My husband and I appear to be pretty similar. We are both tall, skinny and have easy-going temperaments.  There are however some very distinct differences between us. These can most clearly be seen in our underwear drawers.

Opening my husband’s underwear drawer you will find neatly folded, colour coded undies in orderly piles. There is also a specific rotation procedure in place, ensuring that all undies are worn systematically. Opening my underwear drawer, chaos is unleashed. There is no order, there is no colour coding and there is certainly nothing resembling neat piles.

Are one of us right and the other one wrong in our approach to underwear orderliness?

Nope, we just have different sensory thresholds. My husband has a low visual threshold meaning that he functions optimally with minimal visual input and may become easily overwhelmed by visually chaotic and cluttered environments. I, on the other hand, have a high sensory threshold. I thrive on an abundance of visual input. Give me colours, give me shapes, give me visual variety.

So what happens when you are in a relationship with someone with a different sensory threshold to you?

Well, it can sometimes create subconscious stress and lead to a fight or flight response. Fight or flight refers to the physiological changes that our bodies undergo in response to stress. This includes an increase in blood pressure, accelerated heart and lung function as well as suppression of the immune system. On a subconscious level, the brain of a low threshold individual may feel threatened when exposed to certain sensory input. The brain responds to this potential ‘threat’ through a stress response. This response prepares the body to ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ (i.e. run away). You can imagine the negative impact on our day-to-day functioning if one is constantly experiencing underlying stress in response to sensory stimuli in the environment. Practically, this response can lead to irritation and frustration which, in a relationship, has the potential to result in conflict.

Before I had insight into my husband’s sensory threshold, I thought he was sometimes just a big old grump! He would be moody about things that did not even register on my radar. What I realise now, is that he is not choosing to be a grump. Instead, his body is undergoing a response to the sensory input in the environment, which he has no control over. This is a subconscious reaction and not a conscious one.

What helped me come to this realisation was when we both completed and compared sensory profiles. Suddenly we developed a whole new understanding and respect for each other. We now better understand our sensory differences and similarities. We have also come to know and respect each other’s sensory needs and sensory stressors.

Practically, what does this mean?

Well, in our case, when I sort our underwear from the laundry. I make sure that his undies are neatly folded, colour coded and in orderly piles. I also comply with the strict undies systematic rotation procedure. This keeps my husband happy; which in turn keeps me happy. And, I guess this keeps his undies happy too.

By Karen Potgieter