Ask me to define myself with five or so adjectives, and I’ll include “sensitive” on the list every time. I’ve always considered my sensitivity as an asset, a trait that keeps me in tune — and therefore, connected — with people and animals. However… my “sensitive” is not “highly sensitive.”
Now that I’ve been married to a true highly sensitive person (HSP) for ten years — someone who is actually wired at a biological level to process everything more deeply than the rest of us — I’ve learned my sensitivities pale in comparison to his. We didn’t use, or know about, labels early on in our relationship, but we’ve always talked about how sounds, other people, TVs, and even clothing cause my husband mental and physical pain at times. It turned out that these are typical signs of a highly sensitive person.
He’s bonded with my stepsister over their inability to tune out background music at a restaurant, and the three of us have discussed the different ways in which we sympathize with her son, who is on the autism spectrum, in his unique sensitivities. I’m particular about sounds and sensations, too, but it’s taken a long time for me to come to appreciate the level on which the world can feel like too much for my husband: too much noise, too much thoughtlessness, too much violence. It seems like he’s never not processing reactions to physical or emotional stimuli.
When we discovered that “highly sensitive people” are actually a thing, it offered us both a lot of comfort and understanding. And, I’ve read about relationship tips from the perspective of the HSP themselves. But what if your partner is the HSP? That poses its own challenges — it involves finding a balance between respecting their nature and maintaining your own self-care.
Being sensitive myself, I’ve had to learn how and when I can help, and how it’s not my responsibility to manage my husband’s feelings or sensitivities. I can’t remove all the stimuli from his world, but I can be a compassionate partner and give him space to be who he is without making him feel like there’s something wrong with him.
The result, for both of us, has been increased peace and happiness in our relationship. Every couple is different, but here are seven things that worked for us — that I believe will help you, too.
7 Tips for Being Happily Married to an HSP
1. Find out which of the five senses affect your partner the most.
For my husband, sound affects him the most. Understanding that he is going to pick up on any and all sounds in a given space helps me know when we can have a “real” conversation, or when it’s going to be impossible for him to focus. I can also be considerate about the sounds, especially coming from the TV, in our home. Plus, the occasional check-in regarding stimuli — and what may be bothering him — can go a long way.
2. Understand that when an HSP is out in the world, they are going to be thinking about all the other people around them.
HSPs are constantly preoccupied by how they’re affecting other people with their energy, and vice versa — they naturally absorb other people’s emotions. Before the pandemic, my husband and I were out to dinner with another couple. One of them was not exactly gracious with the staff and made a quiet, but negative, comment to us about the service. My husband was so concerned that the comment was overheard by our server that he was unable to engage in conversation the whole evening. It literally took him days to recover from the discomfort, so he finally returned to the restaurant (a regular hangout of ours) to try to make up for any possible offense.
3. Don’t take their reactions too seriously.
HSPs can get overwhelmed, and this can color the way they view things. In a certain mood, they may make statements that seem rather harsh or sad, such as about the state of the world or even the state of your relationship. It’s important to remember that this mood, or bleak outlook, will likely pass. Check in with them later and try not to get too bummed out in the meantime.
4. Be patient.
My husband speaks very carefully and slowly, as many HSPs do. I find it helps me to be patient with his pace and one way I do this is by using an adult coloring book when we’re having long conversations. It allows me to still pay attention to him since coloring doesn’t distract my mind at all; in fact, it helps me quietly listen because my hands are busy.
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5. Offer reassurance, but don’t go overboard.
As far back as age five, my husband remembers intense feelings of not belonging in this world. Why didn’t other people react similarly to beauty and pain? Why did they all seem so “OK” when there was so much to feel and notice? It’s likely he was a highly sensitive child, though he didn’t know it at the time.
As an adult, the feelings he experiences can sometimes bleed over into insecurity or a sense of not belonging in a particular group, or even in a marriage. Reassure your HSP partner that you love them just as they are, and that you may not always understand how they feel, but you care. Also realize, however, that you can’t “fix” their feelings or change them, but you can accept them.
6. Be aware that your subtle cues and body language are being observed and interpreted.
We may not always be in control of our own inadvertent physical cues, but it can help to be more conscious of what our outsides might be implying to our highly sensitive partners about our insides. For instance, I’ve tried to eliminate shrugs and eye rolls from my “body dictionary.” It doesn’t feel like a big deal to me, but these gestures communicate much more to my husband and help us avoid misunderstandings and conflict.
7. When a difficult conversation or conflict becomes too much for your HSP partner, recognize it may be time to pause and reschedule.
Sometimes, your HSP partner may need some quiet time to process and think before speaking, especially when sorting out a conflict. Expressing impatience or demanding that they put complicated thoughts into words on the spot doesn’t do much good. Again, it’s all about balance. I’m always working on it, but I’ve learned the most important aspect of maintaining my own health and happiness is respecting my partner’s sensitivity and needs while also caring for my own. A little space here and there can do wonders for both of us as we recharge and gather control over our own personal energy.