It’s so normal and it’ll pass. Here’s what you can do to feel better in the meantime.
Picture this: Your partner walks in at the end of the day and puts their arm around you, looking for a little physical affection after a day of running around. You instinctively recoil and move away from their touch as quickly as possible. If this sounds familiar, there’s a good chance you’re feeling something called being ‘touched out.’ As it turns out, this is a very common feeling for parents to experience, and there are several things to know about feeling touched out that will help you and your partner navigate this feeling.
Without knowing about this phenomenon, the feeling might be incredibly confusing, and you may find yourself wondering, “Why do I not like being touched?” After all, what does being touched out really mean? “Touched out is a term to describe a phenomenon reported by many mothers, especially moms of young children who are feeling overwhelmed as a result of constant physical contact with their children,” Dr. Laura Venuto, a licensed psychologist who specializes in maternal mental health and parenting, tells Romper. “Mothers find they reach a point where they become averse to physical contact and want a time-out of sorts for their bodies.”
In other words, you’ve spent so much time in physical contact with another human, providing affection and care, that the thought of any more touching makes you incredibly uncomfortable. “It's that feeling when your skin itches, or you feel like the room is closing in on you when someone touches you or you think about touching someone,” licensed professional therapist Ashley Grubbs previously explained to Romper. It’s something that new parents are especially prone to, as small children are all-consuming and need both your mental and physical attention.
If, for example, you spend most of your day in close contact with your kid (perhaps they like to lie on you when you’re sitting on the couch, be in your arms while you do chores, or are still being breastfed), by the time your partner gets home, the last thing in the world you want is more physical touch. “Many moms report that their bodies become central to their family's needs, be it breastfeeding, rocking and carrying children, babywearing, and just the general physical demands of caregiving with children,” Venuto says, “as well as if they are in a partnered relationship, their body becomes an integral component of fulfilling their partner’s sexual needs.”
Having an understanding of what being touched out is and why it happens can help you and your family cope with it. Here are just a few things to know about this all-too-common emotion.
You’re not a bad parent for feeling touched out
As parents, it’s easy to feel guilty about almost everything. Feeling like you just want your kid to get off of you for once does not mean you are a cold, uncaring parent. It means you’re a human being who needs and deserves personal space. “After endless days of having what feels like constant physical touch with one's children, being grabbed and pulled by little hands (sometimes even hit when dealing with tough toddler behaviors), women feel burned out,” Venuto says.
Everyone needs to breathe sometimes, and it doesn’t mean you don’t love or cherish your kid. "Humans do need physical touch, but they also need time alone,” Grubbs said. “Time where they can zone out and be with themselves absent of any intrusion. It's like resting your voice after screaming all day. It's needed and healthful."
You’re not a bad partner for feeling touched out
You cannot be everything for everyone, and often, when you’re giving a lot in one area, it takes away from what you can give in another. So, when your young child is requiring a lot of your time and affection, your partner may receive less of that affection, which may make you feel stressed, frustrated, and guilty in some ways, as Venuto explains.
“The leap from being child-free to having children is a major transition for couples,” she says. “There are sizable shifts in how couples connect as well as a recalibration of priorities. When a dyad becomes a triad, it is not unusual for someone to feel left out. Mothers are often aware that their partners feel rejected or even jealous due to mom's focus on their children, and guilt and anxiety can be a result. I also have seen women feel angry that their partners are not more sympathetic to their circumstances.”
Relationships ebb and flow, and you are not a bad partner because you can’t drop everything to meet their physical needs at that moment. And if you are feeling frustrated that your partner doesn’t understand the emotional and physical toll you’re going through, try to talk it out or seek professional help.
It’s especially common if you’re breastfeeding
While you can certainly feel touched out in other stages of parenting, the phenomenon often comes about for parents who are nursing, as they feel tied to their baby in a way that is unlike anything else they have ever experienced in life, as Venuto explains. “As one mother told me, breastfeeding ‘is an invisible leash,’” she says. “While this woman enjoyed nursing, she also felt intense pressure that her body was solely responsible for her infant's survival.”
And even as infants grow and approach toddlerhood, when nursing can become easier and more efficient, there are new things to navigate, such as teeth and pinching fingers. This sense of compulsory tethering to a child at steady intervals throughout the day and night can be incredibly draining. Any form of physical touch can start to feel like a heavy load.
It’s OK to seek out some alone time
Even as a parent responsible for their children all the time, you’re allowed to take care of yourself. In fact, you should take care of yourself. This can be especially tough, though, as young children don’t understand that they shouldn’t just simply follow you into, say, the bathroom, where you might otherwise have at least a few minutes of time alone.
“The touched out phenomenon is reflective of a mom's desperate need for a break,” Venuto explains. “I strongly encourage women to try to find childcare help, be it paid or unpaid for at least one to three blocks of time during the week. The purpose of the time is to be ‘off’ and to do things that are truly pleasurable.”
Giving yourself the space to breathe and recover will make you a better, more patient parent when you walk back out the door and into the arms of your waiting child. Even just going for a stroll around the neighborhood or a trip to the yoga studio will do your mind and body some good. "The endorphin rush from the movement helps clear the cobwebs from your mind and the sense of claustrophobia that tends to envelop you as a mom,” Grubbs says.
Feeling touched out can decrease your sex drive
Although it is common for your libido to drop in the year following childbirth, that may not be the only reason you’re avoiding getting intimate with your partner. The feeling of being touched out can make sex seem like the most unpleasant thought in the world — and it can be easy for your partner to take it personally or think you’ve lost interest in them. However, being touched out has nothing to do with your attraction to your partner; it’s about the need that all humans have for bodily autonomy.
“When considered in this context, it's understandable that many women have the experience that when they are ‘off duty’ from mothering tasks, they have minimal interest in spending their free time engaging in physical activities like cuddling or having sex,” Venuto says. Since you can’t control how and when your child needs or touches you, it’s reasonable to exert control over being touched where you can — and often, that’s in the ability to tell your partner not to touch you.
However, if a lack of desire for your partner persists, it may be something you should give more thought to. “I believe that sex and intimacy are really healthy parts of relationships, and if one or more parties in a relationship go months or years without desiring physical touch, that should be explored,” Venuto says. “If you're reading this and it resonates, you might find great benefit from pursuing individual or couples therapy.”
It’s important to seek out emotional & physical space
Being physically needed all the time can be exhausting and make you feel claustrophobic, which can definitely take an emotional toll. Especially if you were someone who experienced repeated physical boundary violations as a child, the experience of feeling touched out can be triggering or bring back familiar and unpleasant feelings. Finding the space to not just physically separate, but emotionally decompress and regroup as well, is crucial.
“Moms have to provide so much emotional labor for others, and it can be hard to be constantly emotionally available for family and friends," Katie Lear, a licensed therapist who works with parents and kids, previously told Romper. "Especially for more introverted moms, time alone can be a chance to refill the cup” and prevent feeling tired — after all, “you can’t pour from an empty cup!” Mindfulness practices such as meditation can help create emotional space during times of extreme stress and anxiety.
You may want to reevaluate your goals
While being a mother comes with many necessary duties and responsibilities, you do have personal choices to make along the way. In the case of feeling touched out, Venuto recommends giving thought to some of your goals related to activities requiring physical touch.
“If a woman is nursing and feeling touched out to the point that she is resenting her partner, her children, or not enjoying nursing, I strongly encourage her to reevaluate her breastfeeding goals and the purpose of breastfeeding,” Venuto says. “If it's for bonding, yet family relationships are suffering, it's important to consider whether it's really worth it.” Even when things feel out of your control during the parenting process, it is important to remember that you do have autonomy and personal choices to consider.
Therapy can help
On the one hand, the feeling of being touched out can feel like it will never go away while you’re in it. On the other hand, those perpetually optimistic parents have a point when they say that one day you’ll miss having a kid who actually wants and needs to touch you. The reality is somewhere in between those two places.
It’s OK to feel overwhelmed and exhausted while you’re raising very small people who need you all the time. But, according to Venuto, the feeling is generally temporary. “I find it's a phase of life associated with the early caretaking years that are grueling on parents,” she says. And if you ever feel as though you need advice or help when it comes to feeling touched out, seeking out a mental health professional or therapist is always a good option.
Parenthood is challenging in many ways. And ultimately, feeling touched out is incredibly common, especially in the early stages of raising an infant or if you choose to breastfeed. That being said, knowing what the phenomenon is and how it might affect you will certainly help you navigate the feeling. And when things feel tough, just know that odds are, the feeling won’t last.
Yate Z. M. (2017). A Qualitative Study on Negative Emotions Triggered by Breastfeeding; Describing the Phenomenon of Breastfeeding/Nursing Aversion and Agitation in Breastfeeding Mothers. Iranian journal of nursing and midwifery research, 22(6), 449–454. https://doi.org/10.4103/ijnmr.IJNMR_235_16
Dr. Laura Venuto, Psy.D., licensed psychologist
Ashley Grubbs, licensed professional therapist
Katie Lear, LCMHC, licensed therapist
Stephanie Swann, Ph.D., LCSW, owner of the Atlanta Mindfulness Institute
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