The subject of emotional needs within relationships seems to cause a lot of confusion and anxiety. People sometimes worry they are too “needy” or that there is too much distance in their relationship. What is apparent is that human beings need other human beings and feel more fulfilled when they have a sense of belonging to another person, a family or social groups.
An underlying reason for people beginning counselling is that their emotional needs aren’t being met in some way. This could be because the other person in the relationship has failed to maintain the relationship. Or, it could be that one person has consistently prioritised their own needs at the expense of the other’s. Perhaps one person isn’t very clear about what their needs are and expects the other person to be a mind reader. As we grow and change so do our relational needs and there needs to be enough flexibility to respond to changes. Sometimes there is a breach in trust (such as an affair or some other form of betrayal), leaving one person wondering if it is still safe to get their needs met by the other.
Too needy? Too cold? Perhaps our needs and those of others exist on a spectrum:
Dependent ———— Inter-Dependent ———— Independent
Difficulties can occur when needs are significantly different or when people don’t realise that meeting needs is an ongoing process. Perhaps they don’t know what those needs are or how to meet them.
Below are some common key emotional needs:
- Security – this is essential in order to be able to show vulnerability (leading to emotional intimacy). Components of security are honesty, accountability, transparency, reliability and consistency.
- Acceptance – we need not only our similarities, but our differences accepted and respected. We need our experience of the world (which is experienced through the filter of our unique past experiences) validated by those close to us. This helps us to validate and accept ourselves.
- Significance – in close relationships we need to feel we are valued and prioritised and that we continue to exist in the hearts and minds of others even when we are physically apart.
- Responsibility – each person’s responsibility is both to monitor and care for their own needs and also to share responsibility for the relationship needs.
- Empathy – we need others to at least try to understand our experience and to take this seriously. Many difficulties arise when one person doesn’t understand the others intent (which leads to fear and being defended). Empathy can give us insight into why someone might be feeling/thinking/behaving in a certain way in situations.
- Initiating – we need others to initiate emotional and physical contact as much as we do, otherwise resentment builds up if we always have to take the first step.
- Impact – this isn’t about changing others. It’s about knowing they are taking us in, valuing our input and allowing us to have an influence. This helps us feel we have some power within the relationship rather than power over the other person.
- Love – not only do we need to receive love, we also need to be able to express love and for this to be accepted and valued. If our love is rejected or devalued we feel unappreciated and start to withdraw emotionally.
- Identity – this is the sense of being our own person in a way that fits with our values and is under our control. This doesn’t happen in relationships where we are expected to conform at all times.
- Authenticity – similar to identity, this is being able to show the whole of our real self without hiding certain parts. When people are able to be truly open the tension that arises when pretending or being an actor in their own lives disappears.
- Interest – it’s tempting in well established relationships to assume we know everything about the other person and forget to be curious. This can lead to people feeling like they are taken for granted or part of the furniture.
Relationships sometimes start off well (with needs being noticed and met) then gradually, over time, this starts to slip. This can lead to increasing loneliness and dissatisfaction. In romantic relationships this can manifest as an affair as someone tries to get their needs met elsewhere.
Often the messages we receive about relationships (from family, friends or the media) are that these important emotional needs are either there or not as though they are nouns rather than verbs – doing words. Take love for example. It is sometimes talked about in terms of “I love them” or “I don’t love them”, rather than how can we be loving? When a betrayal happens trust is shattered. The person who has broken the trust can sink into a pit of helplessness – “They don’t trust me”. The temptation is for the person to believe that they have no influence over this situation. A more helpful approach is to look at “How can I work towards being more trustworthy?”.
All relationships benefit from attention to detail when it comes to meeting these important needs e.g. –
- Remembering – that the other person showed interest in a newly advertised chocolate bar or event, then getting that for them without them having to ask.
- Noticing – that they have gone the extra mile or when they are troubled by something.
- Gratitude – pausing to notice the feelings you have when you are around the other person and why – then putting this into words for them.
- Sending a text – sending something you know they will appreciate or simply to let them know you are thinking about them.
- Volunteering – that you forgot something, rather than hoping the other person won’t notice. Also volunteering how you feel, whether positive or negative.
- Asking – about their day, especially if they have previously told you about something that’s going to happen.
- Making sure – your actions match your words. If you have said you will do something make sure you do or that you volunteer an explanation as to why you haven’t.
We shouldn’t expect to meet all of someone’s needs or for them to meet ours but if we continue to work towards this, we can usually meet them enough.