In my psychiatric practice and workshops I’ve seen many highly sensitive people called empaths who unknowingly absorb the stress and pain of others, including their partners.
Intimate relationships are a challenge for empaths because they are emotional sponges and tend to get overwhelmed very easily. Without being aware of it, they avoid romantic partnerships and intimacy because deep down they’re afraid of getting engulfed. Or else, they feel engulfed when coupled—a nerve-wracking way to live.
I can relate to this because I am an empath.
Empaths are a species unto themselves. Whereas others may thrive on the togetherness of being a couple, for empaths like me, too much togetherness can be hard to take and may cause us to bolt. Why? We tend to intuit and absorb our partner’s emotions and become anxious or exhausted when we don’t have time to decompress in our own space.
We’re super-responders; our sensory experience of relationship is the equivalent of feeling objects with fifty fingers instead of five.
For empaths to be at ease in a relationship, the traditional paradigm for coupling must be redefined. Most of all, this means asserting your personal space needs—the physical and time limits you set with someone so you don’t feel they’re on top of you. Empaths can’t fully experience intimacy with another until they do this. Your space needs can vary with your situation, upbringing, and culture. My ideal distance to keep in public is at least an arm’s length. In doctors’ waiting rooms I’ll pile my purse and folders on the seats beside me to keep others away.
One boyfriend who truly grasped the concept got me a “Keep Out” sign for my study door! For me, this was a sign of true love.
All of us have an invisible energetic border that sets a comfort level. Identifying and communicating yours will prevent you from being drained by others. Then intimacy can flourish, even if you’ve felt suffocated before. Prospective mates or family members may seem too much to take when you don’t know how to broach the issue of personal space. You may need to educate others—make clear that this isn’t about not loving them—but get the discussion going. Once you can do this, you’re able to build progressive relationships.
If you’re a relationship empath or if the ordinary expectations of coupledom don’t jibe with you, the following tips can help you to define your personal space.
Tip 1: What to say to a potential mate
As you’re getting to know someone, share that you’re a sensitive person, that you periodically need quiet time. The right partner will be understanding; the wrong person will put you down for being “overly sensitive,” and won’t respect your need.
Tip 2: Take adequate alone time to replenish yourself
Empaths require private downtime to regroup. Even a brief escape prevents emotional overload. Retreat for five minutes into the bathroom with the door shut. Take a stroll around the block. Read in a separate room. One patient told her boyfriend, “I need to disappear into a quiet room for ten minutes at a party, even if I’m having fun,” a form of self-care that he supports.
Tip 3: Learn to set clear limits and boundaries.
For instance say, “I really prefer staying in tonight instead of going to a party.” or “I’d prefer to spend some quiet time instead of having the TV on.”
Tip 4: Clarify your preferred sleep style
Traditionally, partners sleep in the same bed. However, some empaths never get used to this, no matter how caring a mate. Nothing personal; they just like their own sleep space. Speak up about your preferences. Feeling trapped in bed with someone, not getting a good night’s rest, is torture. Energy fields blend during sleep, which can overstimulate empaths. So, discuss options with your mate. Separate beds. Separate rooms. Sleeping together a few nights a week. Because non-empaths may feel lonely sleeping alone, make compromises when possible.
Tip 5: Negotiate your square footage needs
You may be thrilled about your beloved until you live together. Experiment with creative living conditions so your home isn’t a prison. Breathing room is mandatory. Ask yourself, “What space arrangements are optimal?” Having an area to retreat to, even if it’s a closet? A room divider? Separate bathrooms? Separate houses?
I prefer having my own bedroom/office to retreat to. I also can see the beauty of separate wings or adjacent houses if affordable. Here’s why: conversations, scents, coughing, movement can feel intrusive. Even if my partner’s energy is sublime, sometimes I’d rather not sense the person even if they’re only hovering near me. I’m not just being finicky; it’s about maintaining well-being if I live with someone
Tip 6: Travel wisely
Traveling with someone, you may want to have separate space too. Whether my companion is romantic or not, I’ll always have adjoining rooms with my own bathroom. If sharing a room is the only option, hanging a sheet as a room divider will help. “Out of sight” may make the heart grow fonder.
I’ve seen this creative approach to relationships save marriages and make ongoing intimacies feel safe, even for relationship empaths (of all ages) who’ve been lonely and haven’t had a long-term partner before. Once you’re able to articulate your needs, being comfortable in an intimate relationship is possible.
The above is adapted from The Ecstasy of Surrender: 12 Surprising Ways Letting Go Can Empower Your Life Harmony Books, 2014 by Judith Orloff MD.
Bonus: The Introvert & Extrovert Myth.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Judith Orloff
Editor: Renee Picard
Image: Mariana Amorim at Flickr