A woman turns her body away and protectively wraps her arm across her chest representing the bristle reaction.

You’re leaning in for a hug from your partner… and then you feel their body stiffen as they pull away from your touch. Ouch! No one likes feeling rejected by their partner, especially when you just want to cuddle. But scenarios like this are actually quite common among the clients I meet for couples counseling or sex therapy. It’s called the bristle reaction, and it can drive a wedge between couples if they don’t know how to navigate it together. In this article, we’ll explore what the bristle reaction is, why it happens, and how you can deal with the bristle reaction if it’s an issue in your relationship. 

What Is the Bristle Reaction? 

The bristle reaction, also referred to as the hair-trigger response, is a psychological and emotional response that occurs when one or both partners perceive a threat or a challenge to their emotional well-being or boundaries. They push away from their partner and seek some space, which can leave the partner who was seeking affection or sexual intimacy feeling rejected and hurt. 

This dynamic often occurs in relationships where partners have mismatched sex drives. The partner with the lower sex drive may want affection, but feel like every time they start cuddling, the higher sex drive partner tries to turn it into more. They may begin to avoid situations that have the potential to lead to sex. Now every time the other partner leans in for a hug or a kiss, the lower sex drive partner may squirm away not wanting to be touched

This just feels confusing and hurtful for the partner who was making a bid for affection or sex. They may begin to wonder if their lower sex drive partner even likes them anymore. Meanwhile, the lower sex drive partner feels pressured, which triggers them to avoid physical intimacy even more. Over time, tension, conflict, and resentment can build up around intimate moments, which needless to say does not improve their sex life. 

The bristle reaction causes problems in relationships for a few reasons. 

  1. Communication breakdown — One partner feels defensive, the other may feel confrontational. Gridlock ensues. 
  2. Erosion of trust — The partner who doesn’t want sex feels like they can’t trust that their partner will be happy with just cuddling, so they begin to avoid physical contact altogether. The higher sex drive partner can start to lose trust that they’re desired or valued in the relationship. 
  3. Emotional disconnection — Partners may fail to see each other’s points of view, and they may stop trying to talk about their challenges around physical intimacy. This can lead them to feel emotionally disconnected from each other. 

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How to Avoid the Bristle Reaction in Your Relationship

So, what can you do if the bristle reaction is taking a toll on your relationship? 

First, build your self-awareness. Both partners must be attuned to their own emotional triggers that may contribute to feelings of defensiveness. Before reacting to your partner, by pushing them away or by getting upset about feeling rejected, take a moment to check in with your feelings and where they’re coming from. This can help you self-soothe so that you can respond with intention, rather than reacting to your partner in a knee-jerk way. 

Next, communicate openly about what’s happening. Encourage your partner to share about their feelings and needs while using active listening skills to try to understand them without defensiveness. Having empathy for each other helps keep your emotional connection strong through periods of low sexual intimacy

It can also be helpful to prioritize playfulness and fun in your relationship. Date each other again, spend quality time together, and make space for intentional, connecting conversations. This keeps your relationship positive and enjoyable, and it may even breathe some life into your sexual connection. 

Couples struggling with the bristle reaction should also make space for lots of non-sexual physical touch in their relationships. This helps the partner with a lower sex drive regain the trust that a hug can simply be a hug and that cuddling on the couch doesn’t have to lead to more — unless they’re feeling up for it. As a bonus, reducing the tension and seriousness around sex can lead to an uptick in sexual desire. 

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Finally, seek help from a relationship expert who specializes in sex therapy. Working with a good sex therapist can help you both understand each other from a new perspective, meet each other’s needs, deepen your emotional connection, and navigate mismatched sex drives while keeping your connection strong. 

Support for Emotional and Sexual Intimacy

I hope this article helped you understand the bristle reaction and how to manage it in your relationship. With empathy, communication, and intention, you can overcome the bristle reaction and help each other feel loved and cared for. 

If you would like my support improving sexual and emotional intimacy in your relationship, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.   


Dori B., M.S., S.A.S., M.A.C.A.

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