It was a long day, and you’re on the couch with your wife, remote in hand. She’s exhausted, too, after having taken care of the baby all day, so you reach over and try to put your arm around her. Instead of snuggling into your armpit and relaxing, she stiffens. Her jaw tightens and her eyes, lit by the glow of the TV, are glued to the images on screen like her life depends upon her concentration. The fun, loving person you married now seems like a trapped animal ready to spring. The last thing she seems to want is physical closeness. But she gives the kids affection all day and no affection to you. What gives?
She’s touched out. It’s a common scene in the households of new parents. The only constant in a marriage after kids is change. Whereas before the baby, cuddling was second nature, it now seems to frustrate her. Neither of you might want to talk about it — you because you want to show understanding and not complain, she because she’s afraid of insulting you or hurting your feelings.
Even if the problem is addressed, a lot of dads struggle with what to do with it and might feel confused, embarrassed or, at times, resentful. They might wonder, Since when am I so repulsive? I’m not a jelly-covered 2 year old. Or How much space does she need, why does she get this way, and is this going to get better? Or will this problem just worsen?
Why New Moms Feel “Touched Out”
Not all moms feel “touched out” after having a baby, but many, to put it simply, just can’t stand physical affection after caring for one or more needy kids all day. For these caregivers, a gentle touch from a partner can start to feel like a demanding grope. It’s not an acknowledged psychological disorder or physiological reaction, but colloquially, feeling “touched out” is something moms have started to open up about. It’s common among primary caregivers, particularly moms who breastfeed.
Describing what it’s like to be pawed at and pulled on all day by children, mother Becky Vieira wrote in an essay for BabyCenter, “Now I’ve added jungle gym, human Kleenex and step stool [to] the list of roles my body fills on a daily basis. My hair gets pulled. My arms and legs are grabbed and tugged. Sometimes I get bitten.” A day of this could make anyone want to sit alone and unwind without an arm around them.
“For more than two years, I felt as if my body was not my own,” says Brooklyn, New York, psychotherapist Nikita Banks, who felt touched out while breastfeeding her son for a year and a half. “So many changes were happening physiologically, hormonally, and mentally being a first-time mom that I couldn’t bear being touched by my partner at times. There was a slight competition for attention in my household that my son often won, [and] his father was left feeling like an odd man out.”
Caring for a particularly needy baby can exacerbate the problem. In a Reddit thread about feeling touched out, a mother wrote, “I am holding my infant literally 23 hours a day. I could put him down, but he would scream like he is in hot lava. I was a VERY touchy feely person before baby, but still needed lots of alone time. Cuddled with all my friends, walked arm in arm, was always very physical with them. Now I don’t even want a hug. It makes my skin crawl.”
The skin-crawly feeling is common among touched-out mothers in Emily Souder’s counseling groups. “Women with whom I’ve worked (and female friends as well) have described their skin crawling and feeling a need to escape,” says the Maryland-based licensed clinical social worker, mom coach, and Reiki master practitioner. “The feeling of one more person needing something from them feels overwhelming.”
The feeling often has to do with being physically touched but might also be related to a lack of personal space, such as not being able to go to the bathroom without a baby howling, she continues.
“This impacts physical relationships with partners, because by the time the kids are in bed and there might be time for some intimacy, the impacted partner has nothing left to give and wouldn’t get much pleasure from a sexual experience,” Souder says.
Some touched-out women hesitate to be affectionate because they’re afraid it’ll send sexual signals to their partners when they’re not interested, she adds. But it’s usually not a rejection of the other person so much as a deep, core desire to just have some space to do something they want to do without someone needing attention.
What to Talk About When You Talk About Being “Touched Out”
Despite intention behind the feelings, a lot of men feel rejected by their wife’s desire for space. And many of them don’t feel like it’s socially acceptable to talk about, says Justin Lioi, LCSW, a therapist in Brooklyn, New York, who specializes in men’s mental health and fatherhood.
“Men are taught to figure out all their issues on their own, and this can lead them inward and possibly to withdraw, especially if feelings of rejection come up,” Lioi says. “Some struggle with taking her feeling touched out personally — even when they know they shouldn’t.”
Intellectually, they understand that their partner has had major physical experiences with which they can only try to empathize, he says. But they want the woman they met back, want to feel the connection they had back then. It’s a tug of war within themselves and with their partners, Lioi adds, and the party feeling touched out isn’t always open to discussing it.
“Sadly, when she is ready, [dads have] often distanced themselves so much and built up too much of a wall,” he says.
When couples are ready to address touched out feelings, it’s a good idea to probe any underlying issues that might be at play, and maybe with the help of a therapist.
“If caregivers are feeling touched out, that suggests there’s some kind of stress that has to be attended to,” says Susan S. Woodhouse, Ph.D., an associate professor of counseling psychology at Lehigh University who researches parenting and child development. “Where is it coming from? Is she feeling like her boundaries are being violated?”
It might sound silly when you’ve been together for a while, but it’s important to talk about your personal boundaries and needs as new parents. Maybe set a schedule so sex is only on the table one weekend morning, so the pressure’s off the rest of the week. Verbalize how and when you like to be touched, because, for the time being at least, things might have changed.
It took Adam King, a certified life coach who counsels couples with his wife, Karissa J. King, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Elk Grove, California, years to learn to stop “patting” his wife like a dude, he says.
“She would say, ‘Rub me, don’t pat me. I’m not your buddy,’” says Adam, the father of a two year old and an eight month old. “But she loves when I grab her around the waist. A lot of guys need to be coached to touch you the way you want to be touched.”
For Leigh Anne O’Connor, a lactation counselor in New York and mother of three, giving her husband a head scratch or holding his hand was just the right amount of touch when she was feeling touched out. That way, she says, “I was in control of my body.”
“[But] talking to your partner about your feelings can go a long way,” she adds. “Because your partner may not be getting the touch they need or desire that you can offer touch on your terms.”
If moms feel touched out for a while — and people have their own definitions for what ‘a while’ means — couples should ask themselves whether the baby is being used as a reason to not be more intimate, suggests Lioi.
“Children tend to put a hyper-focus on issues that were tolerable before they came along,” he notes.
Not wanting to be touched also might stem from a new mother’s negative self-image after having a baby and taking on the stressful new role of being a mom. Many mothers worry constantly about not being a good enough caregiver to her baby or her partner, so much so that she feels like she can’t relax when Dad takes care of the baby for a while or like it’s selfish to take time for self-care. Or she might “relax” by taking an exhausted stroll through Instagram or Facebook, which tends to make people feel worse.
“Many people haven’t thought about what really taking care of themselves means,” Woodhouse says. “Research shows that Instagram tend to make people feel more isolated and depressed, so I’d recommend experimenting with something else and being thoughtful about what’s really needed. It could be exercise or social contact, but social media is not it.”
When partners give mom space, but she doesn’t take it, and continues caretaking or comparing herself to other moms on Instagram, that’s not self-care, Karissa J. King says. It’s important that she take that time to attend to her needs, whether it’s sleep, listening to music, lunch with a friend, going to the gym, or getting a massage. Even doing dishes or folding laundry can be soothing if she’s mindful and not feeling pulled in other directions, Woodhouse adds.
Mindfulness can help dads help their partners deal with these feelings, too.
“Lean in and pay attention,” Adam King says “Be present. A lot of times, people just aren’t being present. They’re in the same house but in two different worlds.”
Touched-out feelings will vary widely in severity and how long they’re felt. For many moms, the feeling will pass quickly. But it’s helpful for both parents not to ignore them.
“It’s nice to know that they will pass and to not get too stuck in thoughts about what it means about you or the relationship,” Souder says. “On the other hand, it’s also nice to take actions to make sure both parents’ needs are met.”
Dad might benefit from some reassurance such as, “I love you, but I need some space right now,” she says. “It won’t last forever.”
“The touched-out parent also can set boundaries,” says Souder. “Kids and parents alike need to practice consent around touching and [remember] that it’s not personal. Sometimes humans just need space.”