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In Relationship with a Highly Sensitive Person

Updated: May 10, 2018

A topic I often come across in couple’s therapy is one partner being more “sensitive” than the other. This relationship dynamic can be a great source of conflict for couple’s who struggle to accept and understand the other person or who believe this trait is something that can be changed. As I’ve said before, when we let go of our mission to alter our partner and instead practice acceptance, we create space for compassion, compromise and intimacy. However, it can be hard to create space for that acceptance and appreciation without truly understanding what makes a sensitive person the way he/she is. The research refers to sensitive or highly sensitive people as HSP’s.

5 Gifts of Being Highly Sensitive

  • Attuned to sensory detail

  • Pick up nuances in meaning

  • High emotional awareness

  • Very creative

  • Great empathy

(Douglas Eby)

Research on HSP’s highlights that these traits are due to a fundamental difference in one’s nervous system functioning, as systems with decreased latent inhibition are more open to incoming stimuli. As a result, these individuals are prone to overstimulation and becoming easily stressed and therefore need more down time.

Public Opinion

When we hear the term “sensitive” we often conjure up stereotypes of what that term means and what it says about a person. Oftentimes sensitive people may be labeled as “shy,” “timid,” “inhibited,” or “introverted,” when in reality 70% of highly sensitive people are introverts and 30% are extroverts. So yes, there is such a thing as a sensitive extrovert! Nevertheless, this stigma against being a sensitive person can often be an obstacle to 1) identifying yourself as one, 2) being compassionate towards someone or 3) valuing these traits in yourself or others. Here are a few common stereotypes:

–       Real men aren’t sensitive

–       It’s ok for men to be physically affectionate, but not verbally or emotionally

–       All women are sensitive or too sensitive

–       Disagreements are because you’re too sensitive

–       Being sensitive means you are weak or don’t have thick skin

–       People who are sensitive need to learn to be less so

The result of this stigma against sensitivity is often that it is devalued as a trait, particularly for men or used as a license to criticize and say things like “get over it” or “stop taking things so personally.” Often, sensitive people have had past experiences of being humiliated or put down for their sensitivity, which can create feelings of insecurity. This insecurity combined with sensitivity can lead someone to become highly reactive in his or her relationships and conversations.

Sensitivity + insecurity= reactivity

Dr. Elaine Aron, leading author on this topic, talks about tendencies of highly sensitive people in relationships:

  • Seek more depth in relationships to be satisfied

  • See more threatening consequences in their partners’ behaviors or flaws

  • Reflect and possibly ruminate more

  • Worry about how things are going

Sensitivity in Relationships: Vulnerabilities

If you recall the 5 gifts of being highly sensitive at the top, you can imagine how those traits can overflow into and enrich relationships. So while a highly sensitive person may be very emotionally attuned, empathic and stimulate creativity in a relationship, there are also vulnerabilities to keep in mind for your or your partner that may affect communication and conflict resolution.

  1. When I hurt, I hurt deeply

  2. I hurt longer

  3. Very impressionable- experience overrides logic

You can take Dr. Aron’s online self-test here to see if you are highly sensitive.

Our ability to negotiate our differences without controlling our partner is the biggest relationship challenge. There will always be differences in personalities and approaches based on lived experience, culture, family, etc. It is those differences that challenge us, compliment us and ultimately enrich us.

References & Resources

The Highly Sensitive Person– Dr. Aron’s Website

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