As an empath, I’ve been single a long time in my life. Too much togetherness always seemed overwhelming to me. I wanted love, but I would experience sensory overload when I was in an intimate relationship.
Then things changed. I met my partner of over four years. Though it’s been one of the best growth and love experiences of my life, I’m still adjusting to being in an intimate relationship—a big stretch for me.
As I discuss in “The Empath’s Survival Guide,” like many empaths, I have a strong hermit side, and I’m not used to interacting with someone each day. I require a huge, psychic space around me so I can breathe.
I need my quiet time and to replenish myself alone—not with other people. That’s why too much togetherness can put me on sensory overload. I also can’t take crowds, yelling, chronic talkers, loud voices and sounds, or strong scents. I’m an emotional sponge who absorbs the stress and negativity from others—including my partner—into my own body.
This can be exhausting if I don’t practice self-care.
But, I also absorb other people’s joy, compassion, and loving-kindness, which feels marvelous. I love nature. I love baths and the sound of the ocean. I love candlelight and Leonard Cohen.
Until I met my partner, I was mainly single, except for occasional short-term love relationships.
Typically, I’d bolt out of these relationships by year two, because I’d feel overwhelmed and suffocated from interacting with someone so much.
I wasn’t able to be fiercely honest about my emotional and energetic needs—which is so necessary for empaths in relationships. So I kept a lot of emotions inside until they became unbearable. At that point, all I knew was that I yearned for my safe, low-stimulation cave of aloneness, where I could find my own comfort level again.
My current relationship is different. This man respects and understands my sensitivities as an empath (as much as any non-empath can). I’m more honest with him, and he’s more accepting.
I adore his loving heart, sexy exterior, love of nature, and high emotional intelligence. And we truly love and are devoted to each other.
Even so, the struggle I face as an empath in an intimate relationship is that my deep desire for love and connection conflicts with my deep desire to be alone.
I’ve been torn in this way my entire life—a programming that runs deep within me.
When I was single, I’d long for a soul-mate. When I was in a relationship, I’d get overwhelmed and long to escape.
It was a painful puzzle of conflicting needs that was hard to solve. Growing up as an only child, and then becoming a writer, have contributed to my intense desire for solitude. Still, this programming feels many lifetimes old and is hard to crack.
After all these years, I’ve probably met “The One,” and I really don’t want to blow it. We’re living together now, which is a gigantic leap for me (not for him). I haven’t lived with anyone since the '90s!
And empaths are not the easiest people to live with. We have Princess and the Pea-like sensibilities that could drive other people crazy, though our needs feel natural to us. But, by some miracle, my sensitivities don’t drive him crazy and he wants to understand and honor them.
Day by day, we’re loving each other. We make progress and we make mistakes. But we keep getting closer as we find our way in love.
These are nine lessons I’ve learned so far about being an empath in an intimate relationship:
- I need to carve out alone time every day to feel sane and happy.
- I need to sleep alone, frequently, so I can have the uninterrupted space to rest and dream.
- I need to do my work, which includes writing my books and seeing patients in my psychotherapy practice—both bring me great joy.
- I need to be honest with my partner about my feelings and anxieties when I am overwhelmed by my emotions.
- I need to hear his needs and make compromises that we both can live with.
- I need to grow beyond my comfort level and try to tolerate my anxiety about living with someone without bolting.
- I need to feel his commitment and devotion to me and know he won’t leave me as I find my way with him.
- I need to play, be in nature, and interpret my dreams every night.
- When I’m anxious or overloaded, or feel I just can’t do this, I need to stay in the moment. I need to breathe, regroup, sleep, talk to a friend, take alone time, meditate, and find my center again.
As you can see, my experiment with intimacy is a work in progress.
I’ve always yearned for this kind of soul-stretching, but it has always felt “too hard” to change my habits, kind of like turning the Titanic. It’s taken most of my life to feel ready. I see intimate relationships as a spiritual path—but they aren’t for everyone. I can understand the advantages of a monastic path, the path of being single, and any path that involves more of a solitary theme.
In contrast, intimate relationships are about bonding, companionship, passion, and having someone who calls you outside to watch the beauty of the moon, to travel with, to share your feelings with, to ride the currents of each day with, for however long your destiny is together.
If you are an empath, or if you’re in love with one, I hope my experiment with being an empath in an intimate relationship helps you. For me, it’s uncharted terrain, but it is a beautiful and worthy journey of discovery that keeps unfolding each day.
Adapted from The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People by Judith Orloff, M.D., which is a guidebook for empaths and all caring people who want to keep their hearts open in an often-insensitive world.