Do You Avoid Being Touched by Your Partner?
Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language, and the last, and it always tells the truth. – Margaret Atwood
Many of our marriage counseling, couples therapy, relationship coaching and sex therapy clients come in with one primary complaint: One partner simply does not want to be touched, and it's creating stress and pain in the relationship. (Not to mention creating issues around sexual intimacy).
Touch is a highly important need of humanity. It is essential for our healthy emotional and physical development, and it is also the very first sense which we all develop.
Most of us are aware of this significance, however, along the way somewhere we forget about the importance of touch, especially in our romantic relationships.
What are some situations where people don't want to be touched by their partner?
I frequently work with couples in couples counseling or marriage counseling where one partner (mostly but not always female) feels that they are not as open to their lover’s touch as they once were. Here, I am not referring to couples with history of sexual trauma: while these couples may also struggle with touch the path of their healing is different than the one I'm describing in this article.
Often when couples are in a place where that intimate and close connection they once had has diminished, physical affection can become problematic. One of the most common themes behind this issue is that the ‘initiation ritual’ transformed from an exciting and romantic experience into a pressured and negative one. This is most typical for couples who have been together for a number of years and even more common where children are present.
After a while, one partner (often the male) starts to express non-sexual physical affection a little less and starts expressing physical affection mostly when they have a desire to engage in a sexual encounter with their partner. Which leads to one of the most common phrases I hear from my female clients: “Every time he touches me I think he just wants sex.”
Women subconsciously make a connection that physical affection will most likely lead to sex, and if their mind or their body doesn’t feel up to it, it feels safer to avoid all physical connection all together. This can also feel like pressure. Pressure to be intimate, pressure to perform/act/look/sound/move a certain way, which is very difficult if we don’t feel up for it. Essentially, pressure (of any kind) is the biggest enemy of intimacy.
What causes someone to avoid being touched by their partner?
This ‘shut down’ phenomenon has quite a few possible causes, and the list below resembles the ones I most frequently encounter with my clients.
- Feeling touched out – This can be primarily experienced by mothers of young children. Having a child in your arms for hours, or being covered in all kinds of bodily fluids can be a very rewarding experience, but unfortunately, for some, it can result in feeling ‘touched out’ by the end of the day. By the time the little ones are in bed, all mum wants to do is enjoy her personal space.
- Lack of connection between partners – When we feel disconnected from our partner on an emotional level, it is very difficult to connect on a physical level. If someone makes sexual advances during a disconnected period, it can seem like ‘sex is all they are interested in’ and result in feeling even more disconnected.
- Pain/discomfort during intercourse – If someone experiences pain or discomfort during sexual intercourse, they would (often subconsciously) try to avoid not only the intercourse but anything that can lead to that as well.
- Other reasons why one partner may begin to avoid being touched by the other – If they are not experiencing much pleasure from coupled sex, they worry that it will lead to a fight, or if they have body image or self-confidence issues.
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How does not wanting to be touched impact a relationship?
This ‘shut down’ dynamic often leaves both partners confused about what is happening as this isn’t necessarily a conscious or straight forward process. One partner feels they have shut down and the other feels rejected and lost. After this cycle repeats a few times, both partners sexual safety is damaged. This leads to a place where neither of them wants to or are able to talk about it, which quite literally ends up in an emotional and physical stand still.
How can couples restore a desire to be touched?
The first and most important thing a couple can and needs to do is communicate. By this I mean honest, open, and judgment-free communication about what each of the partners are feeling, thinking and experiencing regarding their intimacy. The only way this concern will be resolved is if both partners truly understand each other. In order to achieve this, a couple will need to be able to reconnect on an emotional level.
The second change a couple can implement goes hand in hand with the first one, and it is only possible when communication feels comfortable. The partner who avoids physical affection needs to regain control in a positive way.
One exercise that can work well is by learning how to have control during hugs. First, they should try to learn what kind of hugs they enjoy. For instance, do they like long or short hugs, gentle or firm hugs, chest to chest or shoulder to shoulder hugs, etc.
Secondly, they should try to communicate this to their partner by describing it in as much detail as possible and also demonstrating it.
Third, they practice hugging the way they enjoy hugging and get comfortable with this form of physical affection on their terms, no matter how long it takes.
Fourth, if at any point the hug becomes overwhelming, or too much (or not enough) they should be able to verbalize that to their partner.
Lastly, after the hugging is concluded, reflect on how it felt, and what thoughts and feelings came up during the encounter. The hug ends on their term. It is important to know that this and any other physical encounter does not have to go any further unless both partners REALLY want them to.
What this quite simple, light, and controlled exercise will achieve helps a couple establish trust around physical affection, which is crucial. Trust is an essential part of regaining physical intimacy as the person who avoids physical touch should be able to completely trust that their partner will respect their process, their wishes, and their boundaries. They also need to learn, discuss, and explore boundaries; What is ok, what is not, what they can put up with, and what they can’t when it comes to affection. This controlled setting also helps with the elimination of pressure to go any further, which is often the root of avoidance.
Ideally, with open and honest communication, trust building and the elimination of pressure, the person who ‘shut down’ before would learn that non-sexual physical affection does not need to lead to anywhere, therefore they will be able to not only participate but also initiate these encounters. This re-established comfort, communication, and trust quite often ultimately translates into the realm of sexual intimacy as well.
Dori Bagi, M.S., SAS, ASORC
P.S. While how you're feeling about your sex life can be very hard to talk about, it's really important. One low-key way to start a conversation is by both of you taking our “How Healthy is Your Relationship Quiz” and then discussing your results.
P.P.S. If it feels impossible to have a productive conversation about this delicate subject without one or both of you being triggered, that's a sign it's time to get professional support. If you'd like my assistance, I invite you to schedule a free consultation meeting with me to discuss your hopes for your relationship, and talk about how I can help.
Dori Bagi, M.S., SAS, ASORC is a kind, empathetic couples counselor, individual therapist, and life coach who specializes in sex therapy. Her friendly style makes it safe to talk about anything, and her solution-focused approach helps you move past the past, and into a bright new future of intimacy and connection.
Dori is understanding and calm, and helps us understand our feelings, communicate them, celebrate all positive steps, stay positive, and feel hopeful and loving toward each other. She is really great at what she does, and has made a huge difference in our lives and our relationship.