For anyone who dwells in the mental and emotional world of high sensitivity, everything – everything – is intense. There’s no shoulder-shrugging, no dismissal of an experience. The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) feels life deeply and processes it endlessly. And the impact of intense HSP emotions on relationships depends on the ability of those in relationship with the HSP to understand that.
The person who reclines at the opposite end of the sensitivity spectrum may read that and have a quizzical head-tilt. What’s with all the emotion? The drama? The overthinking?
But relationships, if they are to thrive and last, must involve devotion to the understanding and well-being of both partners.
It’s not OK to assume superiority of one’s own view of the world while judging or diminishing that of the other.
Stop being so sensitive! Why are you so emotional? It’s just (whatever), it’s not a big deal. Get over it!
No matter how tempted those not affected by high sensitivity are to dismiss its validity in their partners, HSPs have valid relationship needs.
They also bring unique qualities to relationships. Qualities that can enhance the experience of life and connection for those willing to learn, understand, and embrace the trait of high sensitivity.
What is an HSP?
Understanding the impact of intense HSP emotions on relationships begins with understanding the Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP.
The fact that high sensitivity, or sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), is found in only about 20% of the population can be viewed positively or negatively.
Positive: Only 20%? Learning about this trait can only improve my relationships. Maybe I’ve been missing something all along that could make me a better person and enrich my own life.
Negative: Only 20%? These people need to get with the program and adjust to the other 80%.
As harsh as the negative response sounds, it is, unfortunately, still the norm. And the only antidote is a strong mixture of enlightenment, understanding, and acceptance.
For a detailed description of the Highly Sensitive Person, go straight to the source: Dr. Elaine Aron.
But the abstract of the complexity of the HSP is this:
- HSPs process information deeply. Their brains are always “on,” diving deeper into the meaning beneath the surface where most of the world is content to reside.
- Because HSPs are mentally and emotionally always “on the job,” HSPs are understandably prone to overstimulation and overwhelm.
- HSPs have extra-ordinary emotional sensitivity. Literally extra…ordinary.
For example, their capacity for empathy, at the minimum, makes them capable of picking up on subtle emotional frequencies.
At the extreme end of the emotional spectrum, they can actually feel the emotions of others.
(To understand the difference between an HSP and an empath, read here.)
- Finally, HSPs are highly sensitive/responsive/reactive to sensory stimulation like noise, light, smells, and tactile stimulation.
Wrap this all up into a tidy, memorable package. Now you have the Dr. Aron-coined acronym DOES: Depth of Processing, Overstimulation/Overwhelm, Emotional Sensitivity/Empathy, and Sensory Stimulation Sensitivity.
How do the HSP’s emotions affect relationships?
Given that high sensitivity affects an estimated 15-20% of the population, the chances are good that you will date…or marry…an HSP.
If you are dating or are married to an HSP, your responsibility isn’t limited to learning about the trait of high sensitivity.
It also involves your response to your partner, whose unique trait is not a disorder, a diagnosis, or a flaw that needs to be fixed.
Even if you know this, you will likely find yourself, at any given moment, face-to-face with emotions that stop you in your tracks. Questions that make you wonder if your partner will ever feel secure in your love. Periods of apparent shut-down, followed by renewed vigor, as if nothing ever happened.
And you will be challenged to examine your own experience of life and the world around you. Are you feeling enough? Responding enough? Even sensing enough?
High sensitivity, especially in personal relationships, isn’t the proverbial starter pistol to a competition between two good but different souls.
It does, however, challenge those in its presence to take stock of themselves…even if doing so results in walking away.
One way or another, it demands a response.
And how you embrace this unique gift in your loved one will be determinative, not only for your relationship, but for your own life.
If you’re wise, you will both grow in understanding of the trait and how it manifests in your HSP. High sensitivity, after all, isn’t “fixed” in its presentation. It exists on its own colorful spectrum of intensity.
And you will put into practice, both individually and collectively, those coping strategies that enable you both – and your relationship – to flourish.
Let’s examine the impact of intense HSP emotions on relationships with the help of the summarizing acronym DOES.
Depth of Processing: How does it impact relationships, and how can you effectively respond?
You might as well just accept it going in: That HSP you’ve signed up to do life with is going to notice ev-er-y-thing. And, before you roll your eyes, consider the flip side of that coin: the partner who notices nothing.
Good news first?
Your conscious efforts toward sensitivity will be noticed.
Your tenderness, patience, and absence of judgment will be appreciated.
How about the fact that non-reactive recognition when high sensitivity is “having a moment” will lovingly help your partner get through the “processing” with less overwhelm.
Less exhaustion and self-criticism. Less doubt about the solidity of your relationship.
And more time to simply enjoy it.
And that curiosity and intrigue your HSP has for seemingly every little thing?
You will be the beneficiary, too.
We all know how good it feels when someone is genuinely interested in what we think, feel, experience.
HSPs are the “inquiring minds that want to know.”
And they most definitely want to know their partners…to the depths of their souls.
The not-bad-but-not-always-easy news?
You’re going to hear “Are you mad at me?”
You’re going to be tempted to get in front of your partner’s face and say, “Stop overthinking it!”
You’re going to want to stop a conversation – even about yourself – two layers deep, while your HSP wants to go for the deep dive.
And you’re going to have to get used to protracted moments of silence as nothing more than states of deep reflection.
HSPs have a rich, vibrant, naturally psychedelic inner life, and no Casanova or Jessica Rabbit is going to come between them.
Overstimulation/Overwhelm: How does it impact relationships, and how can you effectively respond?
If depth of processing is the hallmark quality of high sensitivity, then proclivity for overstimulation and overwhelm is its natural consequence.
Look, you don’t get to pick and choose what components you like or don’t like, any more than you can tell leavened dough not to rise. Mental processing is exhausting, and it doesn’t stop for the HSP.
Put your thumb and forefinger on your phone screen to enlarge a photo so you can examine a specific detail.
Yeah. It’s like that.
All. The. Time.
And that means a ton of information flooding the HSP’s brain, wanting a front-row seat like groupies at a first-come-first-serve concert.
Every little thing is competing for attention…and processing.
If you are the HSP in your relationship, you’re nodding your head right now. (Yes, I see you, feel you, know you.)
If you are a non-HSP in a relationship with an HSP, you need to understand this.
There is only so much a brain can do at any moment. If you want time with and attention from an HSP, clear the decks. Calm the environment. Slow the tempo. Allow your sensitive one needed down-time. Encourage it. Anticipate it. Provide for it.
Overstimulation can make the highly sensitive brain go into shutdown. The HSP may panic, lose the ability to think, and desperately need to escape.
And the emotional impact can be exponentially devastating and draining.
And the recovery?
Don’t think a pragmatic “Snap out of it!” is going to accomplish anything. It will only call into question your love, acceptance, and ability to even play in the same sensitivity ballpark as the HSP.
Overstimulation/overwhelm can forge one of the greatest challenges to a relationship.
But understanding and accepting it as a natural derivative of all that processing can help you both to prepare for it.
Not sure what might set the stage for overstim and overwhelm?
Super Bowl party at your house. Twenty guests…who brought their kids. You’ve been looking forward to this all season.
Your HSP husband? He’s been dreading it.
Everyone is screaming, cheering, jeering, eating, drinking, making a mess.
Kids are running everywhere. The dogs are confused and barking.
You shout at your husband to come in and “be sociable.”
Tomorrow is a school and work day. You’re fixated on the game. Your HSP hubby is fixated on holding it all together. He brought you the baby’s bottle instead of a beer.
He’s shutting down. And you’re trying to throw him further into the fire that is already melting his brain. He sees/hears/feels everyone else, but you, his partner and ally, don’t even see/hear/feel him.
So now he’s not only overstimulated and overwhelmed by everyone else’s expectations, he’s a “bad host” because he’s not being “sociable.”
And tomorrow you and he world will expect him to get up and go after his Monday as if Sunday never happened.
Now crawl into his highly sensitive brain and sit with that for a while…because it’s going to take a long while for him to recover.
That’s the brain on overstim.
That’s the ugly reality of overwhelm.
Emotional Sensitivity/Empathy: How does it impact relationships, and how can you effectively respond?
Empathy, sympathy, and compassion. All qualities we would like to claim with marks of excellence in ourselves precisely because they draw us out of ourselves on behalf of others.
But there are differences, however subtle.
While sympathy is the ability to understand another’s feelings, empathy is the ability to feel another’s feelings.
As mentioned above, HSPs have the often uncanny ability to pick up on emotions, even in a roomful of strangers.
It’s not a big step further to being an empath who can actually feel those emotions. They’re not psychics, but, to the un-HSP-educated, they sure can seem like it!
It’s the difference between “He stole your idea and got the promotion instead of you? I am so sorry. Of course you’re angry and hurt. I would be, too!” and “I am truly, deeply sorry. I feel as angry and hurt as if it had happened to me.”
Compassion is sympathy or empathy in action. It’s the willingness to be present to another’s suffering, out of respect, kindness, and/or an effort to mitigate pain.
So how can the desirable quality of empathy lead to an impact of HSP emotions on a relationship?
When we talk about emotional sensitivity in an HSP, we’re not just talking about tears and sympathy cards.
We’re talking about the ability to suffer emotionally on behalf of someone else’s pain and to process that pain over and over.
While most of the world is saying, “I can’t imagine,” the HSP is sitting in a corner imagining. That’s empathy.
Emotional sensitivity isn’t limited to the low frequencies of sadness and suffering. But it’s the capacity and willingness to “go there” that so distinguish the HSP from the majority.
In terms of being in a relationship with a highly empathic HSP, that means a lot of feeling going on.
No, that doesn’t mean uncontrollable crying on a daily basis. And it doesn’t mean a gloomy existence of bemoaning the inability to save the world.
But it does mean your office Christmas party will be a lot more interesting with your HSP along for the evening. At least the ride home will be. “Is Janet always so moody? And what’s going on between your buddy Sam and his assistant? And Greg is jealous of you…or wants your corner office. Trust me.”
It means that, while you may return to work the day after a friend’s funeral, your HSP partner may need more time.
It means that you may be witness to acts of kindness and charity that make you feel conflicted between humility and practicality.
And it means that you will have to help the HSP in your life set and maintain healthy boundaries. Because high sensitivity is characterized by a very active mirror neuron system, boundaries are necessary for self-care and self-preservation.
You’re not going to make the sensitivity and empathy disappear. But you can help the HSP keep them in a manageable balance.
Sensory Stimulation Sensitivity: How does it impact relationships, and how can you effectively respond?
Remember when I said that HSPs notice ev-er-y-thing?
I wasn’t kidding.
In terms of sensory stimulation, that means the HSP has a low threshold for incoming stimuli across all senses. Everything registers. Everything is more intense to the HSP than it is to the less-sensitive majority.
Here are some examples of sensory stimulation that may be perceived as irritating or overstimulating:
- loud noises
- surrounding “chaotic” movement
- overlapping noises
- multiple people talking at once
- bright lights
- scratchy fabrics
- sudden, unexpected touch
- strong smells and tastes
- speed (sound, music, lights, movement, traffic, touch)
While this component of high sensitivity may seem, on the surface, to be irrelevant to a relationship, it’s actually very relevant. And important.
Because HSPs experience everything more intensely, they also experience relationships more intensely than most. They feel everything more. Appreciate everything more.
They experience everything more intensely. They feel everything more.
If you’re going to enjoy the physical nuances of your relationship, for example, you’re going to have to pay attention to sensory stimulation sensitivity.
Things that may not even hit your radar can make a huge difference to the HSP in a relationship.
Who would think that something like soft, high-thread-count sheets could affect someone emotionally?
Or that the right music could not only set the mood for a romantic evening, but calm an overstimulated nervous system?
Or that replacing those cold, bright overhead lights with lamps, dimmer switches, and warmer light bulbs could ease anxiety and allow creativity to flow?
Even that making sure your physical approaches are done slowly, gently, and with consent could lead to heightened desire and better lovemaking?
Using intense HSP emotions to your advantage in relationships.
Yes, HSPs are intensely emotional beings. If a black light shined on them in a dark room could reveal their energy, no doubt a powerful, bright aura would fill the room.
And yes, there is an impact of intense HSP emotions on relationships.
But being the statistical underdog doesn’t diminish the value of what those with high sensitivity bring to the world.
If you have the opportunity to experience life through the eyes of an HSP and love through his or her heart, consider yourself blessed.
You will have the rare opportunity to become a kinder, gentler, more aware human being.
And your own world will become a more colorful, vibrant, meaningful place in which to live.