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Living with a highly sensitive partner

Neil Rosenthal
Vail CO, Colorado

Dear Neil: I have a big problem with the lady I love and who I have been living with for the past year. If I try to express that something bothers me, she gets reactive, defensive, angry and aggressive in response. Here’s how a typical such conversation goes: Me: “Last night you were 45 minutes late. I’m annoyed with that.” Her: “It wasn’t me who set a 6 p.m. dinner reservation. That was you, and it was too early.” Me: “Didn’t you have a 6 p.m. dinner with your cousin earlier this week?” Her: “Oh, so I’m not supposed to have dinner with anyone else anymore, is that it?” This type of conversation wears me out. I cannot figure out a way to be heard and have my needs responded to in a friendly way. Can you help?

” At The End of My Rope in Atlanta

Dear Atlanta: Some people react very strongly to a complaint, a criticism or to a request. That reaction makes it difficult for their intimate partners to be able to talk with them about what irritates or bothers them, or what needs they have that aren’t being met.

This can be a real struggle for a couple. What begins as a simple conversation about one person’s needs or feelings can quickly turn into a full-fledged battle. Marriage therapists John and Julie Gottman, in their book “Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage,” have the following suggestions in order to solve this dilemma:

– Listen carefully to the words your partner is saying when stating a need or making a request. Your partner may not be as critical as you first think.

– Be aware of times that you automatically react by defending yourself. Can you think of a different reaction instead?

– See what happens when you take a deep breath and agree. (“OK. Let’s balance the checkbook tonight.”)

– Rephrase the complaint so that complainer knows you understand. “So you’re upset because I am an hour late.”

– Ask questions for a better understanding “You say you want more of my attention. Do you feel as if we don’t spend enough time together?”

– Acknowledge the feelings behind your partner’s complaint. (Rather than defend yourself) “I forgot it was Valentine’s Day. You must feel hurt and angry.”

– Take responsibility for the problem. “You’re right. I should have been nicer to your mom.”

– Share responsibly for the problem. (Rather than blame the problem on the other person) “We haven’t been able to afford a vacation in two years. Maybe we should work out a better budget.”

– Focus on a specific problem, tackling one at a time. “You set your glass on the coffee table last night and now there’s a ring.”

– Focus on the present. “You said you would help our son with his homework, but you’re still watching TV.”

– Focus on your partner’s actions and how those actions make you feel. “I thought we were going to have a romantic evening together and you invited your mother over. I feel hurt and disappointed.”

– Tell your partner about your needs and desires. “I feel so tired. I’d like to just cuddle. Maybe tomorrow we can make love.”

– Pick a time to complain about the problem when your partner is able to listen and respond.

– Take care to avoid criticism when stating your needs.

– Respond to defensiveness by clarifying your need. (“I’d like to balance the checkbook to make sure we don’t get overdrawn.”)

Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Denver and Boulder, specializing in how people strengthen their intimate relationships. He can be reached at (303) 758-8777, or e-mail him from his website, heartrelationships.com.


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