
It may also be helpful to initiate sex more clearly instead of expecting your partner to pick up on cues. Marin suggests directly asking your partner if they're open to having sex or asking how they're ~feeling~. "Knowing that initiation is going to be verbal can help you relax during touch and stop bristling," says Marin.
Once you or your partner begins to feel more comfortable with touch, Marin suggests making a list of four to five places you like to be touched. For example, you could say, "I love strong hugs," or "I love kisses on the cheek in passing." Then, "ask your partner to make their own list, and share them with each other. It's so valuable to know the specific types of touch you each enjoy," says Marin.
If you find yourself continuing to struggle with this, Dr. Lawless also suggests seeking out a mental health therapist, as seeing one could help to identify underlying problems or trauma worth exploring. And remember, if at any moment you don't want to be touched — for any reason at all — that is perfectly OK, too.