How Differences in Perception Can Make or Break Your Relationship

Ever been left bewildered by a partner, who seemed to perceive the exact same situation differently to you?

I don’t mean he had a different opinion about it. I mean his senses literally seemed to take it in differently?

Pots in the kitchen clang in the background. You jump out of your skin; he doesn’t bat an eyelid.

You go out for a night on the town. You can’t wait to enjoy the music and let loose with a dance. He seems overwhelmed.

You jump with raucous excitement when your favorite song comes on the radio. He doesn’t bat an eyelid.

You might think nothing of this. You might put it down to the difference between the genders or individuals.

But there’s more to it.

In fact, these seemingly innocuous differences in perception have a powerful ability to predict relationship success.

In 1997, an Occupational Therapist with a PhD from the University of Kansas, named Winifred Dunne, created a model to explain how adults perceive the world.

In it, she examined two separate, but equally important, factors.sensory_continuum

First, she examined their neurological threshold. How sensitive is an individual is to perceiving stimuli? More simply…

How much of what goes on around them do they notice?

But this explained sensory perception only on a subconscious level.

She examined a second factor – the individual’s self-regulated response style. Dunne found that some people take an active approach to managing their stimulation, while others were passive. More simply…

How did the individual consciously respond to high or low levels of stimuli?

These two factors, when placed in a quadrant, combine to create four styles in which individuals perceive and respond to the world – and the result has a big effect on your chances of relationship success.

The “Oblivious” (Low registering/passive)

If you’re system isn’t sensitive to stimuli AND you’re passive in the way you handle that fact, it means it takes a lot to rouse you and you don’t do much about it. In other words – your neurological system is quite OK with the low levels of stimulation it interprets.

The potential problems

If it’s you:depositphotos_45103393_l-2015optimised

If you’re a low-registering/passive, you risk your intimate partner feeling unloved, because they will feel like they have to move mountains to get you to respond or emote. Little things they do or subtle communications that they’re upset could be missed by you. Your emotional unresponsiveness can be perceived as you not caring.

If it’s your partner:

The same is true in reverse. When you date a man who is low-registering/passive, it’s likely you’ll feel distant from him. Sufferers of PTSD often exhibit this pattern. The unresponsive cool needed to survive in the trenches is a pattern and response style that leaves romantic partners feeling lonely and unloved.

What you can do about it:

If it’s you:

If you realise you’re a low registering/passive, you must focus on being attentive to your partner. The small nuances in their behavior, the little things they do that give away how they’re feeling. Adding an extra level of awareness ensures your partner feels valued and loved.

If it’s your partner:

There is always hope for a partner who can become aware of, and own, his problem. Communicating to him how you feel, without blaming him for those feelings, brings him to the table and raises his awareness of what he can do to help. Failing that, psychology and counselling is a powerful facilitator for healing unresponsive partners.

The “Thrill Seeker” (Low registering/active)

Some people have systems that are unresponsive to stimuli but which enjoy being stimulated. If this is you, you probably love spontaneity, adventure and find predictability in life very boring. A low registration/active person finds the excitement in life – they literally need it to balance out their unresponsive brain!

The potential problems

If it’s you:depositphotos_5827632_l-2015optimised

If you don’t recognise that you’re low registering/active and design your lifestyle to accommodate, the easiest way for a bored mind to find new excitement is with sex. Fantasies about sexually infidelity and constant thoughts about other men will consume you – even if you don’t act on them.

If it’s your partner:

A low registering/active partner needs adventure and excitement. If the relationship does not provide it, they too may become bored and look for adventure outside of it.

What you can do about it

If it’s you:

If you believe you fit the low registering/active pattern, a two-pronged approach to managing your lifestyle is best.

depositphotos_56232729_l-2015optimisedFirst, set time in your schedule with your partner for adventure. From a spontaneous date to an overseas holiday, it’s important you have excitement to look forward to.

Second, communicate to your partner new and exciting things you’d like to do with him sexually. Odds are, he’ll be excited to please you in a whole new way.

If it’s your partner:

If your partner fits this style it’s important to actively facilitate his need for excitement. Build spontaneity and adventure into your lifestyle and ask about his fantasies. A cheeky rendezvous in a public space might be outside your comfort zone, but it’s a selfless act that could be exactly what he needs.

The ‘Easily Distracted’ (High registering/passive)

When you perceive sensory stimulus easily, you come under the classification of ‘high registering’. The higher registering you are, the more you notice what goes on around you.

If your system is OK with this level of stimulation, you’ll take a passive approach to managing it. You’ll embrace your sensitivity. You’ll be observant, talk about things you see around you, and often flit from one idea to the next. This is the domain of the high registering/passive.

The potential problems

If it’s you:

In intimate relationships, you may depositphotos_25013165_l-2015optimisedstruggle to complete tasks. This can lead to constant frustration and stress (for both you and your partner) because things simply don’t get done.

In extreme cases, you may struggle to pay attention to your partner when they need it, because your attention keeps getting stolen by outside factors.

If it’s your partner:

When you need you partner to stop and listen you may find their attention unreliable – constantly taken away by things you view as small and irrelevant. You may also grow frustrated at your partner’s inability to complete tasks around the house or in his own life, because he’s constantly getting sidetracked by distractions.

What you can do about it

If it’s you:

Play a more active role in your environment. Particularly, when you’re trying to complete a task or pay attention to your partner, remove potential distractions. Turn off the TV, put your phone on airplane mode, and set specific times (I will do “X” between 8pm and 8:30pm) to give yourself structure in focusing your attention.

If it’s your partner:

Express your feelings to your partner, without blaming him for them, thus helping him to help you by acknowledging his distractive ways. The more he can become aware of it, the more he’ll be able to work on improving it by removing distractions and focusing his attention on you or the task at hand.

The ‘Stressy’ (High registering/active)

depositphotos_4748447_l-2015optimisedWhen your nervous system is high registering, but is not apt to dealing with it, you come under the classification of high-registering/active. You probably jump more than most people when a loud noise occurs and prefer to stick to your habits and rules, because it makes the world more predictable, thereby decreasing the chances of encountering harassing new stimuli.

The potential problems

If it’s you:

If you’re a high registering/active, your general stress levels and need to control the environment can leave an undertone of anxiety throughout the relationship. If it’s more severe, your stress can communicate to your partner, leaving both of you in a perpetually anxious state over what new challenge may next come your way.

If it’s your partner:

Depending on your own registration style, your partner’s constant need to take away exciting and unpredictable stimuli could be the opposite of what you need, leaving you feeling bored, controlled, and resentful.


depositphotos_65517063_l-2015optimisedWhat you can do about it

If it’s you:

Even though your nervous system may object, the best thing you can do is intentionally expose yourself to higher stimuli activities, thus decreasing your registration threshold.

Suggest to your partner you have a night out at the club, have a spontaneous trip to the theme-park or sky dive from 14,000 feet. The more you expose your system to extreme stimuli, the better it will cope with the day-to-day nuances that come with life, and the more comfortable you’ll be outside of your routine.

If it’s your partner:

Similar to other patterns, communicate to your partner about your own feelings (without blaming him) and speak to him about how he may be able to help you with them. The hope is that he volunteers to do things a little out of his comfort zone as a greater service to you.

Still not sure where you might fit into all this, or just want more information?

Unfortunately – due to their complexity – sensory profiles (assessed using the Adolescent/Adult Sensory Profile) can only be assessed in person by a registered occupational therapist. An example is here.

If you’ve been finding that differences in the way you and your partner perceive things is causing drama in your relationship, or if anything else you’ve read here has struck a chord with you, I’d encourage you to book an appointment with a local Occupation Therapist to have both of your sensory profiles assessed. It will prove invaluable in the new understanding it will bring to your relationship.

In the meantime, becoming aware of your likely sensory profile will give you a new perspective on your relationship problems and better allow you to understand what both you and your partner need from one another to achieve long-lasting fulfillment.

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