Sex Therapist Reveals All About 'The Bristle Reaction' and How to Avoid It

Relationships often start with constant affection as new couples want to show how much they adore each other, but as the relationship becomes more stable, the endless need to touch each other decreases because there's no longer any need to prove anything.

After a few years, as the exciting new relationship becomes long-term, physical touch might only happen when it leads to something more. Spouses learn that when they come in for a kiss it can mean only one thing, which isn't necessarily a good thing.

The Desire for Touch Declines in Long-Term Relationships

Licensed therapist, specializing in sex therapy, Vanessa Marin, 39, from California has listened to many clients discuss the problems they face when their partner only wants any sort of touch in order to initiate sex.

Vanessa and Xander Marin Discuss Bristle Reaction
Vanessa and Xander Marin pictured. Vanessa Marin has spoken to Newsweek about the concept she coined as the bristle reaction. Tarynne Webb

While working with numerous clients, Vanessa began to notice a number of them state that around three years into a relationship, the desire for touch in a marriage drops off. With less affection and touch in a relationship on a day-to-day basis, it means that when there eventually is any physicality, it can lead to what she refers to as the bristle reaction.

The bristle reaction is the way a person feels when their partner shows affection because they know it can mean just one thing, which makes them feel on edge. It's not just a romantic kiss—they want more.

It's a visceral response when someone gets too close and in your personal space. As the level of affection drops off, being close and sharing intimate space happens less, so the mind doesn't recognize it as just a small token of romance.

Vanessa spoke to Newsweek about the reflex reaction, and why it seems to occur in long-term relationships and marriages mainly.

She said: "I came up with the term to describe this phenomenon I'd heard from clients. People say their partner wants to give them a hug and suddenly they feel themselves bristling up in response to their physical touch.

'Not Enough Touch That Doesn't Lead to Sex'

"It made me curious about how we can love someone so deeply, yet we have this strong reaction to a simple touch.

"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."

It's difficult to solve a problem without knowing why it's happening, so Vanessa looked into why the bristle reaction happens firstly, to work out how to change it.

Much of it is down to "not having enough touch in the relationship" which doesn't lead to sex.

"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 and on the spot, so our walls come up."

Vanessa also believes it can be a result of sex not being initiated properly, as she says this can make us "feel awkward around sexual connection."

Vanessa and Xander Marin
Vanessa and Xander Marin together. Vanessa Marin suggested a nightly make out session with her husband, after she began noticing the bristle reaction in 2019. Tarynne Webb

How Can the Bristle Reaction Be Tackled?

While a lot of the discussions came from client experiences, Vanessa also started to notice the phenomenon happening in her own marriage, with husband Xander, 37.

She wanted to tackle the problem head on and change how they viewed physical touch, so the couple began their own routine of a make out session before going to sleep each night.

The idea of kissing a spouse before bed might not be a ground-breaking concept, but it's transformed the couple's marriage nonetheless.

"We have been doing that for a couple of years now. I experienced the bristle reaction early on and wanted to address it, so the make out sessions started in 2019.

"It was immediately a nightly thing. The idea behind it was to be structured about having non-sexual touch and affection.

"Wanting to do it daily means it becomes habitual, rather than something forced that we have to remind ourselves to do every now and then. The nightly make out session became a favorite thing for us both, as it's a special moment to enjoy in the day."

Some might regard making out as quite juvenile, but that's exactly why Vanessa and Xander love it so much. Vanessa explained how "sweet and innocent" it feels, and it's nostalgic of being a teenager in love again.

Some nights it might just be 10 seconds before going to sleep, but there are other times it goes on for several minutes instead. Vanessa feels that this simple trick before going to bed has reignited their passion in the marriage.

"It makes us both feel prioritized, and the relationship feels important to us. It feels like this fun little secret between the two of us. It's those little rituals that make relationships feel special and intimate.

"A lot of people experience it, and they feel confused. They think it's a sign that something is wrong with the relationship, so understanding that it's a reaction that every couple goes through, and even having a name for it makes them see there's nothing wrong with it," Vanessa added.

Vanessa generated a lot of attention when she posted on March 3 about the bristle reaction on TikTok (@vanessaandxander) in a video that was titled: "Why my husband and I make out every night."

Vanessa's explanation of the phenomenon has amazed many people, as the video has racked up over 6.9 million views already and more than 560,000 comments, as many people relate to the theory.

'Being Aware of the Bristle Reaction Is the First Step'

Vanessa isn't the only advocate of physical touch to combat the bristle reaction, as Amanda Pasciucco can also attest to the importance of a simple touch. Pasciucco is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a certified sex therapist.

Pasciucco understands why the bristle reaction can take place in marriages, but that isn't the only time it can occur.

Amanda Pasciucco Discusses Bristle Reaction
Amanda Pasciucco pictured. Pasciucco has commented on the bristle reaction as she encourages clients to have simple physical touch to overcome it. Amanda Pasciucco

"In the neurobiology of attachment, there's more oxytocin in our body. Oxytocin is the cuddle hormone," Pasciucco told Newsweek.

"So, it means we are already touched out because of familial touch, like being with a toddler all day for example. When you have children, it is the opposite of erotic. When you are with each other all day and think there is no more mystery in your partner, it's the opposite of erotic.

"Noticing it is the first step in tackling anything. Being consciously aware of the bristle reaction happening is needed.

"Something to try instead is placing foreheads together. It's not overwhelming like a kiss or smothering like a hug. You can take a break if you are bristling up. Twenty minutes of deep breathing—inhale for two seconds through the nose, then exhale for four seconds through the mouth. You can calm yourself down."

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