3. Getting Too Much-Not Getting It - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
Go to content

Main menu:

3. Getting Too Much-Not Getting It

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Odd Off Different-Cpl

Off, Odd, Different… Special? Learning Disabilities, ADHD, Aspergers Syndrome, and Giftedness in Couples and Couple Therapy

Faith as opposed to Brody who seems not to get it, may be arguably considered to be it too much.  Brody really got technical and engineering stuff.  He was so into technology that he burst with information.  He got such stuff both because of exceptional aptitude and driven curiosity.  However, he did not get emotional issues.  As lousy as he was with emotional matters, Faith was as extremely adept sensing others feelings.  It was not immediately clear whether Faith was especially sensitive and tuned into others because she was gifted in this way, because she had been supported to and learned to become interpersonally aware, or because of some combination of these and other attributes and experiences.  Most people who meet or know Faith think she is great- a special person.  They find her blessed with great social skills- perhaps, even gifted.  They do not however, see the other side of her social gifts.  Others may incorrectly assume individuals have no negative consequences from being gifted in any of many ways.  As children they may be academically precocious… and bored.  They may have creative perspectives about lessons or projects that come into conflict with teachers' or supervisors' goals.  Possessing great curiosity, they may have little time or opportunity to explore and experiment in structured situations.  The gifted, especially profoundly gifted individuals are often misunderstood and have trouble fitting in.  They may seem uncooperative.  Rita Dickinson (1970) found half the children she tested with IQ scores of 132 or above were referred for behavior problems and not seen as gifted by their teachers or parents.  Misunderstandings and misinterpretations abound by adults and by other children when younger, and continue with peers when grown up.  Profoundly gifted individuals often feel they are not understood by or can relate to other people.  They're often correct.  What and whoever not understood is considered odd.  And, odd or different- even special often becomes feared.  Worse, misunderstood people and things may be attacked.

Cognitive skills and creativity are two types of giftedness.  What Renzulli (1984) calls schoolhouse giftedness may be considered test-taking or lesson-learning giftedness and most easily measured by IQ or other cognitive ability tests.  The abilities people display on IQ and aptitude tests are exactly what is most valued in traditional school learning situations.  Brody in addition to his quirkiness was definitely gifted in this manner academically/intellectually and in his field of interest.  Regarding software engineering challenges, he also was gifted in the second type.  The second type, creative/productive giftedness looks beyond the top 3 to 5% of the normal bell curve of population distribution.  Renzulli cited research founding no significant IQ differences between professionals (mathematicians, chemists, psychologists, and research scientists) judged exceptional versus those judged more pedestrian.  However, there were differences in personality measures assessing for creativity.  Gifted individuals gather disparate bytes of knowledge in unique constellations in innovative problem-solving ways.  "Creative/productive giftedness describes those aspects of human activity and involvement where a premium is placed on the development of original material and/or products that are purposely designed to have an impact on one or more target audiences… History tells us that it has been the creative and productive people of the world, the producers rather than consumers of knowledge, the reconstructionists of thought in all areas of human endeavor, that have become recognized as 'truly gifted' individuals.  History does not remember persons who merely scored high on IQ tests and/or learned their lessons well" (Renzulli, page 65-66).

Creativity may be sufficiently distinctive to identify gifted individuals.  "Whenever a person is creative, he is being non-traditional because he is doing something in a way that is different than it is ordinarily done.  Such non-traditional behaviors, though, often make others uncomfortable because they see the creative person being different or even peculiar, and their reaction is to withdraw from that person" (Kerr and Nicpon, 2008, p.18).  Creativity or giftedness although valued often goes again social norms and threatens conformity.  Social isolation, avoidance or shunning may result and precede other forms of victimization of gifted individuals.  People tend to be more alert to physical forms of aggression and bullying, often minimizing verbal teasing, taunting, or bullying as "just kidding."  Individuals with high verbal skills and in conceptualizing situations or problems may be especially prone to using verbal aggression, perhaps to gain self-worth or in retaliation for being bullied.  Gifted individuals often experience and interpret situations differently and feel compelled to adamantly share their resultant solutions.  On the National Association for Gifted Children (2008) website under Peer Relationships/Social Skills/Bullies has pointers (as applicable for adults) on "How Not to Make Friends," cautioning gifted children to refrain from.  This list can easily become a list for  "How Not to Treat Your Partner."

being bossy

telling others how to play

telling others they are doing things wrong

being too intense or serious most of the time

talking about themselves a lot

being negative, using ridicule or sarcasm


Believing and knowing they are correct, they feel entitled to persist asserting themselves.  They do not understand why others, initially family and peers, but later in particular their partners don't accept their recommendations.  Or, why others are annoyed or angry when they insist on telling them again.  Verbal assertiveness can evolve into verbal bullying. They may arrogantly flaunt intellectual and verbal superiority and bully peers or partners of average ability, as a defense against feelings of inadequacy from being misfits.  Verbal fluency, cognitive agility, and psychological insight become the weapons of choice and necessity of some gifted individuals against tormentors, perceived inferiors, and enemies.  The defensive offense however may be applied to partners to the detriment of the relationship, including divorce in marriages.

Which areas are gifted depends on the combination of what Lovecky (2004) describes as three aspects of giftedness.  "Giftedness can be defined… as cognition (precocious development, high cognitive ability, reasoning ability, creative ability); conation (high motivation, a passion to master), and emotion (intense emotional experiences, sensitivity, compassion and empathy).  These aspects of cognition, conation and emotion are not really independent of each other.  Creativity, for example, requires ability, a problem to work on, an intense desire to know the answer to the problem, and a passion to overcome obstacles to find out the answer" (p.38).  Conation may be the most distinguishing aspect between very bright individuals with mediocre performance versus noteworthy geniuses.  Motivation may separate gifted "but" individuals ("He's so bright, but…" "She was so outstanding, but… didn't") from gifted and successful individuals.  "While the ability for cognitive learning is in the brain, the motivation for learning, for inner growth, for self actualization is emotional and is in the heart.  Gifted children are often driven to learn.  The drive is emotional; the ability to learn is cognitive" (Roeper, 2008).  In a review of the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert (Ericsson, et al), David Dobbs wrote, "So what does create genius or extreme talent? Musicians have an old joke about this: How do you get to Carnegie Hall from here?  Practise.  A sober look at any field shows that the top performers are rarely more gifted than the also-rans, but they almost invariably outwork them.  This doesn't mean that some people aren't more athletic or smarter than others.  The elite are elite partly because they have some genetic gifts - for learning and hand-eye coordination, for instance - but the very best rise because they take great pains to maximise that gift (2006).  A natural gift of intense motivation or its acquisition may be the key characteristic or ability to whether individuals produce gifted performances.  An individual sometimes describes deeply loving the passion of a problematic partner and simultaneously, finding the passion annoying or disturbing at times.  The non-gifted partner often can recognize that the same drive that makes the partner successful (academically, professionally, artistically, and so forth) and attractive sometimes goes over the top to make the relationship unstable.  

A gifted adult may have experienced asynchronic development that could have affected his or her emotional and psychological, and hence his or her social stability and abilities.  All areas of functioning (intellectual, emotional, social, creative, and moral) do not develop equally or simultaneously nor are gifted children gifted in all areas.  Children often do not have synchronized development in all areas, but for some the gifted abilities make the differences more extreme and seem more odd.  Similar in many areas, they are asynchronous elsewhere, such as cognitive development versus musical ability.  Gifted children may function like everyone else, but more so in some area or areas.  There may be dyssynchrony- a lack of a natural fit between gifted children and curriculum designed to be developmentally appropriate for non-gifted children of similar ages.  Dyssynchrony along with discrepancy among areas of growth can create academic and social challenges that may result in lingering emotional and psychological consequences that extend into adulthood and the couple relationship.  The complaint about the otherwise brilliant but clueless- re: immature partner may reflect this.

The focus on school giftedness may have a gender bias.  Silverman (2005) of the Gifted Development Center believes that girls and women are under-diagnosed as being gifted.  There are historical prejudices asserting innate lesser abilities of females in the scientific and larger societies.  The original view of giftedness from Sir Gus Galton's (1869) study of eminent men had much to do with their production, performance, and so forth.  However, IQ testing despite being based on traditional male-oriented criteria shows equality of intelligence between males and females.  Silverman (2008) noted mothers of gifted children often do not recognize their own giftedness.  The inner experience of the gifted may highlight what are considered more feminine qualities, including such aspects as "intense moral commitment, a greater capacity for empathy; unique perception and awareness; respect for all human beings; searching for truth; insightfulness; creativity; multipotentiality; ability to juggle many things at once, etc."  In the couple's relationship, a gender bias in a heterosexual couple may be held by both partners.  Her partner, and possibly the therapist may minimize a woman with unacknowledged gifted qualities.  Faith minimized such abilities herself, as Brody's mother Paige did as well.  As a woman, she was culturally and socially expected to be caring and sensitive to others' feelings.  She expected it of herself.  She was intuitive and supportive of her friends, family members, and work colleagues- not just Brody.  If it were Brody or a man who is highly gifted in this manner, it would seem odd because of different cultural gender standards.  If it were a gay male, another cultural stereotype could find it not particularly different or special.  Ordinarily most people appreciated Faith for her instinctive sensitivity and nurturing behaviors.  This made it more frustrating for her that Brody did not seem to get or appreciate what she did for him.  While Brody could acknowledge intellectually that just about only Faith other than his mother did so much for him, otherwise from moment-to-moment he seemed oblivious of her caring.  The gifted qualities overlooked in females as noted by Silverman tend to be emphasized by the therapist with emotional, self-esteem, communications, and other theoretical and therapeutic orientations.  Both the therapist and the gifted partner may be frustrated that the non-gifted partner has difficulty "getting it."  The therapist should take care not to inappropriately align with Faith and be condemning of Brody.

Gifted individuals may also have dysplasia- disparity between a strong ability to cognitively understanding issues mismatched with a relatively limited ability to handle them emotionally.  This would be most pronounced for young gifted children who don't always think, feel, or act as expected for their chronological ages.  If this unbalanced development is not identified and such children well supported, there may be intense emotional and intellectual distress.  Their intense emotional reaction to issues others find relatively minor may seem extreme or off to others.  The emotional or psychological consequences- internal turmoil may create enduring characterological issues for future functioning.  Individuals as children with special gifts or challenges or both, may have had different or more intense social emotional realities.  As a result, their inadequate relative emotional intelligence (compared to their emotional experience) and other inter-personal skills become predictive of current and future social, academic, relationship, and vocational success or failures.  Whitmore (1986) examined the Cupertino Program for Underachieving Gifted Students (UAG) in California.  Identified as gifted, these children had not been as successful as anticipated or had done poorly in primary school.  These findings may be predictive of adult functioning.  She found that these gifted children had special socialization needs.  "The highly gifted children in Cupertino, who developed severe behavior problems and failed academically in the first years of school, evidenced specific socialization needs that made them vulnerable to psychosocial conflict in school.  First of all, they were functioning at very immature levels of social competence, lacking understanding of themselves and others.  This developmental deficit seemingly was caused by very limited experience with age mates and group activities.  Advanced mental abilities often lead to the development of advanced interests, causing a lack of commonality with age mates; thus, patterns of play in isolation or tagging along after older children had developed.  Few of the children had participated in even a part-time preschool program.  Consequently, upon arrival at school the child had difficulty sharing, participating in a group activity, waiting for a turn, and accepting not being "center-stage" or in control of the whole activity.

They may have additional social vulnerability from emotional conflict between conformity required first at school and later in the work world versus an intense desire to express individuality.  With an instinct to act independently rather than cooperate and divergent and precocious critical thinking, early behavior may have resulted in being teased, teacher discipline, and other social consequences that made no sense.  While the adult may be able to refrain from acting on the instincts, it would still be frustrating not be able to go along intellectually.  The individual may persist into adulthood with compensation based on conflict avoidance, isolation, and escape into fantasy.  On the other hand, he or she may have or continue be aggressive in conflict and be seen as a joker or bully.  Alienation and isolation may be the result in either case.

Overexcitability of some gifted individuals makes emotional processes more difficult.  Jackson & Peterson (2003), describe case studies of gifted teenagers with "profound sensitivity" that contributed to overwhelming deep feelings of depression.  Many manage emotions through a great capacity to hide depression.  They have shame and a sense of failure from being unable to figure out causes and cures for their problems.  Avoiding or hiding problems and suffering alone in silence, their problems often exacerbate, leading to further negative consequences that persist into adulthood. An exceptionally gifted 15-year-old compared his depression with his self-presentation.  "I act like nothing's wrong.  On some subconscious level it seems like some sort of weakness, some sort of vulnerability, and it hurts to share weaknesses.  When you are gifted, you feel what other people feel; if someone else is depressed, you pick up on it, and it makes you feel depressed so you become afraid that your depression, when it happens, will evoke that feeling in someone else."  The most salient characteristics of gifted adolescents may be associated with vulnerability to social and emotional disturbances: (a) perfectionism, (b) supersensitivity, (c) social isolation, and (d) sensory overexcitability (De Souza Fleith, 2001).  The therapist should investigate if adult individuals who show similar profiles may be gifted and suffered stress as a result earlier in adolescence and childhood.  This inquiry may be relevant to either Faith or Brody for their respective gifted qualities.

The highly gifted often have primary characteristics of intensity, sensitivity, and overexcitability.  Overexcitabilities are inborn, heightened abilities to receive and respond to stimuli, expressed in increased sensitivity, awareness, and intensity.  People may react with surprise, puzzlement to many things, persons, and events.  Emotional overexcitability has heightened, intense feelings, extremes of complex emotions, identification with others' feelings, and strong affective expression.  Physical manifestations include stomachaches, blushing, concern with death, or depression.  They have a great capacity for deep relationships and show strong emotional attachments to people, places, and things.  They have compassion, empathy, and sensitivity in relationships, which can lead to interpersonal conflict about the depth, or lack of depth, in a relationship.  Individuals high in emotional overexcitability are often accused of overreacting.  Their compassion and concern for others, their focus on relationships, as well as the intensity of their feelings may interfere with comparably insignificant everyday tasks compared with the needs of humanity (Lind, 2000).  Every issue discussed for other individuals with challenges may be experienced deeper and with greater intensity by gifted individuals, especially the highly or profoundly gifted.  Academic misfit is a consistent problem in childhood, which may be replicated in work team misfit in adulthood.  Gifted children, especially exceptionally or profoundly gifted children prefer associating with peers of comparable interests and capacities.  Especially for exceptionally and profoundly gifted, the only socially compatible peer group in youth may be with other comparably gifted children (Lovecky, 1995).  When and if ever they find such a peer group including in adulthood would affect social-emotional development.  This can include dynamics with an intimate life partner.  Gifted individuals may experience frustration, depression, and anxiety suffered by others and because of overexcitability, may experience it all much more intensely.  And experience it without intimate partner's awareness or understanding.  Or, the therapist's compassion or insight.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
Back to content | Back to main menu