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I’ve often wondered if I am some kind of freak.
I hated my job as a nurse for the smallest of reasons — the smell in the elevator before my shift would start, the physical exhaustion that would overtake me after 12 hours on my feet, the lack of any kind of privacy in the onslaught of the artificial, fluorescent lighting that buzzed even at 3 o’clock in the morning.
What’s more … any sort of violence makes me physically ill — I will never watch horror movies and I have to divert my attention even from road kill. Environment is super important to me — I prefer my house to be picked up, the lights to be dimmed, and a candle lit before I sit down to work, and wearing the wrong type of clothes can ruin my whole day.
In my marriage, I am often frustrated when my husband won’t have deep, philosophical discussions with me. I’m burning the midnight oil contemplating the meaning of life and he’s all like, “Eh, what does it matter? We’re all going to die anyways — I’m going to go watch TV.”
Turns out, there’s nothing really wrong with me and there’s nothing really wrong with him — I just might be a highly sensitive person.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Aron, a self-professed highly sensitive person and author of The Highly Sensitive Person In Love, and her social psychologist husband Arthur, who identifies as a non-highly sensitive person, about the topic as they spent a quiet afternoon at home working on holiday cards.
According to them, about 20% of the population can be classified as “highly sensitive,” a genetic trait that affects how information is processed in the brain — and can also highly affect relationships.
Here are 8 important things I took away from the conversation:
1. Highly sensitive spouses may not know that they are highly sensitive.
One of the biggest sources of frustration for highly sensitive people, notes Dr. Aron, is that they are often times not even aware that they are highly sensitive — which can cause issues to arise, particularly in marriage. But there are clues that spouses can look for to help discern if his or her partner is highly sensitive, using the acronym DOES — Depth of Processing, Over stimulated, Empathy and Emotional Responsiveness, and Subtle Stimuli.
“A highly sensitive person thinks deeply … they think about the meaning of life more, they are the ones in the family who make sure they get their health check-ups,” Dr. Aron rattles off. “If you have children, they are the ones who run out of the room first. With husbands — they are often in their offices, for mothers, they look like they going crazy.”
2. Highly sensitive spouses need alone time.
Highly sensitive people, like introverts (although the two are not interchangeable), often have a deep need for alone time, to allow their brain ample time to process, a situation that can cause frustration among married partners. When a highly sensitive spouse feels the need for downtime, Dr. Aron suggests making one’s needs known — and being very clear about it. “You can just say, ‘I’m taking some down time, this is how long I will be gone,” she says.
And Arthur chimes in with the importance of making it clear that you are not wanting time away from your spouse — but just time away from, well, everyone. The couple also advises exploring ways to get down time together through quiet activities, such as hiking or sitting together reading.
3. Men are just as likely to be highly sensitive as women.
“As many men as women are born sensitive, but the stereotype is that women are sensitive, ‘real’ men are not,” Dr. Aron explains on her website. Arthur also points out that cultural norms influence how we view sensitive males, referencing a study that showed that in Canada, highly sensitive boys were ranked as the least popular, while in China, the most sensitive young males were also the most popular.
4. Highly sensitive people view sex differently.
“HSPs are more likely to find sex to be mysterious and powerful, to be turned on by subtle rather than explicit sexual cues, to be easily distracted or physically hurt during sex, and to find it difficult to go right back to normal life afterwards,” says Dr. Aron on her site. Keeping an open communication going in — and out — of the bedroom can help explore some of those different needs.
5. Bedtime might be a particular crisis.
In her book, Dr. Aron uses an anecdote of bedtime to illustrate the differences between a HS and non-HS spouse — she climbs into bed only to find her brain is too overly-stimulated to sleep, while her husband is quietly snoring within minutes. I found myself nodding along vigorously because that is my life. For example, my husband loves unwinding with TV before bed, but I find it way too stimulating. This always places me in the dilemma of whether to spend time with my husband before bed or take my own down time away from screens? I usually go back and forth, but more often than not, I just can’t shut down my own brain without a nice, dark room and no screens in my presence.
6. Highly sensitive people make good decisions.
If you have a highly sensitive spouse, you may want to defer to them for decision-making, because Dr. Aron explains that although highly-sensitive people can take longer to make decisions, “they’re usually good ones.” She may, for instance, recall some unpleasant details about a restaurant they are considering eating at, or avoid a certain hiking trail based on past experiences, saving both parties the bane of bad bread or a less-than-dazzling view.
7. Fighting warrants special consideration for highly sensitive people.
It’s not a stretch to imagine that if one or both partners are highly sensitive in a marriage, fights could have the potential for disaster, but the Arons have a few tips for making it through intact.
“For sensitive people, when you get to the point where you’re really over aroused, stop and take a 20-minute break,” Dr. Aron advises. Or better yet, try not to get to that point. She also suggests staying on the topic of what you are discussing. “Don’t start bringing up the other things you’re mad at your partner for,” she says. “If you’re discussing how your children should be educated, you don’t want to bring up the subject of how their mother didn’t do things right.” If you start throwing in what Dr. Aron dubs, “the kitchen sink,” then everything escalates.
Being highly sensitive also might mean being more vulnerable to slights by your partner — the person who knows you best in the world. “The whole goal for humans is not to be shamed — your partner knows you so well that it’s easy for them to bring up the things that are shameful,” she notes.
8. Recognizing that you’re highly sensitive won’t magically fix your marriage.
Although it may feel like a bit of an eye-opener, a spouse recognizing that he or she is highly sensitive won’t magically transform a relationship overnight. “Couples need to get it that it’s genetics, you can’t change this about your partner — but you can change how you manage it,” Dr. Aron says. “If you don’t get that, you become a hard person to live with.”
So what’s a newly informed Highly Sensitive Spouse supposed to do with all of this enlightenment? Don’t go running to your spouse with the good news, cautions Dr. Aron. “Don’t expect your partner to be delighted with this news,” she notes.
And of course I dutifully recorded her advice—than went running to my husband with the news that I thought I was highly sensitive.
He looked at me skeptically.
“Highly sensitive, huh?” he scoffed. “I’d say more like highly egocentric.”
I think he was just kidding.
And if he wasn’t, don’t tell me — I’m not sure I’ll take the news well.