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relationship skills for the highly sensitive
deep down, aren’t we all?
by julie restivo murphy

I don’t presume to be an expert on relationships after one year of marriage, but as a highly sensitive person married to another highly sensitive person**, I have learned a thing or two. Over the past three years of togetherness my other half and I have been working on a system. There has been a lot of trial and error, a few hysterical tears, some hiding in the bathroom, and a door-slam from time to time, but we’ve almost got it down now. I write this to remind myself, as well as to give aid and consolation any others who might find themselves in a similar situation.

Sensitive people get their feelings hurt easily and often, so a relationship between two HSPs can be a lot of work. It can also be the only thing that works, because HSPs are otherwise trampled if they try to couple with an HIP (Highly Insensitive Person). Although my relationship can be a lot of work, I consider myself very lucky to have a highly sensitive husband because he understands me better than anyone. He also happens to be a great communicator which is complete godsend due to my utter retardation in this department. I don’t know how I became so inept or failed to develop the basic interpersonal communication skills, but fortunately Dan has been willing to tutor me and as a result I’ve improved considerably, though gradually, over time.

The biggest challenge has been managing my reactions to his sensitivity. Most of the time it catches me off guard - because he is so talented at tending to my vulnerably I can easily forget that he has his own. And I have been shocked to discover that in the eyes of another sensitive person, a gentle HSP such as me can actually be insensitive. I didn’t believe it at first, but after a while it was impossible to deny the evidence. Dealing with this realization was a whole new obstacle course which I was very ill equipped for. Hence the need for a system.

The primary element of the system involves being very careful with our tone of voice. This is difficult, for several reasons. To begin with, when stressed or upset one tends to feel justified using a “tone” towards one’s partner in the name of “self expression”. Secondly, a demand for control on tone reeks of the parental admonishments of adolescence: “I don’t like your tone young lady!” Lastly, one is often unaware of one’s own tone. But with practice, dedication, and most importantly the awareness of how one’s tone (or “negative energy” to put it another way) effects one’s partner, it is possible.

The second aspect of the system is a slightly bigger challenge. When one of us, unwittingly or not, does something to annoy/flummox/irritate/infuriate the other, there must be a big breath taken before reacting. In that breath, the annoyed party must convince him/herself (let’s say him for the sake of clarity) to take another. And then another. And again. When the annoyed party is sufficiently oxygenated, he must try not to react in anger but to identify what has caused the upset, then calmly, without aggression or blame, communicate the issue to his partner. It’s a formidable task, but the mere attempt to do so can make for vast improvements in the area of conflict resolution.

Now, if you happen to be the hurter of feelings in this scenario rather than the hurtee, this is where the third aspect comes in. If he is hurt she must apologize. Even if she didn’t mean to hurt his feelings or feels completely justified in what she’s done or said, she must recognize that her partner is not crazy (although I don’t know, maybe yours is) that he doesn’t invent these things to make her feel bad. If he says he’s hurt, she must take responsibility for it. After all, she expects the same of him. Even if it’s something minute, something she thinks wouldn’t have hurt her feelings if he’d said it, she must accept the validity of his reaction and be genuine in her response. Because loving someone means doing everything in your power to make sure that they are okay, even if you have to turn into a little bunny rabbit in order to do it.

The fourth and final feature of the system is that he in turn must accept her apology and offer forgiveness.

It’s absolutely essential that both parties take their roles seriously. While it’s very difficult to maintain composure and avoid becoming angry when you’ve had your feelings hurt (see aspect 2), it’s next to impossible for the hurter to feel sympathy and apologize to a hurtee who is acting belligerent and hostile (aspect 3). Both must be willing to lay down their egos for the sake of peace.

Now some HSPs out there might be dealing with a partner who is actually an HSP incognito. Let’s face it; admitting to hurt feelings is tough, and many of us would rather cocoon ourselves in a ball of silent fury than take a blow to our pride. For some people (I’m not pointing any fingers here, ahem, men) it’s especially difficult to admit to being sensitive due to certain cultural expectations/social conditioning/genetic predispositions (choose your excuse). It takes a lot of courage and confidence to be able to confess to vulnerability, but it’s essential to do so. If you don’t, every new conflict will be compounded by the unruly accumulation of ancient, unexpressed issues. These things tend to pile up. Just remember that sharing your feelings doesn’t make you less of a man, it just makes you more human. (And in my humble opinion, it makes you He-man, minus the gay undertones).

Like I said, it’s a lot of work. But the payoff is great. Highly sensitive people in love are a rarity in today’s world, and if you’ve ever had the good fortune to witness or participate in such a thing, then you know – it’s the best thing in life.

**Per my husband’s request, I would like to clarify that by saying he is sensitive, I mean that when he is stabbed with a sword, he feels it; when he bursts into flames and suffers third degree burns, it hurts a little. Not that he is some kind of girly wuss bag.

For more information on the being an HSP see: www.hsperson.com


On her ninth birthday, Julie was given her first diary (a pink-heart-stippled hardcover, gold lock and all), and has been an enthusiastic scribbler ever since. When funds permit, she prefers the nomadic lifestyle, globe-trotting to various exotic destinations. Otherwise she occupies herself with guilty-pleasure-television and random acts of espionage in and around the Los Angeles area.

more about julie restivo murphy


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published: 12.30.99


tracey kelley
7.20.07 @ 9:40a

I vacillate between being highly sensitive and a snarky. I wouldn't mind finding a happy medium.

ken mohnkern
7.20.07 @ 12:15p

I'm not sure why I didn't comment on this before. I think it's a great column, sensible and actually useful. I think I'm one o' them overly-sensitive types. Or else I'm particularly insensitive. Depends on the sunspot activity, I think.

alex b
7.20.07 @ 12:33p

I think I'm an HIP who loves HSP's, but turns into an HSP in front of someone with a bigger HIP degree than I do. I'm always confused.

russ carr
7.20.07 @ 5:08p

a gentle HSP such as me can actually be insensitive

Actually, I think HSPs can be more insensitive than a typically insensitive person. Because they are so possessive and demonstrative with their own feelings, they tend to not think far enough outside themselves to consider others'.

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