Can There Be Too Much Romantic Sensitivity?

In praise of limited insensitivity

Posted Apr 09, 2015

“Your words can crush things that are unseen
So please be careful with me, I'm sensitive
And I'd like to stay that way.” Jewel

Sensitivity is often praised as one of the most important pillars of a good romantic relationship. Although this is indeed the case, too much romantic sensitivity can overburden a relationship. How then can we find the optimal balance of sensitivity in the complex romantic realm?

Types of sensitivities

“Idle youth, enslaved to everything; by being too sensitive I have wasted my life.” Arthur Rimbaud

Sensitivity has various shades of meaning: two such major types are (a) understanding how people feel, and accordingly being careful not to hurt (and even promote) them, and (b) having strong emotional reactions that are relatively easily evoked. Thus, we may say that a person is sensitive enough to understand the uniqueness of his partner and their loving relationship, and is careful to respect them both. We may also say that a person is very sensitive in the sense that he often feels hurt by his partner, who may sometimes perceived to be insensitive either to him or their relationship. The two types of sensitivity are similar in that both detect meaningful environmental information and react accordingly. They differ, however, in their focus of concern: the other and their relationship, or the self. The focus of concern in the more cognitive, understanding type of sensitivity is the other and their relationship; the agent understands the other and their relationship and is concerned with their thriving. The focus of concern in the behavioral, reactive type of sensitivity is the agent; the agent understands the implications of the other’s behavior toward her and accordingly its impact on their relationship, and reacts intensely.

The highly sensitive person

"My biggest weakness is my sensitivity. I am too sensitive a person." Mike Tyson (A former heavyweight champion of the world)

Both these types of sensitivity are evident in highly sensitive people. In her valuable book, The Highly Sensitive Person in Love, Elaine Aron discusses Highly Sensitive People (HSP), 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.” Aron suggests that these people are characterized by their greater sensitivity to stimuli, the depth and the longer duration of their processing, and overstimulation which is expressed in more intense emotional reactions. 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. The high sensitivity of these people has many benefits and hence it has been described as vantage sensitivity, which affords some advantages, particularly concerning these people's comprehensive perspective (Pluess & Belsky, 2013).

Can there be too much romantic sensitivity?

“We also often add to our pain and suffering by being overly sensitive, overreacting to minor things, and sometimes taking things too personally.” Tenzin Gyatso, The 14th Dalai Lama

Romantic sensitivity involves both types of sensitivity: understanding and reactive. And both are essential for enhancing the quality of romantic relationships. The combination of the two in romantic relationships is particularly challenging and complex and raises the question: is there an optimal level of romantic sensitivity?

A simplistic view might be that the more sensitive you are, the more relevant information you will detect, and the better your romantic relationship will be. One difficulty with this view is that greater knowledge does not always increase the quality of a relationship. Sometimes, romantic ignorance can be quite beneficial. Thus, Francois de La Rochefoucauld argues that “In friendship as well as love, ignorance very often contributes more to our happiness than knowledge.” Romantic relationships require a measure of positive illusions and accurate knowledge (Ben-Ze’ev & Goussinsky, 2008). But romantic ignorance is valuable only in limited circumstances and only for some people; in general, the adage "to know you is to love you" is more applicable for profound love as knowledge usually enables greater understanding and therefore deeper sensitivity toward the other. There are, however, personal and contextual variations in this regard.

The value of greater knowledge does not imply the value of dwelling upon the unpleasant flaws of the beloved. Extensive rumination on matters we cannot change merely increases the pain and can blow matters out of proportion. Coping with the complexity of love is not easy: sometimes we need to open our eyes and sometimes to close them. Constant sleep is not a solution—it is rather a complete surrender; equally, over-alertness can cause us endless pain. Sometimes we have to remember and sometimes we need to forget. As Ingrid Bergman rightly noted, "Happiness is good health and a bad memory" (see here).

I believe that a somewhat similar position should be advocated concerning emotional sensitivity. Romantic sensitivity functions best when it is within limits. This is true concerning the cognitive aspect and it is even truer concerning the reactive aspect. The limits are more valuable in the reactive type of sensitivity, which can be more harmful to the lovers and is more within the lover’s control. Like emotions in general, discrimination should be exercised in romantic sensitivity. Just as I cannot love everyone, I cannot be sensitive in the same degree and manner to all the beloved’s characteristics and behavior.

Romantic sensitivity should focus upon the most meaningful and relevant aspects involved in romantic thriving. Being unfocused, with no order of priority, may risk the value of the given sensitivity, and even makes it toxic. If you deal with a penny like you would with a fortune, sensitivity becomes indiscriminate and will quickly overload the agent with irrelevant and even destructive noise. When it comes to romantic sensitivity, it is often the case that up to a certain point "the more the merrier," but after that "it is too much of a good thing."

What to do?

“He was a gentle and sensitive soul, and therefore had a short temper, which is why he went straight after everything with an ax...” Bohumil Hrabal, in I Served the King of England

What should we do in order to reduce the harm caused by being too sensitive? How can we limit our romantic sensitivity? The ways to do so should take into account the distinction between the understanding type of sensitivity and the reactive type. Whereas managing the first sensitivity is essentially cognitive, managing the other sensitivity is mainly evaluative. The two kinds of sensitivity are essential to our wellbeing in general and romantic thriving in particular; however, managing the evaluating component is more beneficial. This is so beacause (a) our evaluations are more essential for determining our behavior than mere information, and (b) bestowing value is more voluntary than detecting information. Thus, it is hard not to notice certain flaws in the beloved, but it is easier to bestow lesser weight (value) to these flaws, while bestowing greater weight to the beloved’s strengths. Accordingly, at the heart of romantic sensitivity should be value bestowal and not information detection.

Value bestowal—that is, giving different weights to various properties—is a way to steer the romantic heart. It does not necessarily involve deception; rather, it expresses an order of priority. Consider, for example, the model of global adoration and specific accuracy in romantic relationships that has been proposed by Lisa Neff and Benjamin Karney (2005). In this model, spouses demonstrate a positive bias in their global perception of their partners, such as seeing them as "wonderful," yet are able to display greater accuracy in their perception of their partners’ specific attributes, such as being unpunctual. In this model, spousal love is a hierarchically organized experience giving different relative weight to the various characteristics. Spouses rate their positive global perceptions as being more important for the relationship than their negative specific perceptions. In this manner, an accurate perception of one's partner's specific traits and abilities would not interfere with the global belief that one's partner is a wonderful person. Romantic sensitivity should be similar: be sensitive to the more global (and profound) positive properties, and be less sensitive to specific (and superficial) ones. Being sensitive to each insignificant property or deed of the beloved may be too much of a good thing.

I do not recommend disregarding little things, as little things often mean a lot (see here), and sometimes what may be seen as a minor misdeed in itself, may be very harmful for the relationship. However, not every assessment of a minor deed should be correlated to the overall evaluation of the beloved. We can tolerate some wrongdoings or flaws while still believing in the overall positive value of the beloved. Only in utterly perfect people, if such people exist, would such a correlation be found; in most if not all of us, our love is based upon differential weights that we give to less and more profound qualities.

The same goes for searching for a romantic partner. A common practice in this regard is that of establishing a checklist of desired (and undesired) qualities in a perfect partner and marking down beside each quality on the list whether it is an attribute of a prospective candidate. In this manner, sensitivity is not discriminative, and each quality receives equal weight; hence, it ignores the complexity of romantic profundity. It would be better to give different relative weights to various properties. Thus, one should be less sensitive to the hair color of the other, and very sensitive to profound properties that bring out the best in each other (see here).

Concluding remarks

“Do not give in too much to feelings. An overly sensitive heart is an unhappy possession on this shaky earth.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

We have seen that there can be too much romantic sensitivity, and such sensitivity mainly concerns the evaluative reaction to the beloved’s deeds. Here limited insensitivity is often recommended. If you trust your beloved, why should you ruminate about some of her seemingly insignificant flaws or her inappropriate deeds? If those deeds express more profound flaws threatening to ruin the whole relationship, such as inattention to the lover’s needs, sensitivity is in place. However, as each lover is different from the other, and since each of us makes mistakes, we should choose to be more sensitive about the more profound qualities. We should not be blind, or at least not completely blind, to minor flaws, but be less sensitive to them by considering them to be of minor weight. The recommended manner is a greater sensitivity within structured boundaries.

We cannot conduct our lives properly if we give everything the same importance; we must have some order of priority. We must learn to be insensitive to some issues and to be more sensitive to others. Otherwise, our mental system will become occupied with unimportant issues and will be overwhelmed. In a similar manner, we cannot remember all the information we receive during a day; we retain only the meaningful data. Sensitivity is indeed the hallmark of emotions and its role in love is significant. Being in love involves being sensitive to the beloved. However, too much sensitivity can ruin love; indiscriminate sensitivity, like indiscriminate freedom, is problematic as it disrupts our order of priorities, which is structured according to our personality and values.

Aron, E. (2001). The highly sensitive person in love: Understanding and managing Relationships when the world overwhelms you. Harmony.

Ben-Ze'ev, A. & Goussinsky, R. (2008). In the name of love: Romantic Ideology and its victims. Oxford University Press.

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.

Pluess, M., & Belsky, J. (2013). Vantage sensitivity: Individual differences in response to positive experiences. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 901-916.