Sensible Indifference Is the New Romantic Sensitivity
Why sensitivity is not always a virtue
Posted Mar 15, 2020
“We also often add to our pain and suffering by being overly sensitive, over-reacting to minor things, and sometimes taking things too personally.” Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama
Considered a glittering jewel in the romantic crown, sensitivity enjoys high regard in the romantic arena. Its opposite, indifference, is quite maligned in romantic relations. Yet, in my recent book, The Arch of Love, I claim that moderate sensitivity and sensible indifference are essential to enduring romantic love. Too much romantic sensitivity can overburden a relationship. A degree of indifference is particularly valuable when coping with an imperfect partner and an abundance of enticing romantic options.
“Do not give in too much to feelings. An overly sensitive heart is an unhappy possession on this shaky earth.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
"Idle youth, enslaved to everything; by being too sensitive I have wasted my life." Arthur Rimbaud
Sensitivity refers to being easily offended or excited. Elaine Aron (2001) discusses highly sensitive people, who constitute about 20 percent of the overall population. She characterizes these people as those who “pick up on subtleties, reflect deeply, and therefore are easily overwhelmed.” So, when highly sensitive people are in love, “they will tend to demand more depth in their relationships in order to be satisfied; see more threatening consequences in their partners’ flaws or behaviors; reflect more and, if the signs indicate it, worry about how things are going.” Highly sensitive people are more sensitive than others to both positive and negative environmental influences; thus, they are more prone to stress, as well as to empathy.
Greater sensitivity can then be expressed in a more acute cognition (“pick up on subtleties”), greater evaluative weight (“reflect deeply”), and a stronger tendency, or motivation, to act (“are easily overwhelmed”). Is there an optimal level of romantic sensitivity?
From a simplistic perspective, the more sensitive one is, the more relevant information one will detect and the better one’s romantic relationship will be. The many clear cases of excessive, harmful sensitivity, however, indicate the inadequacy of this view. Thus, greater knowledge does not always increase the quality of a relationship. Sometimes, romantic ignorance can be quite beneficial. In this respect, Francois de La Rochefoucauld argued that "In friendship as well as in love, ignorance often contributes more to our happiness than knowledge." Likewise, assigning excessive importance to everything is destructive. If we deal with a penny as we would a million dollars, sensitivity overloads us with irrelevant and even harmful “noise.” Similarly, it is destructive to respond in an identical way to every one of our partner’s misdeeds.
“Love me or hate me, but spare me your indifference.” Libbie Fudim
“The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.” Elie Wiesel
Indifference, which is characterized by a lack of interest, concern, and sympathy, seems to be the opposite of love – in which interest, concern, and sympathy are vital elements. Extreme indifference, like extreme sensitivity, is destructive and is the converse of emotionality. Unlike emotional people, indifferent people are unresponsive to changes in their situation; they remain unmoved in the face of such changes. When we are indifferent to someone, we experience no emotion about him/her, and no inclination to either help or hinder that person. In emotions, we are neither neutral nor indifferent, but have a significant personal stake. In a world whose events are perceived to occur completely independent of the influence of human beings, indifference rather than emotional excitement would be the prevailing mood.
It is worth mentioning that I am not calling for total indifference. Rather, I am arguing against extreme sensitivity (and indifference) and suggesting a stance of “sensible indifference.” It is clear that an attitude of complete indifference is not suitable for romantic relations, which ought to be defined by mutual care. However, it should be equally obvious that extreme sensitivity is also unsuitable for such relations.
Two major types of romantic sensitivity are: (1) those directed at one’s partner, and (2) those directed at other possible partners. I argue that sensible indifference is valuable in both cases.
Sensible indifference toward one’s romantic partner
“It is a glorious thing to be indifferent to suffering, but only to one's own suffering.” Robert Lynd
Sensitivity toward one’s partner is of great importance since it enables lovers to know each other and to bring out the best from each other. Romantic sensitivity toward the partner means not only knowing the partner but also decreasing the significance of the partner’s flaws and increasing the weight of the partner’s advantages. This aspect is expressed in the presence of positive illusions.
Sometimes, it is indeed advantageous to somewhat disregard, or be a bit indifferent toward, the partner’s flaws. Positive illusions are often a self-fulfilled prophecy. The promise of everlasting love prompts lovers to believe in the possibility of such love. Positive illusions also lead to higher motivation, greater persistence in tasks, more effective performance, and ultimately greater success. Thus, a positive view of the self or the partner typically leads a person to work harder and longer on tasks. The same goes for optimism that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, the unrealistic nature of positive illusions can also be harmful in that it impedes our ability to cope with the real problems that arise in intimate relationships.
Romantic relationships require some balance of positive illusions, on the one hand, and accurate knowledge, on the other. A common way to cope with this complexity is to assign different aspects a different level of importance. Thus, we can see our always-tardy partner as wonderful overall but still acknowledge the negativity of a specific quality, such as her lack of punctuality (Neff & Karney, 2005). While lovers cannot be cognitively blind to the (inevitable) flaws of their partners, assigning the relative weight for such flaws and acting accordingly is, to a great extent, in the hands of each lover. Doing this will be a great step in acquiring sensible indifference.
Developing sensible indifference to your partner’s behavior relates to the issue of trust. If you trust your beloved, you will be less likely to worry endlessly about insignificant flaws or inappropriate deeds. Trust requires a degree of indifference—being certain that the other acts out of love and good intentions. Certainly, trust has to be gained. However, it ought not to be constantly inspected. We should not be blind, or at least not be completely blind, to some of our partner’s flaws, but we should also be less sensitive to them by according to them minor weight.
We cannot conduct our lives properly if we treat everything as equally important; we must have some order of priority. We must learn to be somewhat indifferent to some issues and sensitive to others; otherwise, our mental system will become overwhelmed. Love involves being sensitive to the beloved. Too much sensitivity, however, can ruin love; indiscriminate sensitivity, like indiscriminate freedom, disrupts our order of priorities. Romantic sensitivity works best within limits. Just as I cannot love everyone, I cannot be sensitive in the same degree and manner to all my beloved’s characteristics and behaviors. Romantic sensitivity should focus on the most meaningful and relevant aspects involved in romantic thriving. Without such focus and prioritization, sensitivity can become toxic.
Sensible indifference toward other possible partners
“Millions of people go by, but they all disappear from view—because I only have eyes for you.” The Flamingos
The above mentioned wonderful love song from the 1930s, written by Al Dubin, presents a great romantic ideal. Of course, committed lovers do not suffer from a cognitive deficiency (lovers are not blind to other romantic options), but they do experience an evaluative change of focus (lovers are less attracted to such options). Profound romantic love suppresses the desire to seek mates, but it does not wholly eliminate the desire for other romantic options.
Romantic sensitivity can be expressed not merely toward one’s partner but also toward other possible romantic partners. Such sensitivity can lead the lover into a constant search for a better romantic option. This search, which is often futile, makes you dissatisfied with your own romantic lot and accordingly impedes the development of long-term robust love. Human curiosity makes us sensitive to every open romantic door, tempting us to enter, so as not to miss any option. Trying to enjoy all options runs the risk of losing the relationship you are presently in. Closing some open doors, which requires some kind of indifference toward these tempting doors, is difficult but necessary in a world of limited resources and conflicting values. Love requires great investment; being sensitive to all romantic options can spread the required investment too thin.
Research suggests that profound lovers do develop such restricted sensitivity. Garth Fletcher and colleagues (2015) argue that people in highly committed relationships tend to perceive attractive individuals as less appealing than those who are not committed or are single. To defuse the threat of a romantic alternative, individuals in more committed relationships downplay the attractiveness of other potential partners. The authors conclude that certain cognitive biases operate as effective strategies that suppress mate-search processes and strengthen established relationship bonds.
"My biggest weakness is my sensitivity. I am too sensitive a person." Mike Tyson (A former heavyweight champion of the world)
Sensitivity is indeed the hallmark of emotions, and its role in love is significant. Love involves being sensitive to the beloved. However, too much sensitivity, or indiscriminate sensitivity, can destroy love, as it disrupts our normative order of priorities. Adhering to that order requires not merely sensitivity, but also sensible indifference.
Notably, I am not suggesting apathy, which is a lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern, and hence not being willing to make any effort to change things. Sensible indifference is still sensitivity—but one that is shaped by our profound values. Today, we are flooded with intense exciting options, making the maintenance of long-term relations difficult. A sensible degree of indifference toward one’s partner’s flaws and mistakes, as well as toward alluring options, can go a long way toward the sustaining of these relations.
This post is part of my recent book, The Arc of Love: How Our Romantic Lives Change over Time.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.
Aron, E. (2001). The highly sensitive person in love. Harmony.
Fletcher, G. J., Simpson, J. A., Campbell, L., & Overall, N. C. (2015). Pair-bonding, romantic love, and evolution: The curious case of homo sapiens. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 20-36.
Neff, L. A., & Karney, B. R. (2005). To know you is to love you: The implications of global adoration and specific accuracy for marital relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 480-497.