Dr Judith Orloff's Blog

Relationship Tips for Highly Sensitive People

Judith Orloff - Friday, July 22, 2011


Adapted from Dr. Judith Orloff’s book,“The Empath's Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People” (Sounds True, 2017)

In my books, "The Empath's Survival Guide" and "Emotional Freedom" I describe emotional empaths as a species unto themselves. Whereas others may thrive on the togetherness of being a couple, for empaths like me, too much togetherness can be difficult, may cause us to bolt. Why? We tend to intuit and absorb our partner's energy, and become overloaded, 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 50 fingers instead of five. Energetically sensitive people unknowingly avoid romantic partnership because deep down they're afraid of getting engulfed. Or else, they feel engulfed when coupled, a nerve-wracking, constrictive way to live. If this isn't understood, empaths can stay perpetually lonely. We want companionship, but, paradoxically, it doesn't feel safe. One empath patient told me, "It helps explain why at 32 I've only had two serious relationships, each lasting less than a year." Once we empaths learn to set boundaries and negotiate our energetic preferences, intimacy becomes possible.

For emotional 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 emotional freedom 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.

With friends it's about half that. With a mate it's variable. Sometimes it's rapture being wrapped in his arms; later I may need to be in a room of my own, shut 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 bled dry by others. Then intimacy can flourish, even if you've felt suffocated before. Prospective mates or family members may seem like emotional vampires 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, you're able to build progressive relationships.

If you're an empath or if the ordinary expectations of coupledom don't jibe with you practice the following tips.

Define your personal space needs

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. 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 3. 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 vibes are sublime, sometimes I'd rather not sense them 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 4. 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.

Tip 5. Take regular mini-breaks

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.

In my medical practice, I've seen this creative approach to relationships save marriages and make ongoing intimacies feel safe, even for emotional 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, emotional freedom in your relationships is possible.


Judith Orloff, MD is author of The Empath's Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, upon which her articles are based. Dr. Orloff is a psychiatrist, an empath, and is on the UCLA Psychiatric Clinical Faculty. She synthesizes the pearls of traditional medicine with cutting edge knowledge of intuition, energy, and spirituality. Dr. Orloff also specializes in treating empaths and highly sensitive people in her private practice. Dr. Orloff’s work has been featured on The Today Show, CNN, the Oprah Magazine and USA Today. She is a New York Times best-selling author of Emotional Freedom, The Power of Surrender, Second Sight, Positive Energy, and Guide to Intuitive Healing. Connect with Judith on  Facebook and  Twitter. To learn more about empaths and her free empath support newsletter as well as Dr. Orloff's books and workshop schedule, visit her website.

Cassandra Wylie commented on 25-Jul-2011 11:40 PM
I'm stunned. You have just described my life. I am a 65 year old LCSW, semi-retired. Once in a relationship my partner really understood and said, "OK,when you need to go in your cave I will stand guard outside and be waiting for you when you want to come
out". That is what I have always needed. I've long ago learned to let my needs be known and to take my space but never before have I put it so totally together as to why most of my intimate relationships end up feeling like burdens. I have worked hard at creating
protective images and boundaries, especially with the work I do. But, with friends, family and lovers it has been much harder. Thank you so much.
Cassandra Wylie commented on 25-Jul-2011 11:43 PM
Do you have other articles on empaths?
Raven commented on 27-Jul-2011 02:47 PM
I am 53 and have been a "super empath" all my life. I even was employed for awhile as a jury selection expert. It was exhausting. I was never wrong about who was going to be elected foreman, I could accurately tell the attorneys I worked for exactly how
each juror voted (if it was not unanimous). I can feel physical and emotional pain of others close to me to the point where I often felt it was my own. Being an empath sucks. Been married 3 times to narcissists before I figured out they existed. Also figured
out my mother and brother had NPD. Mom was emotionally immature and irresponsible. Had to finally expunge them from my life. The only time I am vulnerable to people who are not good for me is when the "chemical reaction" of being "in love" takes over - hence
my bad choices in marriage. Anyway, I found Reiki 12 years ago. I studied and practiced to the Master Teacher Level. I found that by centering in the hara, I have the ability to calm the energy in a noisy room. It will actually quiet down! I also discovered
how to make myself "invisible" in a large crowd. I can "hide" my energy. All these things I figured out pretty much on my own out of mere survival. I now live in a very rural area. I have all the space I need and my plants and animals. Finally! I have always
loved animals and have had tme in my life always. They are my emotional saviors! By the way, no one believes me when I say I am an empath. So I just don't talk about it to anyone anymore. I just stay to myself.
Blaire commented on 25-Aug-2011 05:56 PM
Judith! I love your work and love your Spirit. Your words, educating empaths and non-empaths alike are such beautiful blessings filled with strength and love! Blaire Allison Intuitive Heart Healer http://www.loveguru.net
Celticwoman61 commented on 12-Feb-2012 07:17 PM
Why am I only learning this stuff now at age 51? My face should be next to yours Ms. Orloff on the cover of your book! I grew up an "only" AND a military Brat; told I was too sensitive and a hypochondriac; isolate myself because it can hurt to be around
groups; super sensitive to smells and sounds/noise....you get the idea. Oh...and I went into law enforcement first and my "gifts" were a mixed blessing as you can only imagine and decided it made more more sense to become a NURSE! I didn't say I was smart!
Needless to say, if a patient says "you have no idea how bad this hurts!", um, ya I really do! I am trying to find guidance in learning to channel my gifts in a healthy manner for my survival. I know this begins by LISTENING and tuning into me! I just ordered
2 of your books and pray I can learn to live a peaceful life. PS If "Raven" sees this post...I would love to visit with you. We sound like kindred souls....
Lin commented on 20-Mar-2012 09:47 AM
A friend recently introduced me to your work and its fascinating and explains So Much. I have always struggled with this and am super sensitive. It makes so much sense! Thank you so very much for your heart, mind and spirit.
Anonymous commented on 17-May-2012 11:57 AM
God has brought me to this website and for that I am grateful.
burberry outlet online commented on 16-Jul-2012 10:41 PM
Every morning is a rebirth. A day in the most important thing is that we have to do.
Karen commented on 12-Aug-2012 10:38 AM
OMG you just described my life!!! I have for so long tried to be like "!everyone else" and fit in a "normal" relationship and "normal" friendships, but I easily feel so invaded that I need to retreat. If I dont I get depressed and so on. Finaly Im starting
to accept my self and let my self be different and make a life for my self that fits me. Sorry for any misspelling, Im Danish. Best regards, Karen, 30 years old
Corey commented on 23-Aug-2012 10:42 PM
Great to see so many empaths recognized and/or recognizing themselves here. It is further noteworthy that they all appear to be female. I am a male empath and I don't have the 'space' issues described by Dr. Orloff, perhaps because I am a strong extrovert.
That said, dating is VERY hard for me. I have been on dozens of dates over the past year and I'm starting to feel exhausted, depressed... lonely. I know that on a first date, I give too readily, and I read into the other person to attentively. I track the
other person's expression, their body language... it's exhausting and I quickly build resentment towards someone who isn't giving as much to the process as I am. The trouble is, I am sure it comes across to the other person, made worse by the fact that I am
always the one trying too hard. Conversely, I too am scared off by someone who seems to be working just as hard. It sounds hypocritical, but finding an intelligent, attractive woman who values this level of empathy... just seems impossible. If I'm trying too
hard, I feel judged. If they are trying so hard... I usually find a package of someone who is emotionally erratic or otherwise irresponsible and/or undependable.
Starlight commented on 02-Feb-2013 11:50 AM
Today, in one afternoon, I learned that I am HSP and of course an empath - which i sort of knew but never really researched.Thank you for helping me understand why relationships are so hard for me, yet my heart breaks if they end. I love the space when my partner travels, but feel guilty about it - now i understand it's because i don't have to deal with his aura as well, as he's extrovert and needs lots of attention. This weekend i am alone, with all kids away too, and i now understand why alone time, with my dog and cats only, are such bliss - guilt free at last.
Anonymous commented on 16-Mar-2013 04:49 AM
One hundred times over, this is me! Over past week having researched on google reasons for my daughters excitability, i came full circle and realised it wasn't her but my traits as a HSP that were the problem. Excited to learn more! Reassured that other people feel the samed its not just me.
Nideko commented on 23-Mar-2013 02:40 AM
Thank you so much for this article! It fills me with hope again. I think I have been unconsciously closing up for relationships, because indeed every time I felt like my space was invaded and I couldn't breathe and definitely couldn't sleep next to the person. I even thought that maybe I am just not meant to be in a relationship, a lonely place to be. This is helping me open my heart again and see that it doesn't have to be black or white, that there are ways to actually make it work. Thanks again for all your work and articles that always really resonate!
ann commented on 29-Apr-2013 05:51 AM
Wow, this describes me BIG TIME! Finally I have a word for what goes on with me, and finally I know I am not alone... Thanks!
Jim Hallowes commented on 22-May-2013 03:27 PM
I do a lot of work with HSPs, men and women, in my Coaching practice and deal with their relationship challenges. I have a few tips, too, like for example I suggest to HSP guys to have a rehearsed opening line (Like "Hello, I like you scarf") and equally, if not more, important is a closing line like: "It's been a pleasure meeting you and you seem like a person that I'd like to get to know better, are you available to get a coffee or tea Thursday or Friday?" I say this because one observation that both HSP, and non-HSP, women have made to me is the sensitive guy sometimes just walks off and never asks for a phone number or email to contact her and they're frustrated, but don't want, and aren't comfortable, "being the man and the pursuing." Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or have a comment on what I said.
All the best, Jim
Gaby commented on 09-Dec-2013 03:32 AM
Benjamin and I have been very serious for over 15 months. Constant situations where my feelings get hurt for reasons that he considers "extremely sensitive" occur. It is hard for me to keep my base level of happiness when my aura enmeshes with his, and I let go of my ego. We may be breaking up. Truthfully, we've each proven ourselves very worthy of one another's love, but the fruits of our labors together only taste sweet for so long before emotions of disappointment flare. I hope that there's hope for us. I don't know if there's anything that can be done anymore. Helpful feedback could be helpful.
Anonymous commented on 16-Apr-2014 04:28 PM
I am wondering if you ever give credit to Elaine Aron who wrote the Highly Sensitive Person as your work looks like you just lifted it directly from her books. Everything you describe she has already written about and her book on the Highly Sensitive Person in Love was the original work in this area about HSP's and their love relationships.
Doug commented on 28-May-2014 08:02 PM
Is there any literature availible for parners of HPS individuals?
Anonymous commented on 24-Jul-2014 10:04 AM
Is it NORMAL for me, as a HSP, to question my happy relationship with my boyfriend of 2 years? I am constantly asking myself, "Is he the right one?" "Do I want to be with him?" If I'm not with him will I feel free"? I love him very much, so why do these questions constantly come into my head?
linda commented on 04-Nov-2014 08:51 AM
Im a 54 yr old Australian Empath... I want to live in Ravens woodshed..please... except I cant fly as it involves being in a confined space with freaked out souls..I want to live in the middle of nowhere with animals.. I cant even have a fish where I am..grow my own food.. sounds like heaven..this was before I knew what I am..now it looks like the Universe has other plans for me. darn it.
Ahmad commented on 12-Jan-2015 08:25 PM
I'm ahmed 26 years old and just discovered the reasons of all what happened to me in me life from 3 days .. I'm HSP and now i feel so comfortable by understanding my self more and more every day thank god then thank you for this topic ... Love you all and when say it here i mean it in the way you understand it :).
Maria commented on 10-May-2015 01:37 PM
This was a pretty amazing read.... describes me to a T. I'm close to 40 and have only had two serious relationships. A 5-year marriage and a 2.5 year blissful miracle. LOL.

I can't seem to find where I'm comfortable with a partner anymore. I want monogamy without sleepovers.. I want closeness with space. Thank you for this article... it just might help me navigate the future :)
Connie commented on 20-Jul-2015 09:39 PM
I think a chat room would be great to discuss our issues. I felt connected to Raven. I was married for 23 yrs but he was not home much. I have been divorced 8 yrs and have only dated one person and I felt smothered. I ended it because of this. When we sat on the sofa his leg had to be touching mine. If I moved away he ask what was wrong etc. I just couldn't take it.
abnormalgirl commented on 23-Jul-2015 11:43 PM
I found out I was HSP last year, around the time I met my extrovert boyfriend. I've explained alot about it, and read him lots of articles, and yet I still don't think he wants to accept that it's just how I am. He wants to make me like him, which is what he considers normal. He was sweet the first year, anything to support me, but now he's getting irritated, and nothing I do is right, because he's afraid I'm right about the HSP thing (which I am of course). I'm not an empath, but the one empath I know doesn't seem to understand monogamy, as I've heard many empaths don't. Any thoughts on that one? I need monogamy.
MJ commented on 13-Aug-2015 08:33 PM
Wow I just stumbled onto this and I am soaking everything up like a sponge. I have always felt so alone. Others always want me to come out and be sociable. I have many friends but always want to spend time alone. I live in the middle of nowhere with nature and animals.
I have a mate who I care deeply about, however, when I am with him I feel like he's drawing energy from me. I am relieved when he goes away. I go away for two week visits to help my loved ones in other states, but tend to want to solve all their problems for them. I get overwhelmed so easily when things aren't calm. So glad I found you. Thank you thank you so much!
Jjm commented on 10-Oct-2015 09:55 PM
Only just recently discovered that I am an empath. I never even heard of it, until I was involved with a female empath, who knows that she is empath. It was an incredibly confusing relationship!! She thought she was feeling my feelings as her own, when in fact, she was feeling her own feelings that I was getting from her!! I never actually looked into it myself, believing that I probably didn't ihave the same thing as her ability.
One of the most difficult things I run into, being a male empath, is that I often seem to overwhelm the women that I date. I am too willing to give far too much too early and never really understood why. I have no idea how many times I have went from potential mate to best friend.. Or the other thing, I've been a walking mat far too many times, without understanding why I put up with it.
Cuc commented on 05-Nov-2015 11:26 AM
Whish I knew this before my marriage broke apart, I just recently found out about HSP's and it explains a lot since both my wife and I are one, I didn't understand neither my self nor her...
Alejandra commented on 27-Mar-2016 02:26 PM
I feel so glad and relieved after learning about sensitivity and empaths. I thought i was a very traumatized person condemned to ending up exhausted and upset (blaming myself and other times people) after sharing a time surrounded by people.Now i know i can have a comfortable social and work life just by setting this boundaries that in other times i thought were kind of rude. Thank you sooo much Judith.
Pat commented on 07-May-2017 12:45 AM
Truely, an eye opening experience for me and l am still reading. Yes, a much needed revelation in an area mostly ignored. Concepts of local support groups is ideal.
Wonderful , much needed, work . Dr. Keep,up the good work.
Kudos to you and your staff. And there is always much more to learn and grow. Thank you again.
As, a man with both conditions, l am always here to dialogue with any one who,wants to talk.
Chrissy commented on 06-Jul-2017 07:27 AM
Wow! I am 60 years old and only now after searching on the internet come across Judith's book. The Empaths Survival Guide. I am waiting for this to be delivered in the next few days. Thank you Dr Judith. I wish we had Drs here in UK like Dr Judith, it would help people like us a lot.

I live in UK so a lot of our therapist here are not as open on this subject, they label us, but after reading the treats of an empath... Wow! I fit in every category. I suppose it is like coming home, because all my life I never fitted in with my family.

I understand I am An EMPATH-MEDIUM.

Growing up for me was so hard, as well as my empath traits I saw and felt things that no other family member did and was told by my Mum to shut up and don't talk that way, so I learnt to repress my gifts. It felt for many many years like a curse having these gifts ,but now I am leaning to embrace them.

I understand I am HSP too ,if anyone who reads this can help me understand if being an Empath is similar to being HSP, I would appreciate it.

I have no friends more so since people knowing about my gifts. I decided to write a book and start my healing. I suppose we have to go down the painful path to get to the good in our life. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

I find it hard to be in any groups because all my life I have been open and anytime I try and close myself down and think of anything to do with the spirit realm ,I am switched back on.

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