Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: August 2010
The research I presented in Israel was part of data gathered on several groups of couples about their relationship satisfaction and how bored or “stuck in a rut” they were. We already knew from a long-term study that married couples who felt bored seven years into their relationship, compared to those who did not, were less satisfied with their marriage sixteen years into it. We decided to see if sensitivity might predict some of this boredom, so that couples might be warned about that specifically and do something about it.
By the way, when the question of what I was presenting came up in conversations, I would say that it was a study finding that sensitive people are more bored in their relationships. Then I would hear back, “How interesting–sensitive people are more boring.” I said no, they are more bored. Ah, what we have to deal with!
I actually described three studies in my presentation. The first involved 42 couples who took the HSP Scale on one day and on another day filled out standard measures of introversion, neuroticism, self-esteem, and marital satisfaction, plus boredom versus excitement in their relationship. (This was on different days so that they did not guess the reason they were being asked all of this.) There was a strong, statistically significant relationship between marital boredom and being an HSP, and this was only stronger when we removed the effects (statistically “partialing out”) of introversion, neuroticism, self-esteem, and even closeness, commitment, and general marital satisfaction.
That is, being highly sensitive was associated with boredom whether or not a person was introverted, for example, and no matter how close to their spouse and satisfied with the relationship. To me this means that most of us when with non-HSPs seem to accept and adapt to being bored at times.
We replicated this with another sample and found the same results. Interestingly, in both studies the results were slightly stronger for sensitive women than for sensitive men.
In the third study we also asked some of the questions other researchers might ask about exactly why HSPs were more bored. One reason (unlikely, we knew) might be that they wanted to do more exciting things in the outer world. So this time we asked, “If you were with someone you liked but felt bored, would the solution be that the two of you go out and see or do something new?”
Another possibility, the one we predicted, was that they wanted to go deeper. So we also asked, “When you are bored in a close relationship, is it usually because you wish the conversation were deeper or more personally meaningful?” If that was the case, we wanted to see if that was related to this question: “Do you like to spend time reflecting or thinking about the meaning of your experience?” Not surprisingly, HSPs generally said they wished the conversation was more meaningful, and that this liking to reflect was most of the explanation (best statistical “path”) for this wish.
What Can You Do About This?
Since this data suggests that most of us have already made peace with this and could still be satisfied with the relationship, the question is what to do about our boredom. But if you have not accepted the situation, remember this is due to temperament. You cannot expect it to change. There are things you cannot do easily because of your temperament, and things the other cannot do. This is one of the latter.
One solution is to find a sensitive friend with whom to have those conversations. However, you may also find that if you initiate a deeper conversation with a non-sensitive friend or partner, he or she will love it, even if you think you already know what he or she will say. Your ability to “go deep” is one of those things you bring to a relationship without expecting very much in return. Your pleasure is providing it. If you were a gourmet cook, you would enjoy making some stunning meals for the two of you, but would not expect the other to cook this well.
Further, you may be surprised how well they can do if you let go of your definition of what’s “gourmet” and let them try without shaming them for their failures. In particular, the other person can give you insights about yourself from his or her perspective, which you can never have. The other is also the only one who can tell you about his or her inner workings, and while these may be less “rich and complex” by somebody’s standards, all humans are infinitely interesting, especially when you love them. As a therapist especially, I often feel that the entire universe, or one entire universe, is inside every person, if only I ask the right questions. You could explore it forever and never reach its ends, at least with the tools for exploration that we now have.
By the way, even in relationships with other HSPs, we HSPs can be bored. This may be because such pairs spend too much of their time together in “down time,” just relaxing or enjoying the ease that comes with being two HSPs. They do each other the kindness of not being stimulating, but being under stimulated is as unpleasant as being over stimulated. This leads to a risk that an HSP may find another relationship more interesting and feel less and less drawn to the company of their co-HSP. They need to make the effort to do something else together besides enjoying down time.
Most people at most times in their life would like to feel that they are expanding, growing, learning. When we first fall in love, we feel we are expanding rapidly in every way and that is part of why it feels so wonderful. This slows down as we spend more time together, but if you do not feel it at all with your partner, the relationship is going to slip away. For a non-HSP, this might mean learning a new sport together, which you might also do with your non-HSP sometimes. But as an HSP you need to lead sometimes, and expand together in the HSP way, by reflecting together on the meaning of life or otherwise “going deep,” either emotionally or intellectually or both. From what I hear from non-HSPs, this is one of the best things we do for them.
A few ideas to get you started, but as an HSP you will have many more yourself!
- Discuss a recent experience where you were together and something meaningful happened for you–see if the other reacted to the same thing or is interested in what you experienced.
- Tell each other your dreams, get to know how to understand them.
- Read poetry together.
- Discuss your personal goals in life and how you can help each other achieve them.
- If you are interested in Jungian types (introverted, extraverted, intuition, sensing, etc.), dip into his Vol. 6 of his collected works, where he talks about them at length, and learn more about each other’s types.
- Learn to meditate together.
- Go on a retreat together.
- Attend a “liberal” church (Catholic if you have never been, or an unusual Protestant group such as Quakers), synagogue, or mosque–whatever would be new for you. Liberal because they are more likely to welcome visitors from another religion. Call ahead to see if you will be welcome and if there’s anything you should know to do when you are there or anything you could read ahead of time to orient you.
- Read something “spiritual” together. I like Martin Buber’s “I Thou” and some of Thomas Merton. And of course scriptures. Karen Armstrong if you like religious history and philosophy. But there is a lot out there.
- Sing songs or hymns that move you.