When love is new, needing each other feels great. Being with someone who’s fun, sexy, kind and upbeat feels terrific. Wanting love and friendship like this is natural and human.
Sharing your fun side is easy. But learning to see and express needs in a relationship triggers many of the biggest challenges for couples.
Needing each other is more than okay. It’s necessary to welcome each other’s needs to be seen, accepted and loved. Much of a couple’s happiness depends on it.
Let’s fast forward into a relationship that started strong and then hits a bump. One partner has had a terrible day, comes home, flops down on the couch and launches a phone app.
The other partner soon enters with a cheery “Hello!”
The gloomy one barely grunts.
The cheerful one is surprised. Disappointed. Not sure how to react.
They don’t make eye contact. And there’s total silence.
Neither person knows what to say. So nobody says anything.
How does this relationship story go from here? It depends on how the couple goes about learning what each person needs during moments of disconnection in their relationship.
Why Expressing Needs and Wants Is So Hard
It’s okay to ask for recognition, acceptance, and some level of comfort from your partner. But sometimes, you may have serious doubts that it’s okay to speak up for what you need.
Depending on your background, you may not feel sure it’s okay to want attention, welcome, and acceptance as-is, much less ask for it.
So many people learn growing up that the only way to be in relationship is to choose not to express one’s own needs. When you feel it’s unsafe to have needs or let them be seen — that’s when problems for current and future relationships begin.
Many of us fall into the trap of holding our needs in check because we learned to do it early on. You might have felt bad about needing to be heard, seen and supported — especially when stressed. Your needs felt unwelcome because you couldn’t trust the adults in charge to cope with them or even see them. Many situations could account for this:
- Family job worries
- Your mom or dad was away on military deployment
- Your family experienced money problems
- Someone in the family struggled with illness, or addiction or emotional distress
- Talking about feelings was not part of family culture
- Your parents fought a lot
You may have been praised for being a “big girl” or “big boy” to encourage more self-reliance at a young age. This may have eased the stress at home. But it cost you the opportunity to learn how to feel safe addressing your own needs inside a responsive relationship.
If you learned to stuff your emotions to belong, you may find your relationship roadmap has a terrible dead-end on it. You can see a spot called home, but there’s no place to unpack your emotions, and let yourself feel welcome and accepted.
So, what do you do in your own grown-up relationship, when you don’t feel safe having needs or expressing them?
You’re standing there, feeling it is not okay to ask for help with your hurt, your confusion or your need for love.
You’re frozen with your need for recognition, kindness and acceptance hanging in mid air. None of that feels safe.
How to Tell Someone You’re Not Getting What You Need
How do you ask for what you want from the man or woman in your life? Let’s look at what doesn’t work first.
We don’t recommend it, but many people get mad:
Partner 1: “Hey, what kind of welcome is that?”
Partner 2: “I’ve had a bad day if it’s all right with you!”
Partner 1: “Well that’s too bad, but don’t take it out on me!”
Partner 2: “Can’t you see I’m just trying to relax? Just leave me alone.”
This kind of argument is called a “Demon Dialog,” says Dr. Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). A pattern like this can develop when couples feel disconnected. One person pursues the other for a response. The other rebuffs and withdraws. This pattern often leaves both partners feeling raw, hurt, abandoned, and even more worried about their relationship.
You need to know how to back out of this trap. Sue Johnson created seven steps to help couples stop having dead-end arguments (available in her books, and in Hold Me Tight workshops). If you’re stuck, counseling or a workshop can help.
Silence is another way people deal with emotional hunger. We don’t recommend this either.
Many people turn away from each other for however long it takes until they both decide to speak again. Shutting down and being unresponsive to a partner is called stonewalling. We know from the research of Dr. John Gottman that stonewalling is one of the four horsemen that drive partnerships toward disaster.
You could try exploring the disconnect together. We recommend this. In a healthy relationship, partners make time to take up a friendly discussion. They make room to bring up and address needs in their relationship.
It’s not his problem or her problem. It’s a shared problem. They listen until each person feels understood. They work until each person knows how to respond to the situation in ways that feel better.
Wanting a Relationship to Meet Your Needs Doesn’t Make You Needy
In a healthy relationship, one does not turn a loved one away simply because of that partner’s emotional needs.
When couples take time to update their emotional road maps about each other, love can grow stronger. That’s because they can navigate the rough spots with less friction, and find their way to feeling good together because they know what matters to each other.
Your differences — and different needs — are more than okay. They are part of what makes you whole and individual. They are the basis for intimate emotional connection.
We depend on each other for a sense of safety and understanding at a deeper emotional level. It is only normal and healthy to seek emotional empathy and connection. Responding to each other’s needs keeps your relationship strong and warm and feeling good.
Do you know how to help each other when you need help?