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Relationships

An Unexpected Key to the Most Successful Relationships

A limited degree of indifference may be required for successful relationships.

Key points

  • Sensitivity is important for romantic relationships, but limited indifference is also valuable.
  • Limited indifference is a rational behavior, taking into account a person's priorities.
  • People can't always change a partner’s irritating behaviors, so it can help to be less sensitive to every bothersome characteristic.
Dodokat/Shutterstock
Source: Dodokat/Shutterstock

“When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, Speaking words of wisdom, Let it be." —The Beatles

“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

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

It is often assumed that sensitivity is a pillar of romantic relationships, and for good reason, however, too much romantic sensitivity can overburden a relationship. A limited degree of indifference can be quite valuable. Studies indicate there are continuous differences in an individual’s level of sensitivity and those highly sensitive are more attune to both positive and negative circumstances. Their sadness, as well as their happiness, is more intense.

Highly sensitive people, who constitute about 20 percent of the overall population, are shown in Elaine Aron’s study (2001) to be those who “pick up on subtleties, reflect deeply, and therefore are easily overwhelmed.” It follows, therefore, that 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 partner’s flaws or behaviors; reflect more and, if the signs indicate it, worry about how things are going.” Highly sensitive people are more attuned than others to both positive and negative environmental influences and so are more prone to stress, as well as to empathy.

Romantic sensitivity is valuable only when it is balanced. In the same way that we cannot love everybody, we cannot be sensitive to all our lover’s behavior in the same manner. Romantic sensitivity should focus on the more meaningful aspects that contribute to romantic flourishing. When there is no focus and priority order, it endangers the value of sensitivity and it can even become poisonous.

Romantic sensitivity can be expressed toward one’s partner and toward other possible romantic partners. Over-sensitivity within a romantic relationship can often generate envy, frustration, anger, hostility and mistrust. High sensitivity toward other possible partners can lead the lover to constantly search for “better” romantic options. Such searching is counterproductive since it prevents us from being happy with our own lot and consequently impedes the development of long-term robust love. Coping with these difficulties should require a kind of limited indifference.

Between Sensitivity and Indifference

“The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.” —Elie Wiesel

“The indifference of men, far more than their tyranny, is the torment of women.” —Jules Michelet

“Tolerance is another word for indifference.” —W. Somerset Maugham

The prevailing view criticizes indifference within romantic relationships and considers it as the opposite of love. This view is natural in light of the importance of sensitive behavior within romantic relationships. Indifference usually constitutes a lessened interest in the other. The partner of the indifferent person feels that their lover does not pay them attention and after several failed attempts, usually becomes less interested themselves. Indifference in romantic relationships is associated more with men than women, most likely since women are perceived to be more sensitive.

When bridging the gap between indifference and sensitivity, an optimal attitude is adopting a limited (restricted, moderate) romantic indifference involving coolness, self-control, respect of the partner’s values and acceptance of some of their minor negative traits and behavior. In profound love, this limited indifference concerns marginal traits, such as being disorganized, and not essential traits, such as being inconsiderate and unkind.

Romantic relationships require an order of priority. Limited indifference is a rational behavior that maintains an order of priority while assuming that since we cannot change everything, we should be less sensitive to our partner’s difficult and challenging behavior. This does not mean that we should be blind to our partner’s flaws but that we should be less sensitive to them by attaching less importance to some of their negative traits. Limited indifference can stem from both positive and negative viewpoints — the former attitude where we respect our partner and the latter where we don’t care about them.

Trust requires a limited indifference: being certain that the partner’s deeds are done out of love and good intentions. If we want to conduct a good and healthy relationship, we should learn to be somewhat indifferent toward some behavior and more sensitive to others. If we are attuned to every type of behavior, the mental system becomes preoccupied with unimportant, marginal issues and may be overloaded.

Research suggests that profound lovers do develop such restricted indifference. 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.

A wonderful 1934 love song insists, “Millions of people go by, but they all disappear from view—because I only have eyes for you.” Of course, genuine lovers are not blind to other romantic options, but they are, to some degree, indifferent to them. Profound romantic love decreases the wish to search for other romantic partners. Closing open romantic doors, which requires some kind of limited indifference, is difficult but necessary in a world of limited resources and conflicting values. Trying to enjoy all possible options runs the risk of losing the relationship you are presently in. Love requires great investment; being sensitive to all romantic options can spread the said required investment too thin (Ben-Ze'ev, 2019).

Do You Take Your Lover for Granted?

“Being taken for granted can be a compliment. It means that you’ve become a comfortable, trusted element in another person’s life.” —Joyce Brothers

“My partner has a hot tempter; I am craving a little indifference from him.” —Julia

Marriage counselors have a favorite line: Do not take your partner for granted! There is certainly much wisdom in this advice, especially when it involves romantic intensity. Change and some uncertainty can indeed fan the flames of a dying romance.

When love is profound and trust prevails however, an additional, deeper sense of taking our partner for granted can have the opposite effect. In this case, taking our partner for granted does not express a lack of sensitivity, but rather eliminates the constant worry about whether our partner will leave us. The trust underlying love is not immune to risks, but its fundamental attitude is not that of continuous worry and suspicion. Partners in love view each other positively and optimistically in terms of their romantic bond. Watching over our partners’ shoulders may prevent some minor misdeeds, but can also destroy nurturing romantic depth (Ben-Ze'ev, 2019).

The importance of the limited indifference expresses the value of mental disengagement from minor events, enabling us to focus on the more meaningful ones. Thus, studies indicate the importance of occasional disengaging from the internet in order to be calmer and to be able to focus on one’s work and romantic relationship. Such disengagement expresses a kind of indifference toward ongoing everyday events. Another example is going on a trip abroad in which there is temporary disengagement from our usual environment, enabling us to benefit from calm and dynamic surroundings.

In summary, love involves sensitivity toward our partner, but too much of it and non-discriminative sensitivity can ruin love in that it may ruin our normative order of priority. Adapting such order requires not merely sensitivity, but also restricted indifference, underlying the virtues of tolerance and forgiveness.

Facebook image: Dodokat/Shutterstock

References

Aron, E. (2001). The highly sensitive person in love. Harmony.

Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.

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.

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