Arguing with your partner can be hard whether you’re highly sensitive or not, but for the highly sensitive person (not sure if that’s you? take the quiz here!) emotions of anger and frustration can be especially hurtful and difficult. When my husband and I disagree, I find it nearly impossible to focus on the actual topic of our argument. Instead, I get swept away in my husband’s feelings and my feelings and it all becomes so overwhelming that I either shut down or just start crying.
As you can imagine, this is not the healthiest form of communication. For starters, the topic of disagreement is never actually discussed when this happens, and even though it can be painful, open discussion about disagreement is absolutely vital to any good relationship.
Second, 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.
Finally, 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.
Even though being highly sensitive can make arguing more difficult, it doesn’t have to be a horrible experience. With conscious effort and an intimidating amount of vulnerability, it is totally possible to survive arguments with your partner without sinking into the pitfalls of high sensitivity.
1. Admit That Your High Sensitivity Could Be Making Arguments More Difficult (Without Succumbing to Shame)
The first step toward healthier arguments for the HSP is admitting that your high sensitivity actually impacts the way you and your partner argue. This is difficult, because it can feel like you’re expected to take full responsibility for past issues and magically “fix” the situation. If you grew up being told you were too sensitive, like many HSPs, you might find yourself being thrown head-first into an ocean of shame, and it might feel like the “solution” is for you to simply stop being yourself.
In order to make any progress toward healthier arguments, it’s important to try and resist these feelings of shame. Shame leads us nowhere. Instead, try to acknowledge your sensitivity’s role in the problem 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 as HSPs. When it comes to arguing, it can often have a negative impact, and the sooner we admit that, the sooner we can do something about it.
2. Sit Down and Figure Out Exactly How Your High Sensitivity Affects Your Arguments
Once you’ve admitted that your high sensitivity impacts the way you argue, you can 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 to try and 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 try and 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.
As a note, 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. Seeing both sides of the argument from the beginning can be both helpful and paralyzing, so this is more of a neutral difference rather than a problem.
3. Discuss What You’ve Learned With Your Partner
Now you have all this great information about you and how your brain works, but it will only be helpful in the context of a real argument if your partner knows about it as well. It might be kind of intimidating to approach your partner with a laundry list of not-so-fun facts about how your brain works in an argument, but it’s important.
For instance, if you’ve discovered that you tend to shut down in arguments because you are particularly sensitive to all of the emotional stimulation and you can’t process it all at once, it’s important that your partner knows that. By discussing it now, outside of an argument, you can make a plan for what to do about it when a disagreement eventually happens again. 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 make sure you’re still respecting their emotional needs. Even if they are less demanding than yours, they are still important.
4. In the Heat of An Argument, Take Time to 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, not pay 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, I can let them 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 what’s happening inside my head out loud, but that can be a good thing.
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” lets your partner know where you are emotionally and might be a good signal that it’s time to take a break from the argument. It can feel a bit forced and awkward at first, being so blunt about your emotions, 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 all of 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.
While discussing with your partner, come up with a few adjustments your partner 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 a bit easier on my HSP heart without repressing or invalidating his own emotions.
First, 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.
Second, 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 for reminding me that this argument is just that: an argument, not marriage-ending abandonment.
Finally, my husband has recently started sharing his thought processes about the argument as we argue, like I described in section #4. As an HSP, it’s helpful for me to identify and share my emotions as they appear, but it’s also incredibly helpful for my husband to make those same insights into himself and share them with me. By discussing both the topic of our disagreement and our feelings about how the argument is going, we are both more respectful and understanding.
Disagreement can be painful for HSPs, but there are ways to work with your high sensitivity and have healthy, helpful arguments with your partner. Do you have any tips for how to survive arguments as an HSP? Share your wisdom with the community by leaving a comment below.