Are you a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)? Or married to a Highly Sensitive Person? Either way, you’re a lucky duck! Especially when you understand what being an HSP means. Certainly the more you know about High Sensitivity, the more ease you’ll have navigating unexpected challenges and enhancing unexpected joys.

Don’t worry if you’re feeling frustrated or confused about your spouse’s High Sensitivity. Once you understand what it is, you’ll be able to identify it and discover all the joys of being married to someone who is highly Sensitive.

What is a Highly Sensitive Person?

An HSP’s nervous system is hardwired to process subtleties and notice details others often miss.

Dr Elaine Aron literally wrote the book on HSPs. She and her husband have conducted extensive research since the 1990s.

The only way to definitively determine if someone is an HSP is by a brain scan. Using questionnaires is more practical and common. Approximately 15-20% of people are HSPs, with an equal distribution across genders.

High Sensitivity has four main features, present from birth and throughout life. The acronym “DOES” is a handy way to remember the core characteristics.

The four characteristics of an HSP include:

D: Depth of Processing:

"The Thinker" statue

Depth of processing is at the core of High Sensitivity. And is central to the challenges and joys of being married to a Highly Sensitive Person.

HSPs process just about everything deeply, thanks to a part of the brain called the insula. It’s here that self-awareness and perception are intensified in the HSP.

You can’t see depth of processing externally, but you can definitely notice it indirectly. Typical presentations would be when your HSP spouse is deep in thought or responding strongly to something happening nearby.

Here’s another way to think of depth of processing: Everything HSPs experience leaves “residue.” The residue may be in the form of thoughts, feelings, impressions, bodily sensations, or memories.

HSPs deeply experience the negatives and positives in life. Stress and fatigue naturally result. Deeply experiencing life can be tiring, even when life is filled with lots of positives and good things.

“Pause and reflect” is standard operating procedure for those who process deeply. A slower transition between tasks is common.

O: Over-arousal/Overstimulation:

A black and white photo of a woman appearing overstimulated

HSPs react to what happens in the environment and then deeply process it. Reactions include observations, reflections, and feelings.

Overstimulation is likely because of all the deep processing. Things simply become “too much”.

High arousal levels affect cognition. The HSP may experience poor concentration or a sudden blanking on words. Becoming tongue tied, especially when put on the spot, and then feeling tense or anxious are additional cues of over-stimulation.

HSPs become over-aroused and overstimulated more quickly than non-HSPs. High levels of input can be exhausting.

E: Emotional Responsiveness/Empathy:

black and white photo of two children walking with arms around each other

From the first moments of life, HSPs experience emotions intensely. Even as young children, HSPs have deep empathy. They are the children who insist on bringing the spider outdoors instead of flushing it down the toilet. They can also tell when a classmate feels sad, and may feel compelled to offer comfort.

HSPs tend to respond more emotionally than non-HSPs to the same situation. This is true whether the situations are good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant.

Brain studies demonstrate that HSPs’ mirror neurons are more active than those of non-HSPs. This explains why the capacity for empathy is so intense.

S: Sensitivity to Stimuli/Sensory Awareness:

an open hand immersed in what appears to be a shallow river

A personality trait called sensory-processing sensitivity, or SPS, is present at birth.

HSPs are born with SPS. That’s why Highly Sensitive People respond strongly to internal and external stimuli.

Examples include hunger and pain, noise and light. HSPs, for instance, are more likely to feel the uncomfortable effects of getting too hungry. They also tend to feel pain more intensely than non-HSPs. Their response to things like sounds and light in the environment also tends to be greater.

What are unexpected joys of being a Highly Sensitive Person?

1. They’re thoughtful and conscientious, with a commitment to doing things the right way. They can be quite principled.

2. HSPs are intuitive and perceptive. They naturally pick up on nuance, micro-expressions, and nonverbal cues.

3. Creativity and imagination are common among HSPs. Vivid dreams and a rich inner world are common, as well.

4. HSPs are emotionally responsive toward people and animals. They’re caring and have a lot of empathy.

5. Most HSPs are spiritual and feel a connection with nature.

6. Everyday beauty and joy are deeply moving to HSPs.

7. HSPs notice little things that others miss, like the cloud formation that looks just like a happy smile.

HSPs thrive in environments – and relationships — conducive to their DOES needs. Perception, empathy, creativity, and spirituality prevail when HSPs thrive. (This is called vantage sensitivity.)

What are the unexpected challenges of being a Highly Sensitive Person?

1.HSPs tend to ruminate, feel overwhelmed, and have a difficult time making decisions.  

2. Transitions are difficult and take longer.

3. HSPs often feel misunderstood, different, weird, and/or lonely. The world isn’t set up for HSPs. 

4. HSPs tend to feel guilty if they prioritize their own needs.

5. They perform worse when observed.

6. HSPS are more prone to anxiety, depression, and sleep deficits.

7. Effects of lights, noise, scents, and textures are amplified for HSPs.

HSPs don’t function as well in overstimulating environments. Why? They feel anxious, ill at ease, depressed, and irritable, and they have trouble concentrating. Challenges prevail over joy.

What are typical challenges and joys of being married to a Highly Sensitive Person?

The same HSP qualities can be a challenge or joy, expected or unexpected, depending on context and perspective. This is true for both the Highly Sensitive Person and the spouse.

Here are four challenges of being married to a Highly Sensitive Person:

1. HSPs need time to recharge their battery, especially at the end of the day, after a social event, or even upon the start or end of a vacation. Taking time to process, rest, and restore each day is a necessity, not simply a luxury.
Non-HSPs aren’t likely to consistently need time to process, rest, and restore. Their “battery” tends to remain sufficiently charged.

The difference in need for downtime can create a challenge if you don’t recognize and honor each other’s needs

2. HSPs can rapidly go from feeling totally in the mood, i.e. sexually turned on, to shut down.
HSPs have the capacity for intense passion and pleasure. They can be super in-tune with their own experiences of ecstasy and can seamlessly join with yours. However, one seemingly “minor” (but not minor to you) remark can shut down the whole scene, just like that, especially if she perceives rejection or unfavorable comparisons.
An unexpected noise, the doorbell or phone ringing, or the kids’ voices can also cause her to lose interest. And……it’s over.

3. The ‘thin skin’ of HSPs means they’re vulnerable to hurt feeling

“I’m just joking” comments sting HSPs. And the sting lasts. There is no “just get over it”.

You may lament that you have to think before you speak, or that at times you’re walking on eggshells.

You may have thoughts like, “Why is she so sensitive?” or “I was just kidding. She really needs to find a way to take a joke!” or “I don’t even know what I said to upset you.” (Which can make her feel even worse.)

4. Hunger and low blood sugar levels quickly become ‘hanger.Feeling tired and ready for bed easily become utter exhaustion. The needs to eat and  sleep are non-negotiable.

So telling your HS spouse to just wait a couple hours and you’ll grab a meal is not going to work. She will become hangry – irritable, out of sorts, and even mean. The same thing happens when she is tired. As an HSP, sleep is central to well-being. She can’t skimp on sleep without negative effects.

And she probably knows from experience that having snacks with her is essential!

Here are four joys of being married to a Highly Sensitive Person:

  1. When HSPs have downtime after a period of stimulation, they recalibrate their nervous system. Their creativity, humor, silliness, and best self shine. They go from being a wilted flower to bright and perky.
    The joys that ‘stem’ (pun intended) from their replenishment remind you that her High Sensitivity can be a beautiful thing!
  2. HSPs deeply experience sexual pleasure. When they feel sexual desire, you become the recipient of stuff dreams are made of! Being present to the delight she is feeling in her body and in yours is a turn-on that’s unlikely to get stale.
  3. Sincere compliments and everyday thoughtfulness go a long way. Her love language often includes all five! HSPs are loyal and love deeply.
  4. When an HSP’s system is well balanced physically, you know it. She functions best when she has had enough sleep, is properly nourished and hydrated, and has had time in nature. The formula for optimal functioning is simple and consistent.

The gifts HSPs bring to the world – and to your relationship – are meaningful and unique, especially if you remain aware of the High Sensitivity trait and maintain open communication.

You’ll minimize/avoid inevitable pitfalls by remembering that your Highly Sensitive spouse’s brain is finely tuned to notice and interpret just about everything around her — including things you say and do. Even when you may not be aware of what you’re saying or doing or mean anything personal by it, she’s aware.

Keep in mind that HSPs are not deliberately monitoring your every move, although it can certainly feel that way if you’re unfamiliar with “DOES”.

Your HSP spouse processes information on a deep level. She sees multiple connections between things in the world. And she profoundly cares about people, the environment, and social issues. Her everyday experience of sounds, sights, tastes, fragrances, and touch is intense. All of this is her nature. At most, she may be able to override her DOES for short periods of time. But she will likely require a longer period afterward to recalibrate.

Exploring and understanding the unexpected challenges and joys of being married to a Highly Sensitive Person are an investment in your relationship. They are also an investment in the quality, depth, and meaning of your own life.

Your HSP spouse has superpowers. Understanding the High Sensitivity trait benefits you, your spouse, and your relationship.

Its benefits are far-reaching, even beyond your marriage. Especially when you recognize the gifts of “DOES”.

Hi! I am Dr. Elayne Daniels, a psychologist in the Boston area specializing in helping Highly Sensitive People thrive. Click here if you’d like to learn more about working with me.