Updated: Jun 18, 2021
“Hi, are you highly sensitive and do you tend to over-react?”
“Why, yes I am! What about you?”
“Me too, me too!! We should get together. We’ll have so much in common, and we’ll really understand each other!!”
“Oh, totally. Let’s get married immediately!”
“If not sooner!!”
So what do you think? Would YOU encourage this? Write your answer down but don’t show it to me. We’ll discuss it in a moment.
We’re all on many, many spectrums. Tall to short, smart to stupid, cool to dorky. Most of these spectrums are normally distributed, like this:
All this means is, as we all know, that most people—68.2% to be exact—are neither very tall nor very short. They’re just average height. This is the actual definition of “within average range.”
It’s the same when it comes to things like being sensitive or being reactive. Just to use a round number, let’s say that 70% of people aren’t particularly sensitive or particularly reactive. They are, you might say, normal. And of course, each of these “normal” people might have things they are very sensitive about, but in general, compared to the population as a whole, they’re not remarkable.
But if you look at the distribution, you’ll see that about 16% of people will be more sensitive than folks in the “normal” group. To put that in perspective, 16% is about the probability of hitting a 1 on a roll of a single die.
Now suppose you add in being over- or under-reactive. Same thing. A lot of people in the middle, fewer people at the tails.
What all this means is that we have to be careful about going around accusing our partners of being oversensitive or overreactive. We get confused about this because all too often our partner is too sensitive or too reactive for us! How inconvenient for us!! So we say, “You’re being too sensitive,” when in fact the other person is just being normally sensitive. We just wish they’d be more accepting of our crap.
In any case, suppose you do have two people, as in our opening dialogue, who are both unusually sensitive and unusually reactive. Then what?
Then you have a situation where feelings are endlessly being hurt and toes are being stepped on non-stop. What’s more, no one is letting anything slip by. Everyone is reacting strongly to every hurt or slight. And the way I react to something you do to hurt or slight me will of course hurt or slight you, and you will react strongly.
This constant volatility is both exhausting and terribly destructive. So if you said that the couple we met at the beginning shouldn’t get together, you’re right. They are just not going to be good for each other, although each will totally blame the other.
All these things I’m saying are generalities. Exceptions abound. But as generalities they are true.
Even if you have just one partner who is unusually sensitive and unusually reactive, though they’ll never see themselves that way, you still have a recipe for a heightened level of stress and tumult.
And it never helps if one partner says to the other, “Don’t be so sensitive.” Everyone thinks that their level of sensitivity is simply a measure of what’s real. Just the way if you ask a thermometer what the temperature is, it’ll tell you its truth, even if all the other thermometers would be saying, “Jeez, it’s a good 15 degrees cooler than that, buddy.”
Even as a therapist, I find it can be hard to work with a person who doesn't know that they get in trouble and make themselves miserable because of being oversensitive and overreacting. And that’s because the way they navigate is the only way they know. Their sensitivity is how they know what’s going on. They don’t see less sensitive people as better off but as less clued in.
And as a general principle, the more sensitive and reactive the two people in a relationship are, the lower its chances of survival. Just the way if there were two well-armed countries bordering each other, both sensitive to slights from the other, both highly reactive, the more likely it is they’ll be dragged into war after war with each other, draining each other’s resources.
So does this mean it’s better to be under-sensitive and under-reactive? Hah! No! And that’s because those poor folks will be living in a fake tea party of avoidance. Instead of dealing too often with too much too intensely, they won’t be dealing often enough with stuff that needs attention paid.
And there you are in your relationship with whatever the hell your level of sensitivity and reactiveness is as well as your partner’s levels. So what do you do?
I’d advise not worrying about how sensitive or reactive either of you are. Blaming your problems on your partner’s flaws is usually not productive. The most important diagnostic criterion of all is how your relationship responds to therapy. And in this case the therapy I’m talking about is what you’ll find between the covers of Why Couples Fight.
If you can stop making so many power moves and can start putting in place the process offered for getting your needs met without power moves, then it doesn’t matter how sensitive or not either of you are. You’ll have the tools for overcoming your deficits. And that’s huge!