A couple embraces while looking out the window representing what to do when you don't want to be touched

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, as well as 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.

Not Wanting to Be Touched in Relationships

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 a 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 emotional 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.” (While the male client is reporting: “My wife won’t let me touch her and I feel sexually rejected“).

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 response is known as “the bristle reaction“). 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.

Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language, and the last, and it always tells the truth.

Why Do I Avoid Being Touched By My 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.  

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 Your Relationship is Impacted when You Don’t Want to Be Touched

“My wife doesn’t want me to touch her anymore.”

This can be a heartbreaking thought for the partner who wants more physical contact. This ‘shut down’ dynamic often leaves both partners confused about what is happening as this isn’t necessarily a conscious or straightforward 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.

Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language, and the last, and it always tells the truth.

— Margaret Atwood

What to Do When You Don’t want to Be Touched: A Guide for Couples

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.

Trust is an essential part of regaining physical intimacy…

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 terms. 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. When trust is absent, it leads to sexless marriages and sexless relationships in general.

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.

If you’d like support with reigniting the spark and re-establishing physical affection in your relationship, schedule a free consultation.


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.


  1. Love and affectionate touch toward romantic partners all over the world. Sci Rep. 2023 Apr 4;13(1):5497. doi: 10.1038/s41598-023-31502-1. PMID: 37015974; PMCID: PMC10073073. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10073073/
  2. Pendell, S. D. (2002). Affection in Interpersonal Relationships: Not Just “A Fond or Tender Feeling.” Annals of the International Communication Association26(1), 67–110. https://doi.org/10.1080/23808985.2002.11679011
  3. Horan, S. M., & Booth-Butterfield, M. (2010). Investing in Affection: An Investigation of Affection Exchange Theory and Relational Qualities. Communication Quarterly58(4), 394–413. https://doi.org/10.1080/01463373.2010.524876

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  1. Wow I’m so happy I’m not the only one going through this. Thanks for helping me understand why I may feel the way I feel towards sex.

  2. Wow I’m so happy I’m not the only one going through this. Thanks for helping me understand why I may feel the way I feel towards sex.

  3. I have IC/PBS my husband’s touching almost always indicates he wants sex. Sex is extremely painful for me even an arousal can cause intense long lasting pain and I resent him for not understanding that and not leaving me alone. I hate having kisses forced on me as I’ve never cared for kissing in general. I love my husband. I just feel suffocated by him and I know he’s not really doing anything wrong and my rejection hurts him. I don’t want to hurt him but I don’t want to have sex either.

  4. But what about the pain reason? How, if that is one of the root causes, can you want to start initiating in sex again? I don’t assume it magically goes away with trust.

  5. There is another reason that intimacy can diminish. I’m my case it was because I suspected my husband had been unfaithful and was keeping it secret. Then I did not want him touching me at all.

    My suspicions turned out to be true. But the real damage was the lies and distance that developed between us while he was hiding it. We could not come back from it.

  6. There is another reason that intimacy can diminish. I’m my case it was because I suspected my husband had been unfaithful and was keeping it secret. Then I did not want him touching me at all.

    My suspicions turned out to be true. But the real damage was the lies and distance that developed between us while he was hiding it. We could not come back from it.

  7. I just want my wife to feel comfortable with me and not think when I touch her I am wanting to go farther. I feel so alone at this time.

  8. Thank you for writing this. I think it hit the nail right on the head. It is the pressure that is the problem. It can be so hard to articulate something seemingly so simple. This was helpful.

  9. Thank you for sharing. I’m so glad to know you found the episode validating and helpful. Warmest, Dr. Lisa

  10. Hi Tim. Of course you want this. Being rejected is so painful. It just so happens I have a recent podcast episode on “When Your Partner Rejects You Sexually” that you mind find comforting. Have you tried couples counseling with her, specifically with a trained sex therapist? We have a few on the team. It can be incredibly hopeful and enlightening to meet with someone who helps the two of you talk more deeply (and compassionately) about what’s really happening for both of you – and help you rekindle intimacy, both emotional and sexual. All my best, Lisa

  11. I’m so glad to hear you feel better and benefited! That’s why I create these episodes! Thank you for sharing! xoxo, Dr. Lisa

  12. Naomi, thank you for sharing this, and I’m so sorry to hear about this difficult situation. Between the pain you’re experiencing, and his feeling rejected sexually, it sounds really challenging for both of you. Given the pain you are experiencing, I would recommend speaking to your OB-GYN about this to see if there are any treatments that can help. But the other thing that would be very beneficial for both of you would be to speak with a qualified sex therapist who can help you build bridges of connection and get both of your needs met in this relationship. This work could help your husband understand your experience with more empathy, and also help rebuild your physical/non-sexual relationship. That would help you from feeling like every time he touches you, it’s because he wants sex. Feeling more comfortable being close to him physically would also help repair your physical/sexual connection. There are many ways of being sexually intimate that do not involve intercourse! I sincerely hope that by addressing this issue together you are able to rebuild a physical relationship that is pleasurable for both of you. You might also consider listening to his podcast, “Feeling Sexually Rejected” together, to begin a conversation about how you’re both feeling. Wishing you both all the best, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

  13. That’s a good point. When physical pain is involved my advice would be to talk with your doctor about treatment options, but also to work with a qualified sex therapist around how to build a pleasurable relationship that is not focused on sexual intercourse. xo, Dr. Lisa

  14. Husband here who suddenly doesn’t want wife to touch me. My reason? For years I’ve asked my wife to stop sabotaging our financial goals and start cleaning her messes (she’s a slob). I noticed recently that she’s always used sex to reestablish trust and convince me to give her yet another chance. Now when she touches me I feel violated because she’s using sex to dupe me into settling for something that is causing me grave distress. I’ve basically told her this but she refuses to accept my reasons.

    1. Ollie. Wow. There is so much anger and resentment here due to unresolved conflict, and I can understand how it’s impacting every other part of your relationship — including sexual intimacy. I am sure that this situation feels unsustainable for you, and I’m equally certain that you’re aware that intervention will be necessary to mend this. (If either of you want to repair this, which is unclear from what you’ve shared.)

      Resources for you: Discernment counseling to find out if change is possible, and what would need to be involved to get this back on track. More on this topic in my “relationship clarity” collection.

      IF discernment counseling reveals that you’re both willing to invest in growth, and committed to doing the work, then couples counseling could be helpful for you. Before taking that step please read “how to find a good marriage counselor” and “evidence based practice” so that you can make informed decisions and avoid getting involved with a counselor who is likely to make things worse for you.

      Lastly, once you’ve done some mending to the basic fabric of your relationship, obviously it would be worth doing some focused work to get into alignment around money, (i.e., financial therapy for couples) as well as general expectations for how to run your shared life together in terms of cleaning, etc. Creating change in those specific practical domains will not be possible until your attachment bond has been mended. (Lots of people try and put that cart before the horse, and it will always fail, so I hope that saves you from wasting energy in the wrong places).

      I would not expect that your desire for sexual intimacy will be restored until you’ve resolved these conflicts (or at least made substantial progress that restores your hope for the relationship).

      Wishing you all the best Ollie.

      Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

  15. Hi, I would like to thank you so much for this article. I’ve been reading things on this theme from time to time and this is finally something that really resonates with how I’m feeling it can be solved ! I’m the one avoiding touch. I’m excited to tell my partner.
    Thank you very much once again 🙂

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