Highly sensitive spouses: What you need to knowWritten by Amy Van Veen
What's inside this article
When Sam and Annie* were first married, they quickly learned that neither of them did well with conflict. By the end of an argument, they would both be reduced to tears, having been torn up about the confrontation and unsure of how to move beyond it.
When Andrew and Hailey* were first married, they quickly saw that Hailey was adept at arguing and unafraid of dealing with things head-on. Andrew, on the other hand, would withdraw, not wanting to feel the intense emotions brought on by conflict.
It would be years until Sam, Annie and Andrew found out they were what secular psychotherapist Elaine N. Aron describes as “highly sensitive people” or HSPs.
“For those of you new to the concept,” Aron writes in her book The Highly Sensitive Person in Love, “HSPs are that 15 to 20 per cent of the human population born with a nervous system genetically designed to be more sensitive to subtleties, more prone to deep reflection on inner experience, and therefore inevitably more overwhelmed by outer events.”
Those who are highly sensitive are often:
- affected by other people’s moods
- made uncomfortable by loud noises
- deeply moved by arts, literature or music
- unpleasantly aroused when there’s a lot going on around them and need to withdraw to a quiet place to get relief
- avoidant of violent movies and/or TV shows
While this is not an exhaustive list, these items – taken from Aron’s tried-and-tested questionnaire – give you a glimpse into the rich and complex inner life of an HSP.1
This unique temperament has been deeply misunderstood for years. Aron explains that HSPs have been mislabelled with terms such as “shy,” “fearful,” “introverted” or “timid.” In reality, being a highly sensitive person allows you to experience the world around you more acutely and engage in close relationships on a deeper level.
Our culture’s value of more dominant and aggressive temperaments, however, has led many HSPs to believe they are abnormal, weird or that there is something inherently wrong with them.
For many HSPs, the combination of being easily overwhelmed and being judged for something that’s unchangeably who they are has been the cause of a lot of wounding for both men and women.
Therefore, being an HSP in a close relationship such as marriage can lead to unique problems – whether there are two HSPs in one relationship or an HSP with a non-HSP – but understanding how this temperament affects you and your spouse can also lead to a rich, deeply fulfilling marriage.
While there are many problems (and solutions) that you may
be facing if you are an HSP married to a non-HSP or if you’re an HSP married to
another HSP, for the sake of this article we’ll look at only four of each that
Aron includes in her book.
HSP with non-HSP
“Mismatches in temperament and the resultant misunderstandings are certainly the greatest problem that temperament poses for those in close relationships,” Aron writes.
Hailey (non-HSP) and Andrew (HSP) had to learn through trial and error to take the time to understand one another’s differences and value them. The best thing they could do is understand what caused Andrew to feel overwhelmed or, as Aron refers to it, overaroused.
But the road to understanding can be fraught with challenges. Here are four problems and solutions unique to HSP/non-HSP relationships:
seem to want more intimacy while HSPs seem to want more time alone.
Intimacy is defined by Aron as “revealing to another your most private and trust-at-this-moment self – thoughts, feelings, bodily self” and your spouse revealing their true self to you in return. And while it’s a wonderful ingredient to a healthy relationship, HSPs can find intimacy to be an overwhelming experience – especially if it involves something like going out for dinner at a noisy restaurant. The HSP may withdraw and seek time alone to unwind, causing the non-HSP to feel rebuffed.
Solution: Help your non-HSP spouse understand that intimacy can take many forms. Intimacy to an HSP may be silently reading together in the same room instead of going to a concert or restaurant and that’s okay! If you’re an HSP, be sure to explain to your non-HSP spouse what you need in order to feel safe enough to experience intimacy – whether it’s some private downtime or quietly being in the same room together. Finding the balance between what you need to feel intimate and what your spouse needs will improve your relationship.
Problem: Both of
you have to learn to deal with the HSP’s state of overstimulation.
“If a couple does not understand the natural limits of an HSP, both people are likely to be constantly overarousing the HSP,” Aron explains. “Then you both have to deal with the consequences, such as irritability, blowups, bouts of depression, frequent infections and injuries, absentminded mistakes, insomnia, or obsessive worrying.”
Solution: Accept and plan for your different optimal states of arousal. In her book The Highly Sensitive Person, Aron explains that everyone (HSP and non-HSP) is at their best in an optimal state of arousal – where they’re neither too bored nor too aroused. Taking the time to learn what you as an HSP need and explaining that to your spouse will help you both understand how to navigate – and hopefully prevent – states of overstimulation.
Problem: The HSP’s
sensitivity can seem judgmental, causing the non-HSP spouse to become
Because an HSP feels and experiences things on a deeper level, they may start to view their non-HSP spouse as “shallow” or “clueless.” They may also take detailed notice of the non-HSP’s flaws, which can then make the non-HSP feel as though they’re never good enough and can’t measure up to the HSP’s high expectations.
Solution: Appreciate each other’s differences and be aware of the tendency to be critical. Once an HSP becomes aware that their deep processing may inflate what seem to be “flaws” in their non-HSP spouse, they can intentionally rein in their judgments and learn to see the value of having a spouse who’s different from them.
Problem: HSPs may
prefer to quietly reflect upon their feelings, while non-HSPs may prefer to
vocalize their feelings – especially when upset.
When faced with a decision or conflict – whether it’s as small as packing for a trip or as big as buying a new house – HSPs tend to go quiet and internally process their feelings. Often non-HSPs do the exact opposite, possibly giving a running commentary on everything they’re doing and feeling and thinking. The HSP, being someone who is wanting to acknowledge and respond to their partner, will quickly become overaroused by the exchange. This can lead to resentful irritation and conflict.
Solution: The HSP can ask for silence when they need it, but need to learn to listen to the running commentary when their non-HSP spouse needs it. This is another area where understanding your limits and your needs can help you to educate your spouse – and vice versa. There may be times when your non-HSP spouse needs to talk things through or when your HSP spouse needs to be quiet. Both are acceptable responses and need to be valued, not criticized. Too much catering to one person, though, can lead to feelings of resentment.
In an ideal HSP/non-HSP relationship, learning to balance
and learn from one another’s temperaments can lead to an interesting and
exciting relationship. As an HSP, you will learn to be flexible; you will be
protected from things that would normally be upsetting for you because your
non-HSP spouse can take the reins; and you may find great healing in having
your unique highly sensitive needs loved and known by your spouse. As a
non-HSP, you will learn to notice the world around you with a new, deeper
appreciation; your HSP spouse’s awareness of dangers will help you prevent
trouble; and they may inspire you to lead a healthier lifestyle.
HSP with HSP
In her research, Aron has found that more than half of HSPs in relationships think they are with non-HSPs when they actually aren’t. This is especially common if a highly sensitive wife is married to a highly sensitive husband who appears to not be highly sensitive. In our culture, sensitivity for a woman seems natural but men with those same qualities are sadly bullied for it as they grew up, leading them to deny their highly sensitive nature.
If both of you are HSPs, the previous section may make it seem that your shared understanding would keep you from any major problems, but that’s not the case. “HSP/HSP couples,” Aron writes, “have their own problems, thanks precisely to their double dose of sensitivity.”
Here are four problems and solutions unique to HSP/HSP relationships:
of you likes to deal with situations where you feel overaroused.
Situations that lead to an HSP feeling overaroused vary from cold-calling the doctor’s office to dealing with a rude waiter at a restaurant to confronting a difficult neighbour. Since HSPs tend to withdraw from these situations, having two HSPs in one relationship can mean that these difficult tasks are entirely avoided, leading to more consequences down the road.
Solution: Realize that because these situations are difficult, they may be exactly what you need to do. It can be easy to think that having a non-HSP spouse would be preferable because they could save you from having to face your fears, but being able to lean into these situations – together – can help you both grow in confidence and may even empower you to find creative solutions.
Problem: You will
most likely try to avoid conflict with your spouse.
“You may intellectually believe disagreements are inevitable, criticisms need to be voiced, and an argument can clear the air. But you may put it off indefinitely, even telling yourselves everything is fine,” Aron explains. But conflict can be a valuable and healthy part of bridging divides in your marriage.
Solution: Discuss how to handle conflict both before and after it arises. By coming together to talk about how to navigate conflicts before they arise, you’re able to be on the same team instead of feeling like opposing forces. And when you get together after to see how things went, you can learn from your mistakes and better prepare yourselves for next time. (Read this article on how to do conflict right.)
Problem: Since you
both feel safe and comfortable with each other, your shared time may not be as
exciting as you’d like it to be.
For HSPs, the world outside is regularly overwhelming and overarousing. When you’re married to a fellow HSP, your home life can be the safe place the world is not. But as scary as the world can be, there are certain experiences that, though they first scared you, turned out to be thrilling and helped you grow. When you’re both HSPs, there’s a temptation to remain in your safe bubble instead of taking risks together. And when your safe bubble becomes boring, you may look elsewhere for excitement – leaving your partner feeling left out.
Solution: Reserve some of your energy for doing exciting things together. “Like doggies who haven’t had a long walk in a while,” Aron explains, “bored people can stir up all sorts of personal and interpersonal trouble to keep a relationship interesting.” To avoid the relationship boredom that can happen when two HSPs expel all their energy outside the relationship and come together to unwind, be sure to save up the energy you need to experience new things together. This can be anything from watching a new TV show to taking a class or going on a trip. (Read this article for simple ideas to have more fun in your marriage.)
you both tend to take your time processing, it can be difficult to make a
For an HSP, decisions are fraught with the opportunity for missteps. They have to think about all the pros and cons, weigh all possible outcomes, and consider risk-to-reward ratio before coming to a final decision. When there are two HSPs in a relationship, deciding where to go for dinner can turn into an all-night discussion that leaves you both frustrated and hungry – never mind deciding on vacations, house purchases, retirement plans, etc.
Solution: Be sure to make decisions based on fact, not ungrounded intuition. Instead of decisions being an opportunity for missteps, think about it as an opportunity for research. Getting information based in fact will empower you to navigate the fears you feel more acutely (such as fear of change and fear of failure). It can also be valuable to look back at the successful decisions you’ve made in the past and be emboldened by your ability to make wise decisions. (Read this article for help on making decisions together.)
In an ideal HSP/HSP relationship, you and your spouse feel safe with one another, understand each other, are comfortable together, and are adept at your ability to communicate. Plus, being known, loved and valued as an HSP by an HSP can increase your self-esteem and confidence, as well as enable you to go deeper into your thoughts, feelings, dreams and fears. “In conclusion,” Aron writes, “rejoice in having found someone so like yourself.”
A final word
The goal of understanding your or your spouse’s high sensitivity is not to feel limited or pigeonholed, but to be empowered to create the boundaries needed to thrive in relationship. Proverbs 19:20 tells us, “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.” These principles, though outlined in a secular book, are thoroughly researched and have helped many highly sensitive people find firm footing in their lives.
It’s also important to remember that HSP is not a one-size-fits-all. You can be an introverted HSP or an extroverted HSP; add onto that your childhood experiences, your attachment style, love language, fears and dreams and you see why everyone is so different.
As difficult as it was for Sam, Annie and Andrew to face the learning curve of understanding what it means to be highly sensitive, they are now equipped with the knowledge of how to create a relationship where they can feel safe, comfortable and valued.
God knit you together as a complex and complicated person, wholly unique, and the best thing you can do for yourself and your marriage is to find out who you truly are.
1For more information, find a checklist of
traits in highly sensitive children here.
*All names changed to protect privacy
Reference to the individuals and organizations quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organizations.
Amy Van Veen is editorial manager at Focus on the Family Canada.
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