Growing up, when my family went on trips, I’d often sleep on the bathroom floor of our hotel room to get as far away as possible from my dad’s freight-train-esque snoring. When we were all in the car together, I’d go berserk if my mom was chewing, nay smacking, gum. And don’t even get me started on how often I was nearly brought to tears as a result of simply hearing my parents chomp on their food.
My name’s Rachel and I have misophonia. For the uninitiated, misophonia describes a severe sensitivity to specific trigger sounds. And though there’s not yet enough research on the term (which has only been formally recognized for a few years) to classify how common it is, one small 2017 study did point out that sufferers displayed negative physical and emotional responses when triggered. That’s likely because for them (and me), being subjected to the sounds—which can include smacking on food, slurping, heavy breathing, and beyond—leads to a fight-or-flight, anxiety-filled reaction in the person who just can’t deal. “Misophonia is similar to anxiety in that they both tap into the same neurophysiological systems, causing one to experience stress,” says Novena Riojas, LCSW, licensed psychotherapist. “There aren’t a lot of treatments available; however, I believe there are ways a person can cope.”
Well, I’m all ears (unless you’re chewing, snoring, or breathing), because for me, misophonia is especially severe when the culprit is someone especially close to me. The newest recipient of my death stares and sound freak-outs happens to be my darling boyfriend. (Sorry, D.) We moved in together a few months ago, and I’ve loved every minute, except for the minutes when he’s chewing on food. Or breathing loudly. Or sleeping (he snores). AKA…when he lives his life. So, how can I keep my death stares and sound freak-outs from sabotaging my romantic relationship?
“You can tolerate it at some capacity, so you have to learn how to not let it hold you back from doing things you want to do.” —Jennifer Silvershein, LCSW
First, says clinical psychologist Jennifer Silvershein, LCSW, I can give myself a break because I got pretty far in life without even knowing misophonia was even a real thing other people experienced. (I always thought I was alone and crazy with my sound sensitivities.) “You’ve lived for many years without a label on it—so clearly you can survive,” she tells me. “You can tolerate it at some capacity, so you have to learn how to not let it hold you back from doing things you want to do.” Well. Easier said than done.
Really though, to make sure your partner doesn’t end up hating you for hating them for breathing, tolerance is the name of the game. “It’s about caring for yourself and knowing when something is really triggering for you,” says Silvershein. “It’s like if you know watching a scary movie gives you nightmares—then you’re less likely to watch one.” For misophonia, that can mean removing yourself from the room. Or putting on headphones. Or turning the volume (way) up on your TV. Or making sure you go to sleep first.
I’ve tried all of those tactics, and to be honest, sometimes it’s hard to practice tolerance without first shaming my totally innocent boyfriend with some gratuitous side-eye or by snapping at him to stop whatever sound he’s making. Obviously, that’s not the recommended course of action. “You don’t want to be shaming him,” says Silvershein. “It can get in the way and lead to so many issues in the relationship. If your breathing annoyed the shit out of him, you probably wouldn’t feel comfortable breathing.” Fair point. So the key is to shift your behavioral reaction, which you can theoretically control, toward yourself and not your beau.
The key is to shift your behavioral reaction, which you can theoretically control, toward yourself and not your beau.
Riojas says communication about how misophonia affects you is always helpful, too—but when it’s done respectfully and in a healthy way. (Ever since I brought the issue up to my boyfriend, he’s been way more conscientious and understanding.) Stress coping mechanisms can also help, she adds. “Practice meditation, mind-centering, and relaxation to reduce stress.” And it makes sense that getting upset about loud banana chewing is more likely to happen you’ve had a bad day, #amirite?
Also, since you know your trigger sounds well enough that the mere thought of them can make your skin crawl, Silvershein recommends classifying them by which make you least annoyed and which fill you to the brim with rage. That way you can differentiate between what’s the worst and what you can handle, hold yourself accountable to that, and also share the intel with your loved ones.
From there, think of ways to work together—maybe your partner can eat chips when you’re not home, for instance. Or you can use a white-noise machine when you’re sleeping (my personal recommendation). “It all comes down to figuring out how to tolerate the noises. Because you’re not looking to isolate yourself,” says Silvershein.
Yeah, I’d prefer to keep my relationship and not break up over his breathing or chewing, thanks. I suppose increasing tolerance is the name of the game. And to my poor, stupid ears: sorry, but it’s time to deal.