Relationship Needs: Why You May Not Know What You Really Need

“More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” ~St. Teresa of Avila

Are there things you’d like to change about your spouse/partner?

If so, I don’t think it’s far fetched to say that many people (at some point in their marriage/relationship) wish their partner were somehow different.  Typically, this wish takes the form of wanting more of something (e.g., affection, support, sex) or less of something (e.g., less conflict, boredom, complaining).

And sometimes couples get what they ask for, but with unanticipated results.

Relationship Help: Are you certain you really want your partner to change?

Meet Steve. He wanted his wife Holly to be more “independent” and to emotionally need him less. “Sometimes I’d come home exhausted from work and Holly needed to talk about her day or she wanted to hear about my day. These are reasonable requests, but honestly, I just want to be left alone at these times…”

And Steve got his wish. After several sessions of couples counseling that focused on communicating more clearly about what they needed from each other, Holly “heard” her husband’s request and began giving him more personal space, especially when he felt overwhelmed after work. As a substitute to talking with Steve in those moments, Holly began to journal about her feelings and/or she’d call a close friend to discuss what was going on for her—while she preferred to speak with Steve at these times, these alternatives gave her the support and connection she needed.

This looked like the perfect solution for Steve and Holly: They were each getting their needs met…but after about three months into this new arrangement, something began to change for Steve—unexpectedly he became less and less content with these changes in his wife.  

As Steve recalls, he began to feel “annoyed” and “frustrated” with Holly “for no obvious reason. I found myself being short with her, and this feeling continued to grow.” Yet Holly was just giving Steve what he wanted, so why the negative reaction?

After some time it became apparent what was driving Steve’s confusing reactions:

“I missed her. It started to feel like she didn’t care for me. I realize this is irrational because I asked for distance and she gave it to me, but I couldn’t help feeling this way…”

At first, Steve speculated that maybe Holly had pulled back “too much” and that’s why he was having a difficult time adjusting to this new arrangement. But the reality is that no perfect formula exists for any relationship, and likewise, there was no ideal equation for how much togetherness and distance Steve required from his wife. Fantasized ideals (“If only my husband was a little more…”; “If only my wife was a little less…”) are illusions that keep us focused on how the other person needs to change in order for us to reach the pinnacle of some desired, sought-after experience.

Relationship Needs: When your needs collide

What happened to Steve isn’t uncommon. The human mind is amazingly complex, and frequently we have certain needs that compete with other needs. You can have one need that seemingly conflicts with another need.  To have one emotional need met (Steve’s need for increased solitude) can result in another need being sacrificed (Steve’s need for connection and to feel cared for).

How can conflicting needs exist side-by-side in the same person?

Your relationship needs don’t exist in isolation from one another; in fact, some of your needs may be in opposition to each other—this creates a dynamic tension between your needs as they compete for expression. (When this occurs, the need for “A” cancels or suppresses the need for “B”, until the need for B intensifies and at some point emerges as the dominant need, thereby suppressing need “A.”) Under certain conditions and circumstances, different needs intensify while others become dormant, only to have these dormant needs push for expression at a different time and in a different context.

5 needs that exist along with their polar opposites

(These need-polarities compete for expression from time to time, within the same individual): 

  1. Emotional closeness/dependence…..autonomy/independence
  2. Control/predictability…..abandonment/letting go
  3. Familiarity/routine…….novelty/change
  4. Selfishness (needing to take & be cared for)…..selflessness (needing to give & care for)
  5. Power/dominance….reliance/submissiveness

It’s important to be mindful of your needs as well as the tensions that may exist between your own needs. Bringing an understanding of these polarities into your relationship is essential for a fulfilling marriage/relationship. Often, when you over-identify with one side of a need polarity (“I’m the type of person that always needs to be in control”) without acknowledging its opposite (“There are times I like my partner to be in complete control so I can let go”), you remain cut off from an important part of yourself that will ultimately seek expression and gratification. 

There are times when couples don’t allow their conflicting needs into the marriage/relationship because of shame or fear of rejection (or because one partner is confused by his/her own competing needs). The powerful, always-in-control executive who seeks to express his/her reliant/submissive needs through sexual expression outside the marriage is a common example. As one husband shared, “My wife fell in love with me because I’m decisive and in control, so I just couldn’t let her know about this other side of me—it was too embarrassing.”

The goal is to become mindful of your need-polarities and to recognize that it is beneficial to allow all of yourself into the relationship. The first (and often biggest) step is to recognize that you have competing needs and that this is a normal part of being human and in an intimate relationship. 

Marriage/Relationship Help Resources:

I’d like to share 2 relationship resources with you today:

1. If you battle to keep passion alive in your marriage/relationship, you’re definitely not alone. Many couples struggle with this important part of their relationship. Click Spice Up Your Relationship to find out how my workbook can help you create a passionate marriage/relationship. 

2. Starting your marriage/relationship out in the right direction can make all the difference in building a strong relationship foundation. I’m excited to share with you the Premarital Counseling Workbook for Couples by Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT. The information and exercises in this workbook gives you the resources needed to create and maintain a healthy and lasting relationship.

Until next time,

Dr. Rich Nicastro

Featured image “167” by Mitya Ku; Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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