My partner tells me that I am too sensitive, but I often feel that they are uncaring. This is frustrating and hurtful to me, and it is not good for our relationship. I want to get to the bottom of this and work it out.
Sorting it Out – High Sensitivity vs. Lack of Caring
We invest our entire lives into our relationships, which can drive our emotions high when we feel our partner is uncaring. Any amount of sensitivity that we possess can go into overload status when we feel frustrated, hurt, ignored, or invalidated. There are many reasons why a partner may perceive an imbalance with their partner in their levels of feelings and shared empathy in a relationship, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer.
Perceiving Empathy and Sensitivity
The study, “Couple’s Perceptions of Each Other’s Daily Affect: Empathic Accuracy, Assumed Similarity, and Indirect Accuracy,” published in the National Library of Medicine, gives insight into how couples perceive and process sensitivities.
The difference between gender empathic accuracy has mixed results. Some literature indicates equality between the sexes, and some indicate that men may be more accurate in perceiving their partner’s emotions because women are more expressive of their emotions. Conversely, some results propose that women’s empathic accuracy may be lower because men do not express their emotions well. In retrospect, when we examine our relationships in view of sensitivity and caring, or lack of it, we must remember that men can be characterized (perhaps incorrectly) as uncaring or less sensitive due to their inherent nature.
The study also indicates that the accuracy of emotions, including mirroring and validating a partner’s feelings, are implicated in healthy relationship functioning, positive relationship outcomes, as well as similarity in values and personality attributes. This is not about sharing every single value in life. Nor is it about having the same personality. It is about creating intimacy that enriches our responses that are led by emotions and thoughts, and deliberate actions that are sensitive to our partner’s needs.
Highly Sensitive Person
Elaine N. Aaron, Ph.D., author of “The Highly Sensitive Person” describes the HSP personality trait as distinct, with the individual having a sensitive nervous system that is aware of the nuances in his/her environment and is easily overwhelmed when the surroundings are over-stimulating. Dr. Aaron indicates that this trait affects as many as one out of every five people.
In discussing her book, “The Highly Sensitive Person in Love,” Dr. Aaron writes:
“Let’s start with the temperament we know, sensitivity. About 20% of us are highly sensitive persons (HSPs); at least 34% of love relationships involve an HSP. And everyone has at least one HSP friend. I have found that when HSPs aren’t understood by themselves and others, that spells trouble. That’s surely part of why my data show that, on the average HSPs, are a bit happier paired with each other. They understand each other.”
HSPs, per Dr. Aaron, need more depth in relationships in order to be satisfied. They see more threatening consequences in their partner’s flaws or behaviors, and they reflect more and worry about how things are going (in the relationship).
The way we speak, or the way we don’t communicate with our partners, as well as our choice of actions, are all reflective of our relationship, personal difficulties, and how we perceive ourselves and our partner as emphatic, sensitive…or not.
Here are some problem areas in relationships that can affect both partners – one partner feels sensitive (e.g., feeling hurt, devalued), while the other pushes or holds back in frustration – which can resemble an uncaring insensitive attitude:
- Critical Thinking – Habitually finding fault or criticizing (including nitpicking about sensitivity)
- Abusive Behavior – Emotional, mental, psychological, and verbal abuse (including gaslighting, “You are crazy. You are way too sensitive! You are overreacting!”)
- Lacking Intimacy – Inability to share and understand one’s feelings or talk openly about the relationship
- Lacking Open Communication – Inability to discuss just about anything with honesty without fear of shame, retaliation, or embarrassment (and hiding the problem)
Your Partner is Not You
“If you are wishing that your partner would just see the light and behave in the way that you think he or she should, then you are living a fantasy. … When you take up the banner to “improve” your partner, you are annihilating him or her. You are wishing for the real person to be gone and your image of him to take his place. And you treat him accordingly.”
The recommendation is that partners engage with each other with curiosity and surrender judgment, accept and honor differences, and treat each other as unique individuals with equally valid points of view.
When we look at this through the eyes of partners that see each other as too sensitive, or uncaring, are they trying to change their partners to be more like themselves? When, really, do they just want open communication that includes shared feelings?
To open up your relationship to shared feelings, and get beyond conflict, jointly try Harville Hendrix’s Three Steps to Intentional Dialogue:
- Mirroring – Actively listen and mirror back what your partner has said in your own words.
- Validation – Communicate to your partner that what they have said makes sense to you. Validating does not mean that you must agree with your partner.
- Empathy – Talk about how you feel in response to what your partner is saying and feeling. This is about shared feelings between both you and your partner.
None of these steps are about agreeing or disagreeing. Nor are they about problem-solving. The three steps are designed to induce the sharing of feelings and open up communication.
Gain the Relationship You Desire
Sometimes, we have done all that we know how to do, and then we feel stuck in place. Where do we go from here? How do we talk about our feelings?
At This LoveWorks, we can help you and your partner gain the skills and education to navigate the choppy waters and learn how to nurture, soothe, and help each other. We can help you heal your relationship and build the deeper connection that you are looking for.