Although being sensitive can make arguing more difficult, it doesn’t have to be a horrible experience.
Arguing with your partner is the worst — whether you’re a sensitive person or not. But, for those of us who process emotions at a heightened level, feelings of anger and frustration can completely derail us. When my husband and I disagree, I can’t even focus on the actual topic we’re fighting about. Instead, I get swept away in my husband’s feelings — and my own — and it becomes so overwhelming that I either shut down or just start crying.
It’s not the healthiest form of communication, I know. For one thing, it means the actual topic of disagreement doesn’t get discussed — and even though it can be painful, open discussion about disagreement is absolutely vital to a good relationship.
Plus, even though I don’t do it intentionally, shutting down or crying shifts the interaction to make it all about me. Instead of asserting his opinions, my husband now has to set his own experience on the back burner in order to find ways to comfort me.
And let’s be honest, it just sucks to be drawn into the depths of despair any time you disagree with your partner. Disagreement and argument are natural parts of any long-term relationship, and it’s not possible (or advisable) to avoid them forever. But it’s hard to willingly enter into an argument when you know how awful it’s going to make you feel. This can increase anxiety around the argument and make things even worse for a highly sensitive person (HSP).
But here’s the thing: Even though being sensitive can make arguing more difficult, it doesn’t have to be a horrible experience. It is totally possible to survive arguments with your partner without sinking into an emotional pitfall. It just takes conscious effort, and a willingness to be vulnerable. So, here are five ways I’ve learned to do just that.
5 Ways to Fight Better When You’re Sensitive
1. Consider how your sensitivity affects arguments.
Being highly sensitive is a healthy, normal trait. But, the first step toward healthier arguments for an HSP is to consider how your sensitivity impacts the way you and your partner argue. If you grew up being told you were too sensitive — like many HSPs — you may be tempted to feel ashamed of your highly sensitive nature, but it’s important to resist this temptation. Shame leads us nowhere.
Instead, try to acknowledge your sensitivity’s role in your arguments in a non-judgmental way. High sensitivity is another human trait just like any other, and it has both positive and negative impacts on our lives. When it comes to arguing, it can often have a negative impact, and the sooner we understand that, the sooner we can start working with our HSP nature rather than against it.
2. Figure out exactly how your sensitivity affects your arguments.
Once you understand that your high sensitivity impacts the way you argue, take inventory of how. Do you get overwhelmed and lash out? Do you shut down completely? Does every small disagreement bring up intense fears of abandonment that linger with you for days?
It might help to recall your last argument with your partner and replay it in your mind. Try to pinpoint exactly where your high sensitivity came into play and how it affected you/your partner/the discussion. Fair warning, reliving an argument can bring back some of those negative feelings for HSPs, so go into this with a patient and gentle mindset. You aren’t doing this to place blame on yourself, you’re doing this to improve your life. It may be helpful to write things down as you think, to help keep yourself on track. Maybe doodle a few hearts throughout the page to remind yourself that you are worthy of love.
Keep in mind that the differences in your argument style due to high sensitivity don’t have to be all negative. Personally, I’ve noticed that my high sensitivity makes it much easier for me to understand my partner’s point of view in a matter of minutes, whereas it often takes a full conversation for him to understand where I’m coming from.
3. Give your partner a “user manual.”
Now you have all this great information about you and how your brain works, but it will only be helpful if your partner knows about it as well. In many ways, by sharing this information, you are giving your partner a “user manual” on how to resolve conflict more easily.
For instance, if you’ve discovered that you tend to shut down in arguments because you can’t process all the emotional stimulation at once, the two of you can make a plan for what to do about those shutdowns. Maybe it would be helpful to take breaks during arguments to allow you to re-charge and process at your own pace.
Notice that this plan doesn’t require your partner to take responsibility for your emotions — it’s okay to ask your partner for help, of course, but you want to respect their emotional needs as well. Even if their emotions are not as “big” as yours, they’re still important. Perhaps after the break, you’ll both be better able to hear each others’ needs.
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4. In the heat of an argument, identify your emotions and where they are coming from.
This is incredibly tricky, at least for me. For a long time, I was taught to ignore my emotions, and not pay any extra attention to them, but one of the best ways to prevent your emotions from taking over your consciousness is to keep an eye on what they’re doing.
As an HSP, my emotions are rarely purely my own. I tend to absorb the emotions of those around me, and if I’m not careful, they can derail my own emotional experience. This can make arguments absolutely miserable because I’m juggling both my own frustration and my partner’s.
One way to combat this is to sift through my emotions as I feel them. Sometimes this requires me to explain out loud what’s happening inside my head — but that can be a good thing.
Imagine taking a moment to say something like, “I feel angry and upset, and I think some of that is coming from you rather than from me, and it’s making it hard for me to focus on what we’re actually talking about.” This lets your partner know where you are emotionally, and it might be a good signal that it’s time to take a break. It can feel a bit forced and awkward at first, but I have found that it makes my disagreements with my husband so much easier for me to handle.
5. Ask for the support you need.
Okay, you’ve done all the personal work, and that’s absolutely amazing, but you don’t have to do this alone. After all, arguments are a two-way street, and chances are, your partner could benefit from some introspection about their own arguing habits as well. HSPs aren’t the only ones with communication quirks, after all. That’s just part of being human.
Ask your partner if they’re willing to discuss adjustments they could make to their argument style that would help you function better in an argument. Over the last 8 years, my husband and I have come up with several adjustments on my husband’s part that make the argument easier on my HSP heart — without repressing or invalidating his own emotions.
For one, my husband has become very good at noticing when I’m panicking and shutting down, and suggests we take a break when he sees this. This gives me time to settle down and take my body out of fight, flight, or freeze mode.
Likewise, my husband frequently makes gentle physical contact throughout an argument, like reaching out for my hand or rubbing my back. These loving gestures are absolutely essential to reminding me that this argument is just that: an argument, not marriage-ending abandonment.
He has also started sharing his thought processes about the argument as we argue, like I described in #4. As an HSP, it’s helpful for me to identify and share my emotions, but it’s also crucial for my husband to make those same insights into himself and share them with me. When both of us discuss our feelings about how the argument is going, we become more respectful and understanding of each other.
HSP, what is arguing like for you? How do you deal with it? Let me know in the comments below.
A version of this article has been previously published on the author’s blog, Megan Writes Everything.