“You don’t need strength to let go of something. What you really need is understanding.” ~Guy Finley
I used to be married to a very kind man with similar values and goals in life. So why did we end up divorced?
In one word? Communication.
Like so many other highly sensitive people (HSPs) I thrived on meaningful, deep communication. I lived for it. I sought it out. And, when at ease, I was good at it.
Unless he wasn’t. Which was often. When he was shut down, couldn’t articulate what was going on for him, or had nothing to say in response to my openhearted sharing, then I’d get weird in my communications.
Unfortunately, as time went on in our marriage—and we invited more and more stress into our lives with kids and the building of a house—he became even more shut down emotionally and verbally.
And when he did, I’d start complaining. Giving him the cold shoulder. Criticizing. I remember sitting on the couch with him after the kids were asleep trying to connect with him. He’d be so quiet, offering no satisfying answers to my questions about how he was feeling or what was going on for him. So I’d start saying things like, “Talking to you is like talking to a stone wall!”
I know now this was all an unconscious attempt to get him to open up and be more of the champion connector and conversationalist I wanted him to be.
But of course it always backfired, pushing us further apart. He’d get defensive or silent. So I’d try harder to get through to him with my tactics.
Sometimes during such conversations, his eyes would begin to droop shut, as they do when he was starting to fall asleep. Then I’d say something like, “You can’t even stay awake to talk to me! You don’t even care about me or our relationship!!” Or, I’d huff and say, “Fine. Let’s just live here like roommates then!” and walk away.
I felt chronically unfulfilled. He felt chronically unappreciated and rejected. Over time we just felt worn down, with no clear path back to feeling close again.
If any of this sounds familiar, it may have something to do with the paradoxical nature of the trait of sensitivity.
We sensitives deeply value connection and meaningful conversation. This is beautiful thing, and because of it we have the potential to gift the people we love—and ourselves—with a depth of love they’ve never before experienced! We are truly built for having truly connected relationships. Please really hear that.
Yet our trait can also sometimes contribute to trouble communicating and connecting with those we love. Once we recognize and understand the challenges we face, we can then go on to work on them so that we can create the connection we love.
Here are six ways HSPs may have difficulty creating closeness and understanding in our relationships:
1. When we HSPs are overwhelmed by strong emotions—which can be a common occurrence—we may have trouble expressing ourselves effectively, or listening well.
Instead, we may freeze up and close down, which leads to keeping our feelings bottled up, and missing out on important or even good things being communicated by our partner. Or, we’ll let it all out in a verbal storm that stings our partner. Both eat away at the trust and understanding needed for love to thrive.
2. When our communications go poorly or turn unpleasant, we feel it for hours.
We may analyze and brood over what was said, or what wasn’t said, for days in our heads, even imagining problems that aren’t there for the other person. And then, we can’t help but interact and communicate from that hurt, resentment, frustration, or worry. This feeds more tension, distance, and ineffective, painful interactions. This cycle can go on and on, causing suffering for both partners.
3. We pick up on subtle cues, tones, and body language from our partner—we read him or her—and often weave a whole story about what’s going on for them and what it means.
We then may take it personally, and react strongly to it—before our partner even knows they’re feeling anything themselves! They can be totally mystified by why we are even upset, which triggers us even more.
Adding to the complexity of this, what we perceive is going on for them may be true, or may not be.
This can be a tricky thing about being an empathic creature. Sometimes we jump to conclusions, since we’re used to sensing what’s going on inside others. But most of us aren’t truly psychic, and believing we know more about someone else than they do may cause misunderstanding and hurt.
4. We unconsciously may believe our partner should have the same level of empathy and ability to understand and care for others as we naturally do.
This leads to feeling disappointed in our partner, and resentful of them not providing what we expect and want. Once again, we carry that into our interactions by either clamming up and withdrawing, complaining, and criticizing, or by being sarcastic.
No partner enjoys this, so they’ll tend to react in ways that lead us to believe further that they should be more empathetic, more caring, and more understanding. Which only reinforces our disappointment!
5. Since we are so sensitive and attuned to our environment, we may notice many subtle “wrong” things our partner does or says.
Then we feel bothered, frustrated, and exasperated. And of course, this comes out in one shape or form. Even if we say nothing, it affects our partner, as communication is made up of not just our words, but also our tone of voice and body language. They may feel quite unappreciated, like my husband did.
6. Since all too often in our lives it may have been brought to our attention that we are “different” from the “norm,” we may have underlying low self-worth.
We may feel less than others and bad about ourselves. This leads to communication challenges across the board:
- Reactivity and touchiness when our partner does anything that “proves” to us we aren’t lovable
- Not asking for what we want because of fear of rejection, then resenting our partner for not providing what we want
- Caring for others at the expense of ourselves because they are more “important” than us, or because we think we need their approval to feel better about ourselves
Now, it’s in large part due to our strong love of genuine meaningful connection that we HSPs even have these struggles. For us, when something matters so much, it can take on a seriousness that creates so much pressure it actually makes that connection more elusive.
Because when we feel it isn’t going well or meeting our standards, we may focus on how wrong it is. Which never makes things better in a love relationship. Take it from me. I had to learn this in the hardest of ways.
But learn I did, and now I love helping others avoid making the same mistakes I did.
So, if you see yourself in any of the above, please know you’re not stuck with these challenges. We sensitives are actually gifted with the ability to have the most connected, meaningful relationships possible, once we develop the skills to communicate powerfully.
Part of what got me there was really reflecting on what went wrong in my marriage the first time around. I got really honest with myself and investigated deeply.
Then I owned up to my role in my pain and suffering in our marriage.
I saw I had blamed my unhappiness on him. On his lack of ability to “connect” the way I liked. Since I thought my happiness depended on him doing what I wanted, I was helpless to be happy unless he did it. I essentially gave him all the power over my feelings and behavior. I gave up my own ability to create the loving interactions I deeply desired.
I saw that I was only good at communication and connection when I felt comfortable and valuable. And relying on him to give me that sense of comfort and worth all the time didn’t work, since he didn’t have it in him every moment to give it.
Once I saw that I decided to not allow anyone but myself to have that kind of power in my life. I committed to learning how to feel more valuable and at ease in my skin. I committed to learning everything I needed to in order to have the experiences I wanted and valued.
Now, in my second marriage, I get it. If I want meaningful connection, I don’t need to badger my husband for it, or leave him. Instead, I get curious about how I can create more of what I want. I find ways to communicate and connect that actually work with my man.
I ask him thought-provoking questions, find activities we can do, and explore new interests together (men tend to bond through activity, and I like to take advantage of this!). I treat him how I’d love to be treated, with consideration of his differences, appreciation for who he is, and openness about my desires (and also some caring restraint, so I’m not sharing every critical thought I have with him).
Although it’s not my job to make him feel a certain way—and I don’t shy away from speaking an uncomfortable truth so he can understand what I’m going through—I know my actions do affect him. So I aim to communicate in ways that help him feel safe enough, valued enough, and loved enough to be more fully open, more fully himself.
When I work to understand where’s he’s coming from, who he is, and how he interprets my tone of voice, the words I speak, and the actions I take, that’s leading by example. By doing so, I help create an environment of generosity and understanding, and a sense of being supportive allies in life together. Which is all I really want, anyway.
Not only does this kind of self-awareness, self-ownership, and commitment to growth allow for the most loving, honest, and sweet connection with my man, it’s also proven to inspire him to grow, too. To become more self-aware, to take ownership of his less-than-ideal contributions to our relationship, and to work to be the best partner he can. Needless to say, we have a deeply loving marriage.
And you can, too. By being brave enough to look compassionately at where you are contributing to disconnection in your relationship. By being willing to own up to your own shortcomings, and the places you need to grow. And by committing to doing what it takes to grow into the person your sensitive heart knows you can be, with a bit of learning and a sprinkle of effort.
That’s one of the most empowering and rewarding things you can do for yourself. And for your loved ones, too.