If there’s one thing we know to be true, it’s that no relationship is perfect. One minute you’re in the blissful honeymoon phase mushing and gushing about how blue their eyes are, and in a blink of an eye, you’re six years deep with a mortgage, a screaming newborn and a scheduled sex life. Things are all fine and dandy until someone gets the ick, and—in this instance—we’re talking about the dreaded Bristle Reaction. We chatted with New York Times bestselling author and sex therapist Vanessa Marin to give us the breakdown on the Bristle Reaction, from its relationship-ending dangers to the steamy action that’ll save your marriage or relationship and make you feel like a love-struck teenager again.
Meet the Expert
Vanessa Marin is a licensed psychotherapist specializing in sex therapy with twenty years of experience and the author of New York Times bestseller, Sex Talks: The Five Conversations That Will Transform Your Love Life. She has a Bachelor of Science from Brown University in human sexuality and sociology, and a master’s degree in counseling psychology. Her words have been published in The New York Times, Vogue and Psychology Today, to name a few.
@vanessaandxander 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 [e-266c] original sound - Vanessa + Xander Marin
Wait…What Is the Bristle Reaction?
The Bristle Reaction is a term coined by Marin herself to describe what happens in many long-term relationships when the butterfly effect of the honeymoon stage flutters away. She does see it happen more often in male-female relationships, but make no mistake, reader…no couple is safe from the dangers of the Bristle Reaction. It’s the “feeling you get when your partner comes in to touch or kiss you, and you feel your body bristling up in response,” says Marin. “It's similar to the feeling of a stranger invading your personal space, except you're reacting to the person you love and trust the most in this world.” That said, it’s not that you don’t desire sex and you definitely still want to rip off your partner’s clothes every so often, but just not right now.
What Causes the Bristle Reaction?
So, how do two people who are supposedly in love end up recoiling at the slightest touch? Marin tells us there are two main causes, and they might be more common than you think.
The first cause: “Not enough non-sexual touch,” says Marin. “Couples in long-term relationships tend to touch each other less, to the point where the only time they're really touching each other is in the lead up to or during sex.” As a result, she tells us that when we equate touch to sex, our brains form a connection. Over time, Marin explains, couples may begin to feel on guard whenever either partner comes to touch the other because they see sex as the end goal. And with dirty dishes in the sink, laundry in the wash, school lunches to prepare and work deadlines to tackle, sex can feel like a marathon you didn’t train for.
What’s more, “as relationships go on, sexual initiation starts to feel complicated, and couples tend to do it in roundabout ways. Your partner comes in for a hug or a kiss, and you can feel them lingering, hoping they can subtly shift the interaction to sex,” explains Marin. This is called indirect sexual initiation, and it can happen anytime, but couples are especially susceptible in the one-to-three-year mark. As a partner begins to presume the other’s motives behind physical touch, the relationship becomes endangered. The vary basis of the connection becomes questioned, opening the door for doubt and resentment. A greeting hug after work suddenly feels like an unwanted way to get hands around your waist. And was that spontaneous kiss in the middle of your Real Housewives episode really necessary? (I mean, your hubby knew this episode was going to be BIG...it was all you could talk about since last week.)
One Way to Save Your Marriage from the Bristle Reaction
OK, so you caught yourself tensing up when your S.O. caressed your back the other day…and you don’t want to do that anymore. Great news: It doesn’t have to be like that. In fact, if you want “to overcome the Bristle Reaction, you actually need to touch each other more,” says Marin. It may sound like the exact thing you don’t want to do—as that’s the very thing causing your Bristle Reaction—but it can retrain the brain to recognize that there doesn’t need to be a permanent causal relationship between touch and sex.
Marin’s love-drug of choice? Making out for a little bit every day. But there’s a catch…do NOT have sex. “My husband Xander and I started making out (for a minute or less) every night as a way to enjoy some physical contact, but without it leading to sex.” Too often, Marin sees couples who are deeply unhappy and disconnected in their relationships, and making out is a tactic that’ll make your relationship last and prevent those heebie jeebies from creeping in.
Other suggestions to try out: massaging, cuddling and caressing, to name a few. The idea here is to not to get turned on, but it’s OK if you do (and probably a huge compliment to your hubby) as long as you keep your pants tightly belted. Whatever physical intimacy you choose, Marin tells us that “the idea is to have some form of touch that you’re being clear is separate from sex.”
The Bottom Line
Keep calm and carry on…making out that is. The Bristle Reaction spares no prisoners and can strike at any moment—especially for those who are in that one-to-three year stage—but as our sex therapist Vanessa Marin suggests, a little relationship maintenance goes a long way. At the end of the day, carving out five minutes to make out, hug or kiss without getting too hot n’ heavy can prevent the Bristle Reaction from ever occurring. Plus, it demonstrates that you’re prioritizing your relationship, your partner and yourself. Now let’s pencil ‘em in right before yoga.
Learn More About the Bristle Reaction
If you’re curious to learn more about the Bristle Reaction, like what to do when you’re completely touched out or how to navigate conversation pitfalls, Marin covers it all in full detail in her New York Times bestselling book, Sex Talks: Five Conversations That Will Transform Your Love Life. With help from her husband, Xander Marin, the couple gets down and dirty about all things sex, from how to talk about it to explorative ways you and your S.O. can spice up your love life.