Our first argument as a married couple is now referred to, with humor and affection, as “The Great Gregory Couch Debate.”
It happened, quite literally, the day after the honeymoon ended.
We’d just unloaded a UHaul truck full of hand-me-down furniture into our tiny married student apartment. As we started moving tables and chairs into place, we each discovered that the other was—horror of horrors!—planning to arrange the room the wrong way.
We tried to compromise. But when it came to whether the couch should go against the east wall or the south wall of our bungalow, we both dug in our heels.
As our conversation escalated toward a full-blown fight, Daniel declared, “We should do it my way because I’m logical, and you’re too emotional.”
Needless to say, the couch argument ended abruptly as a whole new “discussion” began. I spent days trying to convince my new groom to
- admit he was wrong (after all, I’d recently scored 99th percentile in analytical reasoning on the GRE!), and
- apologize for wounding me to the core (after a perfectly wonderful honeymoon)
When I failed at both, I judged him arrogant and insensitive.
HSP — Who,
Twenty-five years years later, I stumbled upon Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person. I devoured it in a day, stunned by how accurately she described me although we’d never met.
When Daniel and our two college-aged kids took the HSP assessment, I was shocked once again: every single one of us is a Highly Sensitive Person. Even my “insensitive” husband. We just have very different constellations of sensitivities. Where we overlap, we understand each other well. Where we don’t, we really don’t.
So many struggles in our marriage that never made sense suddenly made total sense. Daniel and I share these three common qualities of HSPs, but we experience and express them in vastly different ways.
Highly Sensitive Person Quality #1: Depth of Processing
Both of us are slow processers who tend to “live in our heads.” But while I reflect more on actual interpersonal relationships, Daniel’s mind tends towards abstract theoretical ideas.
Highly Sensitive Person Quality #2: Overstimulation
Daniel and I both become quickly overwhelmed by sensory stimuli. But not by the same senses. Strong smells and loud sounds put me on red alert, whereas visual chaos and tactile discomfort send Daniel over the edge.
Highly Sensitive Person Quality #3: Emotional reactivity
We’re both passionate people. But our easily-triggered emotions flow in opposite directions. When receiving negative feedback, for example, I internalize it and blame myself; Daniel deflects it by blaming others.
HSP — Yes, Me!
Discovering and embracing my HSP qualities has made me a happier woman and a better wife. Two skills have been especially helpful.
1. Learning to Re-View My Past
While I can’t change my past, I can change the story I tell myself about my past.
I used to hate myself for being so socially awkward — I could never come up with a snappy comeback in the moment! Now, I recognize that I’ve always needed 24-48 hours to process what others have said.
I used to pretend that scents and sounds didn’t actually bother me because I felt defective for being so reactive to them. Now, I feel compassion for myself as I see the clear connection between my heightened senses and the decades I’ve spent battling headaches and anxiety.
I used to berate myself for being, as others labeled me, “such a drama queen.” Now, I have empathy for how frantic I used to feel before I learned self-soothing techniques and exit strategies.
If you’re an HSP, re-framing your past in light of this trait can be freeing and empowering. Consider areas such as
- strong sensory reactions, such as startling easily, squinting at bright lights, shying away from certain textures or types of touch, etc.;
- responses to change, especially last-minute or when lots happened all at once;
- social situations in which you felt awkward or overcome with emotion.
Recognizing your specific HSP qualities at work can give rise to responses like, “So that’s why I did that!” and “Oh, that makes so much more sense, now!”
2. Learning to Name and Meet My Own Needs
I brought a contraditory pair of beliefs into marriage:
- I have no needs
- My husband should automatically meet my needs
This meant that I felt ashamed of any needs that did crop up and then hurt when Daniel failed to automatically meet the needs I wasn’t even supposed to have in the first place.
Now that I know I’m an HSP, I’m clear that there’s only person who can know and meet my unique set of needs:
For example, Daniel screens out repetative sounds, so when our dog goes on a barking jag, I’m the one to notice. I don’t say, “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you hear her?” I hear her. So I bring her in.
The same is true in dozens of little areas of everyday life.
- I carry a sweater so that I can regulate my temperature when we go for a drive.
- I pack a power bar and water bottle so I can eat even when he’s not hungry.
- I put on noise-canceling headphones while he’s watching a loud movie.
Instead of denying my needs, while expecting my husband to magically know and meet them for me, I keep asking myself two questions:
1. What do I need right now?
2. How can I meet my own needs?
The Great Gregory Couch Debate, Take 2
Re-viewing The Great Gregory Couch Debate thru the HSP lens, we now see red flags that neither of us recognized at the time:
Highly Sensitive Person Red Flag #1
We had both gone at least two hours longer than we should have without eating, and we’re both far more reactive when we’re hungry. Now, we don’t have any kind of “discussion” until after a solid meal.
Highly Sensitive Person Red Flag #2
We’d both experienced lots of changes two weeks preceding our couch argument: our wedding, our honeymoon (during which we’d been violently ill with food poisoning), picking up furniture from my parents and his parents, driving back to college, and setting up a household together. Neither of us recognized the impact of so much change in such a short period of time. We now know how unsettling change is for us, and we factor this into our conversations.
Highly Sensitive Person Red Flag #3
We were each trying to strong-arm the other to do what we wanted without realizing how strongly we each react to high-pressure tactics. We’re both far more careful to avoid coersion these days.
Learning that I’m an HSP has given me two invaluable gifts: compassion and permission.
Compassion for my particular constellation of needs.
And permission to take care of—and to simply be—myself.
Disclaimer: This blog post reflects one woman’s experience. Each marriage is unique; what works for one couple may not work for another. A marriage that involves abuse, addiction, adultery, abandonment, and/or apathy is beyond the scope of this blog post and may need the intervention of a trained counselor.