Managing Sensory Mismatching
©Arlene R. Taylor PhD www.arlenetaylor.org
If I’d heard it once, I’d heard it 100 times. Same record. Same song. Sure the jacket covers, labels, and package shapes were different, but basically it was the same old refrain: “I’m not in love with my partner any more.”
By way of introduction, the pair had blurted out, “We’ve decided to split up, and we want to figure out why we didn’t stay in love so we don’t make the same mistakes with our next partners.”
Initially I just stared at them with a deer-in-the-headlights look as they continued, “So we’re here to take the thinking styles assessment!” There had been several times in the past when I’d administered the assessment only to hear comments such as: “This information might have prevented our divorce!” Or, “If only I’d known this I think we’d still be together!” Or, “I wish I’d understood this sooner...”
But this was the first time partners were sitting in front of me, obviously planning to separate and just as obviously asking for help with new partners—neither of whom they had even met as yet!
“What is your main frustration?” I asked, wiping the astonishment from my face.
They looked at each other and shrugged. Finally one partner said, “There’s no spark anymore.”
“Yeah,” added the other. “That excited feeling in the pit of my stomach has disappeared.”
I wanted to say: “What a relief! Personally, I’ve never really liked the sensation of being on the verge of up-chucking!” But I restrained myself.
Instead I said, “That could give you the opportunity to really get down to the business of choosing to love each other without the interference of a chemical tsunami.” This time they had the deer-in-the-headlights look.
“Do you love each other?” I threw the question into the stunned silence. They nodded. No chuckles now.
“Do you have any other major concerns, other than not having perpetually queasy stomachs?” I asked.
Another pause. “Miscommunication of some sort,” they replied in unison, and then burst out laughing as if they were indeed best friends.
“In that case,” I replied, “that makes three things you both agree on:
- You love each other but are no longer “in love”
- You want to avoid the same mistakes with new partners
- You believe miscommunication is a major issue”
Their duet of “That’s it in a nutshell” triggered another peal of laughter.
When I asked for their definition of love, one partner said it was a feeling. The other described it as an emotion.
“My brain’s opinion is that love is neither,” I said. “Love is not something you get and then have for the rest of your life. It is an experience that you create on an on-going basis. An experience that grows out of the actions you choose to exhibit. In that sense, love is a verb. Emotions and feelings follow the actions you chose to take.”
That prompted some lively discussion. As our time drew to a close I gave them two assignments: complete the thinking styles assessment (BTSA), and write down three specific actions each had enjoyed receiving from the other during courtship. “When,” I added, “you were ‘in love’ and presumably were experiencing some queasiness in the pit of your stomachs.” They chuckled, albeit a bit uncertainly. I wanted to remind them that there was no guarantee that new partners would be a better match, and that all things being equal there could be some benefit in honing what they had. I decided to put those comments on hold for the time being.
A week later, their assessment data scored and interpreted, I had a fairly clear idea of what might be contributing factors. Human beings communicate through the sensory systems. By adulthood, the brain has typically organized into a sensory preference. That is, overall it tends to register one type of sensory stimuli more quickly than other types.
The following table shows the raw data from their Sensory Preference Assessment, with a score of 21 being possible in each category.
|Sensory System||Partner X||Partner Y|
Their scores indicated that visual sensory stimuli registered most quickly for Partner X’s brain, while auditory stimuli registered most quickly in Partner Y’s brain.
During the courtship period and for some time afterwards, partners often exhibit what I refer to as whole-brain nurturing. They use all three sensory systems to help them achieve their goal of partnering. They pay attention to how they look and compliment each other, they speak words of affection and affirmation, and they touch each other with gentleness and flirtatious intimacy. Unless partners consciously take steps to keep variety and excitement in the relationship, the chemical tsunami that results from the sexual attraction that is part of many courtship interactions rarely lasts more than 18-24 months. The queasiness in the pit of their stomach might not continue, but the nurturing could promote a sense of “being in love.”
Eventually (sometimes as soon as the ink has dried on the marriage license or partner certificate) whole-brain nurturing drops off, and partners begin to relate to each other primarily in their own sensory preference. When preferences match, each brain quickly registers a sense of being loved, affirmed, and cared for. When sensory preferences differ, one individual may believe he/she is affirming the other but the sensory stimuli provided may not be registering very high on the sensory Richter scale in the partner’s brain.
At our next appointment, their lists of “three enjoyed actions” confirmed their individual sensory preferences:
|Partner X enjoyed||Partner Y enjoyed|
| || |
| || |
| || |
Partner X enjoyed things that could be “seen” with the eyes while Partner Y preferred activities related to “sound.” When I asked them how many times during the past week each had given those three (or similar) gifts to the other, there was a moment of uncomfortable silence followed by some rather sheepish body language.
“So you love each other but have not made a point of doing something for your partner every day that is matched to their sensory preference. Is they correct?” They nodded. “You’re right,” I continued. “Miscommunication does appear to be an issue, and it involves sensory mismatching.”
The questions tumbled out. Was their situation unique? Could anything be done about the mismatch? Should they just settle for being best friends and forget the excitement? And so on.
I explained that estimates place approximately 60% of adults as having a visual sensory preference, with auditory and kinesthetic preferences each coming in at about 20%. This means that many partners will have differing sensory preferences. That isn’t necessarily good or bad, but it is what it is. The issue isn’t to try to alter one’s sensory preference, rather simply to do something every day that provides sensory nurturing to one’s partner in their particular sensory preference. That helps their brain to feel loved, cherished, and even excited about spending time with the other individual.
“It might be helpful to think of sensory nurturing as the edging on a blanket that you both share,” I suggested. The moment edging begins to fray it needs to be repaired, or it can all unravel, and the blanket can be ruined. Nurturing each other every day in your partner’s sensory preference, especially when that preference differs from yours, can prevent the blanket edging from unraveling. It’s like buying “blanket insurance.”
That was as far as I got because they began to talk, gesture, and smile excitedly. And they were still going strong when they walked out the door. Watching them getting a handle on what they could do to manage their sensory mismatching, I wished every couple would “get it” as quickly as these two had. Who knew? Maybe they would even choose to stay together!