There Are 3 Sets of Needs in Every Relationship—And They Can’t Be Met Simultaneously

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In the scope of relationships all any sort, “needy” is often considered a dirty word. In practice, though, "neediness" is closely related to "humanness." Humans are designed to depend on one another; research has shown that when you hold the hand of someone you love while experiencing pain, you're more likely to rate the pain as lower than you do when you are alone. Furthermore, in order for a given relationship to be successful, it's crucial that the needs of the people within it are met.

As a modern love therapist, I've noticed that many of the people I work with actually need to become needier in order to feel healthy and have more fulfilling lives. Both having needs and being needed by others are completely normal states of being. And, in every dyadic relationship (unit of two people) there are three sets of needs:

  1. Your needs
  2. Their needs
  3. The relationship’s needs

So, if getting our needs met feels good—and is even necessary for healthy interaction—what makes having and expressing needs so difficult? In may have to do with how your caregivers and kinship relationships responded to your needs as you were growing up. If your needs were not valued, you may have grown up believing that it’s better not to have needs than to have them be denied. Additionally, operating in a capitalist society comes with pressure to be productive, thus requiring us to tune out of our needs—like rest, connection, spontaneity, play, and intimacy.

But, even though you're now aware of the three sets of needs in a relationship, ensuring they're all in sync isn't necessarily always a cake walk, either. Many times, misalignment exists that requires negotiating differences with intelligence and respect. For example, you may have had a fight with a friend on the same day that your partner gets a promotion. In this case, you may need deep listening, but they need celebration—and the relationship itself cannot provide space for both in the same moment in time. In situations like these, how can you and your partner decide which needs get prioritized?

5 steps to prioritize the sets of needs in your relationship are getting met.

1. Get clear on your beliefs about your needs

Many couples fear that having difficult conversations about their needs may harm the connection, when, in reality, not exposing these needs is what's more likely to breed distance and misunderstanding. Staying silent about things that matter to you doesn’t serve the relationship (especially if you expect others to be able to essentially guess your needs).

On the contrary, you might have falsely received the message that your needs matter more than others, based on the social identities (race, class, gender, sexuality) that provided you access to unearned privilege. In this case, you may have become accustomed to having your way without awareness of how the space you take up impinges on the space of others.

If you are someone who usually compromises in your relationship, now may be an opportunity to advocate for yourself. And if you are someone who usually gets what you want, this may be an opportunity to invite your partner to share their needs with more intention and regularity.

2. Figure out what you need by first identifying what you feel

In My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientistʼs Personal Journey, neuroanatomist and brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD, reminds us that we are feeling creatures who think, not thinking creatures who feel. Our unconscious and conscious emotions impact our sense of well-being along with the quality of our relationships. Our feelings lead us to what we need. For example, if you feel hungry, you know you need food, or if you feel lonely, you learn that you need connection.

To identify your needs by way of your feelings, begin with a daily inquiry of two questions:

  1. What am I feeling?
  2. What in my body is letting me know that I am feeling this way?

It may be helpful to start with a menu of options, like the Center for Nonviolent Communication's feelings inventory and needs inventory. As you peruse these lists, notice which selections pop out at you and how you feel towards the feeling and need. Familiarizing yourself with and accepting your needs (remember “accepting” doesn’t mean “liking”) is a practice that becomes easier with time. And regardless of whether you decide to express these needs to your partner, simply recognizing them can bring a sense of relief.

3. Triage your needs by separating out what you actually from the relationship versus another area of life

If we get approached with too many requests, our nervous system becomes overwhelmed, rendering us unmotivated to try to meet any. So, while I have a zillion desires from my partner (can’t he always listen, be present, make eye contact, bring me laughter, ask me penetrating questions, meet my sexual desires, notice when I am sad, and clean under the toilet seat?), but I have only a few bottom lines.

Identify which needs must be met by your partner, which can be met by your community, and which can be met by developing a closer relationship with yourself.

Too many demands and expectations can crush a union, so identify which needs must be met by your partner, which can be met by your community, and which can be met by developing a closer relationship with yourself. For example, it might be nice if your partner could be your workout buddy, but if they are not motivated in the same way, is this something you can seek outside your relationship?

You can also triage your needs in “now," "next," and "future” categories, noticing one need you have in this moment, what you may want to work on with your partner after this important need is met, and a list of future needs that you’ll visit sometime down the line. Just be aware that this is an iterative process—as your feelings and life circumstances change, so will your needs.

4. Ask about what your partner’s needs are, and don’t assume you know

Oftentimes we give to our partners the things we wish they would give to us. So, instead of giving away the thing you want, ask for it.

For example, if you are beginning to resent all the listening you’re doing but not receiving, ask your partner for a more attentive presence. If you're irritated about the amount of energy you contribute to household labor, ask your partner to cook your favorite meal. This ensures you don’t continue to give from a place of depletion, hoping that eventually, they will pour back into you and fill you up. Instead, this allows you to seek your needs from a position of empowerment.

5. Make a request not a demand

Asking for your needs to be met is not the same as demanding that they are met. You can advocate for yourself, and your partner still has the right to set boundaries if they are unable or unwilling to meet your needs. All your needs can be recognized, but not all your needs have to be met in order to have a satisfying relationship.

In fact, sometimes it’s better for the relationship to deny our partner’s needs, if we do not have the capacity or interest to meet the need. What we do for our partners matters, but so does the energy that we use to do it. The Hindu scripture, Bhagavad Gita, tells us that we are only entitled to the labor, not the fruit. Meaning, that if you give to your partner, it should not be with expectation for a return, but rather from an internal place of offering and openness. Saying no at times is an act of self-preservation and a stand for authenticity.

It is also important to be mindful of the language you use to express your needs. Practicing communication that is vulnerable and self-possessed (calm, confident, and in control of your feelings) will increase the likelihood of your need being well-received.

  • Be specific (avoiding extremes like “always” and “never”) about your circumstances
  • Use “I” versus “you” statements
  • Identify a single feeling and single corresponding need

Remember, it is not possible for each of our needs to be met by a single relationship or a single person. Healthy relationships are a series of tradeoffs—the things we get and the things we give up. The question is: What are you willing to give and what do you need to receive in order to thrive personally and relationally?

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