How To Navigate Your Relationship With A Highly Sensitive Mate

The Tale Of The Princess And The Pea

When I was a girl, one of my favorite stories was The Princess and The Pea, by Hans Christian Andersen. I've included it as a youtube video at the end of the article for those of you who wish to indulge your inner child! It's Andersen's story, short and sweet, told in its entirety in 3 minutes' time.

I can still feel that uncanny sense of kinship with the princess, who had such delicate skin, she turned black and blue from sleeping atop twenty mattresses and twenty featherbeds, beneath which lay a single solitary pea.  This was the strategy the Queen had figured out, so that her son, the prince, might marry a "true" princess because real royalty obviously had VERY delicate skin.

the princess and the pea
image source: wikia

I suppose what really appealed to me in the story was the suggestion that someone's heightened sensitivity might in fact have value, be appreciated, and might even bestow a certain amount of status on a person. The idea that a male suitor might even seek those traits and pursue them really just tickled me pink! 

Wouldn't you know it, I turned out to be what author and psychologist Elaine Aron calls a "highly sensitive person," or HSP, in her groundbreaking book The Highly Sensitive Person. Elaine Aron and her husband, Art Aron developed and validated the Highly Sensitive Person Scale (HSPS) in the 1990s. It is available on their website.

According to Aron, HSPs, who make up between 15-20% of the general population, have unique and finely tuned nervous systems that process stimuli deeply.  In fact, they have stronger reactivity to both external and internal stimuli—including but not limited to---pain, hunger, light, and noise.  

So how do you know if your spouse or significant other is an HSP? 

Some of the following characteristics (as delineated in the June 2021 Psychology Today article by Melody Wilding, LMSW) can help you decide. 

1. They're very empathetic.

Science says it's so: HSPs seem to have more active "mirror" neurons, which are responsible for understanding others' emotions.

2. They would rather reflect than impulsively jump in to respond to someone in conversation.

They are at their best when they have time and space to reflect before responding. It's crucial to give them the chance to process all that information they're constantly taking in.

3. People say "don't take things so personally" to them a lot.

Sometimes, they are very sensitive and take things too personally than they actually should.

4. They're comfortable being inside their own heads.

HSPs have rich inner lives. This means they can be highly original, creative, and extremely self-aware. On the other hand, it’s common at times for HSPs to overthink and over-analyze day-to-day experiences.

5. They have a hard time with criticism or negative feedback.

HSPs respond more strongly to criticism than their non-HSP counterparts. On the flip side, HSPs also respond more strongly to words of praise.

6. They notice what others miss. HSPs are very perceptive.

They take in the specifics of situations and notice the smallest changes. They're highly attuned to what others like, dislike, and prefer, and that perceptiveness can win friends and allies quickly. On the downside, their meticulousness can turn into perfectionism if not carefully managed.

7. They cherish meaning and purpose.

Rather than accepting a job simply for the paycheck, an HSP is more likely to choose a path that is more of a "calling."  

So now that you know some of the common traits or characteristics that classify an HSP, think of your mate. Do they become "hangry" (hungry + angry) often? Do they complain of loud noises or bright lights?

Do they say things like "going to the dentist is a mild form of torture?" Do loud, crowded places like dance clubs and pubs turn them off? Do they hate Vegas and prefer quiet, serene woodsy places with a running creek? Do they look crushed when you shout out your frustrations with them?

There are many challenges inherent in the life of an HSP, but with some essential knowledge about what these folks really need to be happy, you can help them to thrive.

According to Jenn Granneman's April 2021 article on the Highly Sensitive Refuge website "14 Things Highly Sensitive People Absolutely Need to Be Happy," HSPs process information differently, so they need different things in life to be happy.

She goes on to inform us that self-care is crucial for HSPs. A good night's sleep, healthy, regularly planned out meals, making sure to get in that morning workout every day, and taking time out at the end of a busy day to decompress are luxuries for some, but necessities for the highly sensitive person. Encourage your significant other to take these extra self-care steps when their motivation wanes.

Granneman states in her article that a slower, simpler pace of life can calm an HSP's overtaxed system. Getting away from the frenetic pace of life will do your significant other a world of good, particularly if they can enjoy some natural beauty. Suggest a hike in a redwood forest or near a scenic lake. Walk up a hill or mountaintop to appreciate the breathtaking view. Take in a field of wildflowers or go to a rose garden.

A creative outlet of some kind can also be genuinely nourishing to the highly sensitive person's soul. Many HSPs have an urgent need to create. They channel their wealth of observations, emotions, and insights into art, short stories, plays, poetry, music, and more.

Deborah Ward, the author of Overcoming Low Self-Esteem with Mindfulness, writes, “Sensitivity can be overwhelming, but it is also like having extra RAM on my personal hard drive…Creativity is the pressure valve for all that accumulated emotional and sensory data.” 

Healthy ways of handling conflict with a partner are essential as well. Heated arguments, passive-aggressiveness, or the "silent" treatment, while hard for anyone to tolerate, can make a highly sensitive person really anxious or depressed. Dealing with strong emotions, especially anger, can be overstimulating for an HSP.

Those who are highly sensitive crave close, meaningful relationships and deep connections with others. In fact, according to Elaine Aron, they may get bored or restless in superficial relationships.

They're not easily drawn to relationship hopping, however. They may just work a little harder to create that meaning or intimacy within their interactions. HSPs also tend to be rather selective about the people with whom they choose to spend their time.

A shallow or surface-level relationship will simply not suffice for an HSP. They'd rather take a deep plunge into your soul and connect in extraordinary ways.  

If you want to win enough brownie points with your partner to make a chocolate souffle though, the single most essential thing that will make your HSP mate's heart sing is this: loved ones who understand and respect their sensitive nature.

They need at least a couple, preferably close people in their lives, who "get" their sensitivity. Because the majority of people aren't highly sensitive, they're not going to understand what it's like to become super stressed out over a very busy weekend, or from watching Jaws or The Hiding Place or Silence of the Lambs (or any other highly graphic and/or gory movie).

They need someone who not only "gets" it, but someone who can help protect them from the frenzied feeling of overstimulation (“Yes, it’s perfectly fine with me if we leave the party now.

I can see from your face that you’re about ready to de- combust.") And it would even be icing on the cake if that same person could gently brush out the bed before going to sleep with their mate to make sure there are no stray peas there.

I'm a writer, mental health advocate, and the author of a novel, Lullabies in Bedlam. I live with my hubby and Schnoodle pup Milo in LA.

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