Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Gifted adults and relationships: Ten sources of conflict

Why do gifted people struggle in relationships? After all, they can reason their way out of just about anything, have whip-sharp minds, and can look at a problem from almost any angle. What gives?

Gifted adults often endured a childhood marked by social challenges. Some exhibited asynchronous or delayed social development, while others felt "different" or just never found their niche. Worse still, some may have been bullied or teased, and missed out on many of the typical rites of passage children and teens experience.

In addition, gifted social/emotional traits and intellectual strengths don't just disappear during adulthood. Gifted adults still think outside of the box, grasp information at a faster pace, and hunger for intellectual stimulation. They also may have retained some of the social quirks and defenses that developed during childhood and adolescence. All of this can lead to patterns that create problems in adult relationships.

Here are some behaviors and feelings that may put a strain on relationships: 

1. Boredom

Gifted people have little tolerance for boredom in a relationship. This does not mean they will become bored with their partner, but it may be harder for them to find someone who is both an appealing romantic interest and intellectually stimulating. Some gifted adults have a limited number of friends as a result, or have had fewer romantic relationships because of their selectivity. They just cannot tolerate the prospect of being bored.

2. Impatience

Their capacity for quickly grasping information can lead to impatience and frustration with a partner or spouse who is not as capable. Angry, critical or sarcastic comments, a tendency to take charge, or even a pattern of overlooking a partner's contributions can take a toll on any relationship. Sometimes gifted people might even seem arrogant when they become frustrated with others' more pedestrian pace.

3. Pressure to succeed 

The drive to achieve can make life more complicated. It can fuel an extreme, unrelenting focus on the task at hand, or harsh self-criticism when high and sometimes perfectionistic standards are not met. Individuals living under this pressure may neglect their families and friends, value work over social/family relationships, and may be subject to mood swings and irritability.

4. Always needing to be right

Since gifted people usually excel at what they do, some may assume that they always know the correct answer, at least in those areas where they have expertise. A pattern may develop where they must be right in any debate. With their exceptional verbal skills, they can defend their point and relentlessly pursue an argument until they win, or until their opponent (i.e., their partner or spouse) gives up out of frustration.

5. Sense of isolation

Just as in childhood, some gifted adults feel relatively isolated. They view themselves as outliers with few true peers. Sometimes depressed, and often feeling misunderstood, they assume that they have little in common with the general population, and spend a substantial amount of time alone. If they are in a marriage or relationship, they may avoid communicating their feelings because they assume they would not be understood.

6. Feeling awkward and insecure

Some gifted adults retain a self-concept from childhood, and feel like they are in middle school all over again. Their discomfort in social situations can lead to isolation and an avoidance of activities they might actually enjoy. Some may try to mask their fears or offer excuses (I have to work tonight again), but ultimately, their insecurities may limit their ability to find, form and sustain friendships and relationships.

7. A need for alone time

Many gifted individuals are introverted and gain sustenance from time alone. Time to think may be restorative and fuel their creativity and inspiration. But partners may feel left out when their gifted partner retreats, and friends may become frustrated when social invitations are declined.

8. Indulgence in unusual or multiple interests

Since they grasp information with such complexity and depth, and frequently boast multipotentialities, many gifted individuals plunge into varied and sometimes offbeat interests with a startling passion and intensity. When they come up for air, they may notice a frustrated and angry partner, who feels sidelined and ignored.

9. Oversensitivities

Many gifted adults also retain the heightened sensitivities and overexcitabilities that emerged in childhood. Spouses or partners who are less sensitive or reactive may become annoyed when their gifted partner is overwhelmed by too much sensory stimulation, becomes highly emotional, or needs to withdraw to regroup.

10. Existential depression

Gifted individuals may endure periods of existential depression as they grapple with what is meaningful and try to make sense of the world. They may experience feelings of alienation, disillusionment and emptiness, resulting in a sense of despair. As James Webb notes: "The gifted become depressed particularly because their high intellect allows them to contemplate the cosmos and their very small place within it."  Existential depression takes it toll on partners of gifted adults as well, as they may feel helpless in their attempts to offer support. (Note: please seek counseling from a licensed mental health professional when depression arises.)

Clearly, anyone can exhibit the above-mentioned behaviors. Gifted adults are not the only ones who can be impatient, bored, or question the meaning of life. But giftedness may predispose them to these patterns and increase the likelihood that they will unfold in adult relationships.

When both partners are gifted 

While these behaviors can present challenges in any relationship, the situation becomes even more complex when both partners are gifted. And this type of union is likely to occur, since most people are drawn to friends and romantic partners whose IQ falls within a similar range. So both parties bring their emotional reactivity, sensitivity, impatience, and any one of the above possible traits into the relationship. This may call for even greater self-awareness, communications skills, and empathy for each other's needs.

In a future post, I will discuss approaches to addressing relationship conflicts. But until then, several books listed below are recommended:

Bernstein, J. & Magee, S. (2003). Why can't you read my mind? Boston: Da Capo Press.
Gottman, J. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Crown Publishers.
Johnson, S. (2008). Hold me tight. New York: Little, Brown and Co.

This blog is part of the Hoagies Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Relationships. To read more blogs in the hop, click on the following link: