Help! My Partner Doesn’t Like to Be Touched

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

Have you ever dealt with couples where one partner had issues with being touched? That’s the situation I am in now. I have been seeing a guy for about eight months and he’s really great. He’s sweet, gives me little gifts, great conversationalist, supports me, has a lot in common with me, etc. But one thing I’ve always found strange is that he doesn’t really like to touch me or be touched very much.

For example, we will be sitting next to each other on the couch watching a show and I’ll reach for his hand, but while he lets me touch it briefly, he pulls away fairly quickly and folds his arms or something. I can lean on his shoulder for a little bit and that seems okay, but he doesn’t go out of his way to touch me. Even hugging seems difficult. He’ll do it if I initiate, but he always breaks it off first. He also never goes in for the first kiss. We have sex, but that’s kind of distant too, in that we don’t really make eye contact and afterward he heads straight for the shower rather than cuddling with me.

This has taken some getting used to for me, as I am used to relationships where there is a lot of touch. Everyone is different, and I want to respect his differences and his boundaries. I don’t think this is something we can’t overcome. It’s just hard not to be touched by my partner, and I don’t know why it’s not as important to him as it seems to be for me. I did a little reading online and saw that abuse or trauma in a person’s past could make them more averse to certain types of touch. If that’s what’s going on, he hasn’t told me anything. And it doesn’t feel right to ask him about his past in that way if he doesn’t want to volunteer it.

What do you think might be going on? Is this just how some men are? —Out of Touch

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Dear Out of Touch,

Thank you for your note. While I’m not sure how “some men” are, I know how this man is, based on your description. You sound quite compassionate, incidentally, a great quality in a partner.

It does sound as if your guy has some discomfort with physical closeness. It is hard to discern what the source of that might be. I was impressed with your research and estimation of the cause as you try to understand him better. I hope he returns the favor.

I was struck by your comment that “it doesn’t feel right to ask him” about his past. Why? It may be hard for you to broach the topic. You may fear you’re wrecking the “honeymoon,” but I don’t see a good reason for you to suffer alone; you need more info here.

One way to attempt this is to say you find the topic awkward but necessary to discuss. I am fairly sure you are not the type to say, “So what’s the deal here? Think I got cooties?” At an opportune time, you could start with something along the lines of, “Listen, this is awkward and I don’t mean to rain on our parade, but I’ve noticed you tend to pull away when we’re close, and it’s confusing me.”

You can state your feelings without making demands or intrusions. Examples of this might include, “I find it a little odd or disconcerting when you run to the shower after sex,” or, “I really like cuddling after sex, but it seems you really don’t,” and so on. It gives him an opportunity to open up about a potentially tender issue.

I assume he, too, may feel awkward or antsy about the topic, which is why he hasn’t brought it up. He may be relieved when you do, in the thoughtful way you expressed in your letter.

I can’t see how bringing this up would be too forward. It would likely be worth your while to reflect upon why this is hard for you. I can only imagine that, over time, his barriers will become more off-putting—perhaps even cold or rejecting, even if he doesn’t mean it to be. We need our partners to care about how we feel and vice versa, even when there isn’t 100% agreement. Such emotional respect and trust is the mortar of intimacy.

In your case, you would need to loosen your own internal boundary regarding introducing a sensitive topic. He would need to ease up on his interpersonal barrier, enough to get the conversation started. Clearly you and your guy have different attitudes around touch, which cannot help but have an impact on the overall connection.

If you are right in your astute speculation that this is trauma related—and that would be my guess as well—it may be affecting him in some emotional or psychological way. As mind and body prove to be more intertwined as research on this progresses, there is undoubtedly some reason your guy is motivated to stick with a boundary that sounds a bit rigid.

It is nearly an axiom for me that, when it comes to close relationships of any stripe (even between therapist and person in therapy), rigidity can strangle spontaneity, love, or caring. The main thing I suggest you focus on, regarding whether this is a tolerable problem, is not the content of his response but how he responds.

All couples, at various stages, have issues that need addressing. What is important is how those issues are discussed and negotiated. As the cliché goes, relationships involve compromise. In the end, while neither person is disappointed nor thrilled at the micro level, the overall relationship is happily continued.

If your guy were unwilling to be even a little uneasy in talking about this issue, or talking about why talking about it is difficult, that would be concerning. The magic words in his response, were I your individual or couples counselor, would be something to the effect of, “Yes, I can see how that’s awkward or hard to understand for you.” The yellow or red flag would be, “Why are you bringing this up? There’s nothing to see here.”

Drs. John and Julie Gottman, pioneers in couples theory and counseling, say the “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” or major red flags in relationships, involve either excessive criticism or defensiveness. These are the danger zones: boundaries that are too rigid or a consistent lack of empathy between partners. Thus, while romance and finance tend to provoke anxiety in couples, it is how they are dealt with that matters, along with the degree to which each person emotionally “hears” the other.

In your case, you would need to loosen your own internal boundary regarding introducing a sensitive topic. He would need to ease up on his interpersonal barrier, enough to get the conversation started. Clearly you and your guy have different attitudes around touch, which cannot help but have an impact on the overall connection.

I think you would be doing him a favor by bringing this up, because if he wants to be in any close relationship it will have to be dealt with. I would hope he’d be relieved at your courage, since the move would show him that the relationship is important to you.

Without risk, relationships suffocate. Keep the focus on how you feel, as best you can, and what you hope will come from discussion. Starting with a mention of the “good stuff”—such as his generosity, great conversations, and so on—could make the more difficult parts easier. You might want to partner with a couples counselor who can help facilitate things.

Thank you for writing. I hope this was helpful.

All the best,

Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • 4 comments
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  • Heather

    Heather

    May 7th, 2018 at 5:06 PM

    This sounds like textbook trauma to me. It also sounds like three out of my four boyfriends. Why is it always the guy who doesn’t like touch?

  • Mel

    Mel

    May 8th, 2018 at 12:26 PM

    I’m a woman and I don’t like touch, although with time and work I’ve got better at it. It’s not always the guy!

  • Merry

    Merry

    May 16th, 2018 at 10:15 PM

    I think that people who don’t like being touched are sensory defensive. Some people are born this way and for others it is acquired e.g. through trauma. A good book is Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight by Sharon Heller, PhD.

  • ajb

    ajb

    June 11th, 2018 at 9:45 PM

    I agree with Merry that a sensory adversion is possible. Some people who are highly sensitive (in the sense of sensory sensitivity, not in the more common sense of emotional sensitivy) have an increased positive response to touch, but others may experience being touched as anything from mildly physically uncomfortable to excruciatingly painful. That could potentially explain the running to the shower after sex thing too — it could be an aversion to the feeling of sweat, for example, more than wanting to get way.

    Many sensory adverse people (if that’s what this is) can tolerate or enjoy certain kinds of physical affection — they’re often unorthodox. Y’all might have to think outside the kissing-and-cuddling box.

    While I’m heartened by the letter-writer’s compassion and desire to understand (rather than condemn or pathologize) her(?) boyfriend, I’m very put off by the therapist’s response. No acknowledgment that different people have different needs and that’s OKAY — he seems to want to treat the boyfriend’s discomfort with touch as a personal failing, even suggests that he’s obligated to change to be worthy of a relationship. Really really bad vibes.

    Everyone’s needs are valid and people who don’t want to be touched deserve to have that respected just as much as people who do want touch deserve that. For @%&#s sake, not every difference between two people needs to have a “right” party and a “wrong” one!!

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