What do I mean by differing emotional sensitivity? Emotional arousal affects our thinking and physical actions, and each person has their level of emotional sensitivity in different areas. Emotional sensitivity is the level at which you physically and emotionally respond to stimuli. According to Dr. Alan E. Fruzzetti in his book The High Conflict Couple, “At any given moment, there are events going on all around us, such as sights and sounds and other aspects of the physical and social world. There are also events going on inside us, such as memories, images, thoughts, or sensations. All of these events, in addition, to our attention, and our sensation and perception system (which allow us to be aware of what’s going on), influence emotion directly.” Our sensitivities are more complicated than most realize.
This is why one person can be triggered emotionally by one set of events, and another can be totally unaffected by the same events.
I believe that our emotional sensitivity is both nature and nurture. We can take our cues about handling conflict from how our parents dealt with it in childhood as well as the temperament we are born with. We may emulate a parent’s behavior or go to the opposite extreme depending on how we perceive it. We also may take our sensitivities from past experiences. For instance, someone who has been verbally abused in the past may be highly sensitive to any conflict in the relationship. They may fear it might happen again. A person who grew up in a family where emotions were shut down may not have any awareness of the feelings of others, much less themselves.
We all perceive things through our lens, and for us, it feels right and true. It is our reality. The key is to understand your sensitivities and your spouse’s from a place of neutrality. At times you may be the one experiencing low sensitivity and your spouse high and vice versa. You both may be in a heightened state of emotional sensitivity and arousal at the same time as well. No matter what the dynamic, there are ways to manage this. Marriage is about management to reach the common goal of having a healthy marriage.
So, here are some tips.
Be curious, open, and accepting of each other’s emotional state or sensitivities. Remember that each person brings both nature and nurture that affects their emotions. You do not have to fully understand the why, although, with curiosity, you can gain insight. What triggers them? What does it trigger? How can you be more sensitive to where they are at the moment? Again, you don’t have to understand to be empathetic.
High sensitivity or heightened emotional arousal can cause dysregulated emotion. Dysregulated emotions cause inaccurate reactions. You can be upset, but there is a difference between being upset and being dysregulated emotionally. The difference is being in control as opposed to out of control. You can be upset and still be able to make logical decisions and help you achieve a better relationship instead of moving into an unpleasant situation by hurting the other person or fanning the flames of conflict, making the issue far worse than it has to be Emotional reactions based on intense emotions can cause things to go array quickly. If something has triggered you, stop! Step back and regulate. Find the center of equilibrium before you react or address the situation. Giving yourself time to take some deep breathes and walking away for a while can do a world of good.
Look for the primary emotion causing the trigger. Say your spouse has been insensitive, and you feel anger. What is really behind that anger or trigger? Maybe the anger is because you think they don’t love you, don’t care about you, or respect you. That’s what you address in a state of equilibrium, not react with the anger. This is true even when you both are in that state of highly sensitive state or dysregulated emotionally. Step away, come back later when you are both in emotional equilibrium.
High Sensitivity vs. Low Sensitivity
If you are a high-sensitivity person married to a low-sensitivity person, don’t expect them to respond in the way you would. You may come home from a challenging day. You share with your spouse, and they don’t seem as affected by your story as you think they should. Or, you haven’t shared, and you are out of sorts because your spouse didn’t seem to notice. You might make up that they don’t care, so you respond with irritability. Instead of expecting them to jump up to meet your emotional state, to know and respond immediately, you need to use direct communication. People with low sensitivity have a hard time intuitively discerning what another is feeling. It may feel uncaring, but they need more explaining and direct, specific requests to be emotionally supportive. By doing this, you can bridge this gap. When you come home, tell your spouse, I’m feeling very emotional right now, and I would like to talk about this and get your feedback.
If you are a low-sensitivity person, be accepting of your spouse’s sensitivities. Look for evidence, be aware that something is amiss. Ask questions. Listen intently and notice the body language-the tone of their voice. Hey, I notice you are upset. Is everything okay? Is there anything I can do? When they are upset and sharing their feelings that relate to you, listen openly and realize they have genuine feelings even if they are different than yours. Use empathy. This may be out of your comfort zone, but you can become more sensitive to your spouse’s needs this way.
Different sensitives are a part of being an individual. And we all have differing degrees of sensitivity. There is no right or wrong, but there are ways to manage these sensitivities to make conflict more productive and improve your marriage.
Change in Podcast
Before I close this episode out, I wanted to let you know a shift I’m going to make in the podcast. I’ve focused mainly on a female audience and suggested you get your husband to listen. Your husband might feel like it doesn’t apply to him since I address women about their husbands- although all my podcasts apply to both genders. So, with that in mind, I will be addressing both men and women. I hope that helps you feel even more comfortable suggesting to your husband he listens in, too. How cool would it be if you could listen together and discuss it?
Helping Couples and Individuals
Another change in my business is that in addition to working with just women, I’m starting to work with couples as well, so if you think you and your husband can benefit from my VIP program, that is an option. I offer a 6-month program for either an individual or a couple where we look at where you are right now and get you into better patterns to enjoy your marriage more each day. If you want to have a conversation about my program or know more about it, check out my website at reviveyourmidlifemarriage.com. You can get in touch with me for a free consultation to see if my program fits your needs.