Why do HSPs struggle to find good relationships?
Dear Alane, I just got out of a long relationship that went south in the most explosive way. My previous relationships weren’t quite as dramatic, but they always hit a point where tensions rise and a seemingly perfect partner becomes someone I’m disconnected from, or even dread being around. I am starting to wonder if my high sensitivity is to blame — maybe I am just “extra” or too much of a handful, or my own worries and anxieties somehow sabotage things. What do I do? How do I find a happy relationship as an HSP? —Luckless in Love
It’s time for some hard truth, LIL. In my work as a licensed psychotherapist for the past three decades, I’ve seen countless couples and individuals go through all types of relationship struggles. But one group of people — highly sensitive people — have very unique struggles, especially when it comes to love.
I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP) myself, and I was trained and mentored by Elaine Aron, one of the world’s top sensitivity researchers. And I can unequivocally say:
Being highly sensitive takes relationships to another level.
You see, as HSPs, we worry because we experience our relationship so differently from our not-as-sensitive partners. We fear we are more committed and can get more tangled up in the relationship. At times, it’s overwhelming.
That overwhelm can lead to much of what you’re describing, LIL, as it tints our own perceptions and can also affect our partners.
HSPs also see all the details and possible outcomes in any given situation. And when reality doesn’t live up to that potential, resentment and criticism can take over. It’s despairing. Hence that feeling of disconnection (or maybe even dread).
But HSPs don’t just get stuck in the dumps. We also feel the highs of relationships more intensely. We relish the joy of connection and intimacy, as well as the beauty of a simple day at home with the one we love. It’s wonderful.
That’s a pretty high place to crash down from.
So, when things get hard, they are really hard. We worry that we feel “too much,” need “too much,” and that our intensity will disqualify us from ever being able to last in a relationship long-term. It’s terrifying.
However, with a little effort, intention, and tender care, I’ve seen HSPs turn their sensitivity into the gift it’s meant to be in their relationships, including, and perhaps most importantly, our relationship with ourselves. When we harness our sensitivity like this, it’s magic.
So here’s what I’m doing to do, LIL: I’m going to break up your predicament into five of the most common relationship issues that pop up for HSPs — including your question, LIL, about whether your sensitivity is to blame. And we’re going to give you an action plan to conquer each one of them.
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5 Common Questions About HSP Relationships
1. “Is my sensitivity to blame for why I find my relationships so hard?”
The short answer is “Yes.” But before you go off cursing the day you were born — and the sensitivity you were born with — hear me out. I like to say committed relationships with HSPs have a third partner: the sensitivity.
In all honesty, your sensitivity makes you a romantic asset because you’re thinking so much about the other person and you have so much empathy. That can be beautiful… but it can also be really painful.
Our strong emotional responsiveness, and empathy, causes our relationships to be overstimulating, in both the highs and lows. Being overwhelmed requires alone time to self-regulate, a challenge every HSP has to manage, even the extroverts.
So it’s important that the people in our lives know about our sensitivity. This can be a struggle for many of us since we’ve spent most of our lives hiding it. But I recommend HSPs bring up the idea of sensitivity to partners, and potential partners, so we prioritize finding someone open and accepting. (Really, this applies to every sort of relationship, even including medical professionals and therapists, teachers and mentors, etc.)
We also need to honor and nurture our sensitivity for our own well-being. HSPs cannot do as much as other people, and we aren’t supposed to. We are supposed to go deep with a few things, not shallow in many. Therefore, give yourself permission to embrace your sensitivity in your relationship and give it what it needs to thrive.
- Get specific and intentional about your needs as an HSP. Make a practical self-care plan that isn’t just indulgent, but also helps you regulate your nervous system. After all, HSPs love routines, and having certain grounding rituals in place can really help, especially when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Some of these may include taking a warm bath, reading a feel-good book, or using a meditation app, like Insight Timer, to listen to a guided meditation to help you decompress after work or before bed.
- Share your needs with your partner. We HSPs have a lifetime of suppressing our needs, and that can be why we struggle in relationships. For the sake of your well-being, and for the health of your relationships, clearly and lovingly talk about what you need, as well as how you need to get it. For example, perhaps you need more alone time, so you might tell your partner you’ll take a walk each morning — alone — for 30 minutes.
2. “I’m an HSP and so is my partner. How can we prevent overwhelm in our relationship?”
Two HSPs in a relationship bring unique gifts and challenges. On the one hand, you have someone who understands your sensitivity in a way few others do. On the other hand, you can experience “competing sensitivities,” a constant competition between different sensitivities: Who is more overwhelmed? Who needs more rest? Who is doing more chores? And on and on and on…
Both highly sensitive partners have their own sensitivities to nurture in the relationship, which you can learn more about here. But both partners also exhibit strong empathy for the other, which can overwhelm everyone.
So I have a firm rule for HSP couples: No talking or arguing when overstimulated. You cannot have a productive conversation when you’re in that state. If a couple is in a disagreement or argument that is escalating, it will benefit all involved — and the situation at hand — to prevent getting worked up, overstimulated, and frazzled. HSPs need to hit pause and step away.
This isn’t to say that the conflict is left unresolved. Rather, the couple has an understanding, and a plan, to revisit the issue only when both parties are well-regulated and not in overdrive. I prefer to save these conversations for a favorite spot — cozied up on the couch or walking along the beach or on a trail — whatever offers safety, comfort, and beauty. And you must schedule and commit to a set time to return to the conversation. Don’t leave your partner hanging. (This is great advice for all relationships, regardless of who is highly sensitive!)
It’s so important that HSPs say their piece, get out their side of the story, and leave nothing to be assumed. You want a healthy relationship, not a toxic one. Even when both people are highly sensitive, never presume that the other knows what you mean or where you’re coming from. HSPs may have an easier time understanding each other, but we still must prioritize explicit and clear communication. That only comes from a well-regulated nervous system at what researchers call the optimal level of arousal.
- Both partners need to know what it feels like when they are getting overstimulated. Does your heart rate increase? Do your palms sweat? Do you hear ringing in your ears or hold your breath? Know your own signs so you know when to intervene.
- Have an “Overstimulation Prevention Plan” in place. Talk with your partner about how to pause a conversation when either of you is getting overwhelmed, as well as when to come back and continue working on it. Accept that it may take multiple sessions and pauses to manage both the issue at hand and the overwhelm that accompanies it.
- Believe in yourself — and each other. It takes time and practice. You can do it.
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3. “I’m an HSP, but my partner isn’t. How can I help them understand my sensitivity?”
This speaks to the importance of understanding the unique temperament profile of one’s partner. High sensitivity has been found to be just one personality trait among many, including the nine innate temperaments. When we understand each other’s temperaments, we will have much more successful relationships, according to Dr. Arthur Aron’s research on love and marriage. (In addition, the documentary film, Sensitive Lovers, includes Dr. Aron’s research regarding HSPs.) It’s certainly worthwhile to help your partner understand your sensitivity as you strive to understand their temperaments and traits in return.
Sensitive people tend to do this easily and naturally, thanks to our high empathy. It’s one of the benefits of our more reactive HSP brain. But when a partner struggles to understand you, your sensitivity can be a source of pain and conflict.
In this regard, the best thing HSPs can do for their partners who don’t have the trait is to be overt and explicit about their sensitivity. After all, you can’t expect your partner to know how something affects you without telling them.
If this has been a source of conflict before, I always recommend HSPs first write out what they want to say. Write a letter you’ll never send and get all your thoughts, emotions, and arguments out on paper. This can help you get crystal clear on what actually needs to be communicated to your not-as-sensitive partner. Then, I like to run it through the THINK acronym: Is what I want to say Thoughtful, Honest, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind?
We can’t expect our non-HSP partners to understand us without putting in the work to be understood. It takes time, there will be missteps, and it requires repairs and amends. But if you are up to the challenge, a loving union of two wildly different people is a unique gift in this life.
- Encourage curiosity about each other’s temperaments. Ask your partner questions about what makes them tick, and be forthcoming in return.
- Practice explaining your trait lovingly and carefully. Practice choosing the right time to talk about it. Practice what to say so it’s clear and concise. Practice listening, without defensiveness, to your partner’s response.
- Give yourself, and your partner, some grace. It’s a lifelong pursuit to truly know someone else, and to be known in return.
4. “I’m a single HSP, and Valentine’s Day and weddings are really hard for me. Any advice?”
HSPs are so good at envisioning the way things ought to be — we know exactly what needs to happen for the optimal outcome to transpire. When life doesn’t pan out that way, and it often doesn’t, it can hit us especially hard.
So my advice applies to anyone who finds themselves in a situation they’d rather not be in. Whether that’s longing for a new or different relationship, a different career, or any life circumstance, really. The answer, I believe, is in turning our incredible empathy inward.
We are often not as good at loving ourselves as we are at loving others. That is the challenging side of empathy; we notice so much around us that we forget ourselves altogether.
So to HSPs who find holidays, like Valentine’s Day, difficult, can you love yourself enough to practice self-compassion and loving-acceptance? Loving your life, your body, your personality — and even your sensitivity?
Highly sensitive souls have so much love to give, but if we don’t extend it inward, we are destined for a life of misery and discontentment. I believe that the more healing that we do — particularly to heal past trauma and reframe our childhood in light of our sensitivity trait — the more we can come from a place of genuine love for ourselves. And this, in turn, will help us have healthier relationships with others.
No matter our relationship status, our relationship with ourselves outlasts all others. It must always be nurtured, protected, and honored.
- This Valentine’s Day, do something that soothes you and/or makes your heart sing. Ask yourself: What do I need most at the moment?
- Explore self-compassion practices and commit to incorporating them into your daily life. This can look like meditating, praying, going for a walk, spending time with a pet, or anything that allows you to be compassionate, and loving, toward yourself.
- Indulge your ability to see exactly how things are supposed to be through “Scripting.” Write, or imagine, exactly how things should be in the next 3-5 years. Are there any practical steps you could take now in that direction?
5. “I’m an introverted HSP. How the heck am I supposed to live with another person for the rest of my life?”
Well, first, no one says you have to. Highly sensitive introverts can live wonderfully fulfilling lives without a partner, and I dare say many of us would be just fine with a precious life of solitude. It’s worth thinking about where the desire for a long-term relationship comes from. Is it truly from your heart, or is it a result of societal pressure and expectation?
Think about HSPs in traditional societies — they were often the healers, shamans, and gurus. They often lived lives of solitude due to their unique role in the community.
But if maintaining a committed relationship long-term is a true desire of yours, you must be intentional to make it work. My advice: Know your needs and prioritize them relentlessly.
If you are going to be in a successful relationship, it must be sustainable. The only way for it to be sustainable is for everyone’s needs to be met, including yours.
HSPs are very good at knowing, and meeting, other people’s needs, but this often comes at the expense of our own. You probably already have a good sense of your needs if you realize that living with someone else seems impossible. I’m here to tell you that it’s not. But what may be impossible is living with someone else the way “everyone else” does.
During COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, my family pitched a couple of tents in the backyard that became our sanctuaries. We were not to disturb each other if we retreated to the tents. They were our means of respite and refuge.
So, dear, introverted HSP, I invite you to think outside the box. What molds need to be broken from the cookie-cutter idea of the nuclear family so that you can thrive? What arrangements can you make so that you enjoy living your life with the one you love? Isn’t that the goal? So do whatever it takes to achieve the goal.
This is your life. Design it so your needs are met, your partner is respected and honored, and so you can actually enjoy each other’s company.
- Spend some time reflecting on how you are different from the majority of folks who are not-as-sensitive. What needs to be different for you, and why?
- Commit to your own time alone and retreat on a regular basis. This way, you can garner your resources and meet your partner in the middle.
- Make a list of your needs that you struggle to meet in a committed, long-term relationship. What out-of-the-box ideas can you come up with to meet those needs while living with a partner?
As HSPs, we love deeply, care profoundly, and live in a state of empathy. But the hardest love for many HSPs is love for yourself and your sensitivity. It can all feel like too much, too hard, and too overwhelming. It can even feel like our relationships are draining us. We wish it could all be magically easier.
Well, I know that you do possess magic: Your sensitivity is yours to harness to live a life you love, with the ones you love. HSPs, remember your magic.
Are you tired of being confused and drained by love? Do you worry that you stray into codependence, one-sided relationships, or even pushing your partner away? Join Alane’s special “Is This Love?” HSP masterclass TODAY, February 2, 2024, and learn how to overcome your own roadbocks to love. Click here to sign up or learn more.
You might like:
- Ask Alane: Why Are Relationships So Draining for HSPs?
- 12 Secrets About Being in a Relationship With a Highly Sensitive Person
- Why Highly Sensitive People Keep Falling for Toxic Relationships — And How to Stop
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