Are you dating a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?* If you suspect so, there are things to know that will make or break your relationship. Having a sense of these features in advance (or even during) is helpful. But lacking familiarity with the trait of High Sensitivity (HS) could wipe out your chances of a second date.
Wondering if you are an HSP? Go here and take the short quiz. (Sometimes people discover they are an HSP later in life.)
High Sensitivity is real. It’s a temperament and is, for the most part, invisible. You can’t see it the way you can see eye color, for example.
However, the trait of HS affects all aspects of life, both visible and invisible. Thoughts, feelings, behaviors, senses, work, recreation, relationships— all are touched and influenced by this powerful trait.
High Sensitivity is an inborn trait, just as being right- or left-handed is a built-in trait. About 15% of men and women have it.
High Sensitivity is not a disorder, malfunction, or attempt to be dramatic.
You may be dating an HSP and not know it. In fact, there is a 36% chance you are, according to research by Dr. Elaine Aron.
Aron coined the term “Highly Sensitive Person” in the 1990s. Her research suggests that about half of all HSPs are married to other HSPs.
It’s also possible that you are an HSP and just don’t know it…yet.
Knowing signs of High Sensitivity will help you identify if you’re dating a Highly Sensitive Person.
If one of you is an HSP, you’re unlikely to feel ambivalent about a second date. Either the date will go very well, or very poorly.
As Dr Aron says, relationships with an HSP tend to be “exceptionally successful… or quite unsuccessful.”
If you’re dating a Highly Sensitive Person, you’re dating someone who
- thinks and feels deeply
- is moved emotionally by what may seem like little things, whether positive or negative
- becomes distressed by too much noise or chaos
- is intuitive and conscientious
- takes extra time to adapt to change
High Sensitivity is defined by 4 distinct features:
Depth of processing: HSPs are deep thinkers. They’re careful and are alert to subtleties
Over-arousal: HSPs are prone to anxiety and overwhelm due to deep processing.
Empathy: HSPs have a huge capacity for empathy; they feel emotion deeply.
Sensory specific sensitivity: HSPs tend to be sensitive to smells, bright lights, loud sounds, tastes, or tactile features.
Here’s another way to think about HSPs. Their motto is “look before you leap”. Being cautious, taking in information before taking action, and not rushing things are characteristic.
The non-HSP’s adage is “opportunity only knocks once.” Seizing the moment, taking initiative, and being adventurous are characteristics of most non-HSPs.
Which approach works better depends on the context.
In a relationship between an HSP and non-HSP, there is ample opportunity to find the sweet spot, somewhere in the middle.
By nature, HSPs are more likely to take risk into account before making any decisions about relationships, icluding the one with you.
HSPs are going to pause and reflect before diving in. They do their own cost/benefit analysis, considering the risks (e.g. betrayal, loss) and the gains (e.g. love, partnership).
If you’re dating a Highly Sensitive Person, here are 5 important things you need to know:
1. HSPs do lots of reflecting, which may look like overthinking.
Your partner’s nervous system picks up on subtleties and nuance. And that means there’s a lot of processing in the form of thinking and feeling. (And a ton of unique insight, creativity, and empathy too.)
A “downside” of the deep reflection is that HSPs may be more impacted by your words or actions than someone without the trait would be. You may feel like the HSP you’re dating tends to take things “too personally”. (She is used to hearing that, unfortunately.)
This is due to HSPs’ depth of processing.
2. Because of all the feelings, thoughts, behaviors, perceptions, and nuance that HSPs process, overwhelm is more likely to happen.
The over-arousal part of the “DOES” accounts for why HSPs are prone to worry. They hit “overload” sooner than non-HSPs do.
Over-arousal is probably the hardest feature of High Sensitivity.
Ideally, the HSP has created a lifestyle that serves her sensitivity. To do so requires that she knows about her trait and takes time to create a life that aligns with her make-up.
HSPs who know themselves and their traits well are typically aware of early signs of overwhelm. They have learned how to navigate those feelings and often need alone time.
So, Mr. Non-HSP, this would be a not-so-great time to initiate sex (which is often arousing and stimulating) or start a heated discussion.
3.Your HS partner has a natural depth of caring that defies words.
She wants nothing more than to support you. Empathy comes naturally to the HSP.
She is also nurturing and romantic and may, to your astonishment, feel your feelings, even if you aren’t aware of having the feelings at the time.
HSPs are unlikely to intentionally hurt you. They have a way of making you feel more loved than you’ve ever felt.
4. Highly Sensitive People’s feelings can be more intense.
Relationships, regardless of their tenure, involve emotion..
For HSPs, who experience the world in a deeper, more intense way, however, emotion by itself isn’t enough. Meaningful relationships are the only real option.
This of course has both benefits and drawbacks.
HSPs are able to be more deeply moved, touched, or affected than the average person. They are uber-sensitive to beautiful, heartwarming parts of romantic love.
The same happens with negative emotions.
Emotional pain causes an HSP’s heightened nervous system to release a cascade of stress hormones.
Highly Sensitive People tend to experience more threat in their partners’ flaws or behaviors. They also reflect more and worry about how things are going.
All of that is the “extra” part of HSP wiring.
4. For HSPs especially, connection is the basis for a relationship.
Sounds like a no-brainer, right? After all, connection is important for any relationship!
That’s the key word – “relationship.”
If you’re in the market for a hookup rather than a relationship, look elsewhere. HSPs value a bond of true connection that provides mutual understanding, warmth, and compassion.
On the other hand, HSPs are also prone to avoiding conflict and taking more time to build up to intimacy.
Finding effective ways to connect and communicate smooths bumps in the road, just as in any relationship.
5. HSPs’ sensitivity is a (relationship) superpower.
HSPs are naturally romantic and nurturing. They tend to love deeply, but are also more impacted by conflict in the relationship.
They have trouble just sweeping conflict under the rug and are more inclined to notice if there is an elephant in the room.
Perceptiveness is an HSP strength and helps to pre-empt potential rough spots.
Quick tips for Dating a Highly Sensitive Person
HSPs are unlikely to enjoy:
- loud restaurants
- busy arenas
- cigarette smell
- small talk
- fluorescent lighting
- dinner parties
HSPs bring to relationships a basic paradox: They fall hard into love, yet fear it more.
They’re drawn to deep waters, filled with mystery and intrigue.
However, they fear how to get out of the deep water and back to the safety of shore.
Dr Aron reminds HSPs that certain behaviors of a partner, like whistling, may be bothersome and tough to tolerate. It’s all part of the HSP/non-HSP package. You attune to your partner’s subtle needs and prefer he not whistle when you’re with each other.
We’re all a mixed bag!
Thoughts on a non-HSP dating an HSP
You’re much more likely to meet an HSP on an Appalachian Mountain Club hike or an Earth Day clean-up than at a nightclub or rock concert.
As an HSP and non-HSP couple, you have what Dr. Aron calls “hybrid vigor”.
The HSP attunes to the subtleties in a situation.
The non-HSP partner acts on that information.
As a non-HSP with an HSP partner, you benefit from how observant she is to subtleties. She sees things you do not, be it in the environment or in someone’s facial expression.
You have the opportunity to experience the magic of life vicariously through your partner, whose nuanced attunement provides excitement and new frontiers.
Because of her awareness and attunement, you may become more generally tuned in over time.
HSPs tend to live a healthy lifestyle. They know when they need to work out, sleep, eat, or take a break. You may be inspired to join her.
Dr. Aron’s research suggests that HSP/non-HSP couples are about as happy as HSP/HSP couples.
Regardless of the configuration, HSP or non-HSP, relationships bring meaning, depth, and joy to life.
Dating a Highly Sensitive Person has the potential to open up a whole new world, filled with richness and dimension.
*This article is written from the perspective of a cisgender female and heterosexual relationships.
Dr. Elayne Daniels, a psychologist in MA, specializes in helping Highly Sensitive People thrive. She has additional specialties in treating eating disorders and body image issues. Contact her here.