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relationship needs

Understanding Basic Relationship Needs and How to Meet Them

Dec 15, 2023

How many times have you heard of a relationship fizzling out for seemingly no reason? Or hear someone say, "it just wasn't right" without having any idea what "it" was?

Sometimes, when a relationship struggles, it's because one or both people's relationship needs aren't being fulfilled. If you don't know what their needs are, how can you expect to meet them?

If you want to be a better partner, self-awareness and emotional intelligence are must-haves. Understanding each other's needs and wants in a relationship is the first step to maintaining a satisfying and fulfilling connection.

 

What are Emotional Needs in a Relationship?

All humans have needs and wants that need to be met for them to feel healthy, happy, and satisfied with life. Those needs apply to relationships too, both romantic and platonic.

Emotional needs change throughout life and vary from person to person. For example, someone may feel a strong need for trust and security from their partner at first, then progress to affection and playfulness as their stronger emotional needs in a relationship down the line.

Relationship dynamics also mirror what we need in a relationship, affecting how couples communicate and connect with one another.

 

 

Why It's Important to Know Your Own Relationship Needs

Self-awareness will help you identify your own needs so you can recognize what it feels like when a relationship need isn't being met and express that to your partner. You'll feel more fulfilled from your relationship, and be more successful at fulfilling your partner's needs, too!

Being self-aware about your needs will also allow you to self-soothe. Rather than being in an unexplainable bad or sad mood, you can look within, pinpoint what's wrong, and do something about it.

 

Relationship Wants Versus Needs

It's important to differentiate what you need in a relationship from what you want. Relationship needs are make or break and are non-negotiable for a relationship to last. Relationship wants are things we hope to get but can look past and still be happy.

For example, respect and acceptance are two relationship needs (that we'll discuss further below). There's no way for a healthy relationship to function if one partner doesn't respect the other or accept them for who they are. Spontaneity or wealth might be wanted in a relationship; you'd prefer them, but as long as your needs are met, you can look past it.

 

How can you tell the difference? Ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Do I desire this because I'm comparing my relationship to others?
  2. Could this need/want be in the definition of a baseline healthy relationship?
  3. What would happen if this desire isn't met?
  4. What does fulfillment in this area look like in healthy relationships?

 

A Few Examples of Needs in a Relationship

Let's look at a few more examples of wants and needs in a relationship.

Trust is a common example of a need in a relationship. Relationships are supposed to give us comfort and security. That's why we choose them, right? Over time, a relationship that brings you stress and insecurity will exhaust both partners.

Frequent date nights are a common relationship want. It would be great to foster romance with regular date nights, but what you're really looking for is intimacy and desire. Those underlying relationship needs can be nurtured in other ways like being more present during the time you have together or being more physically affectionate with each other.

 

 

A Note About Basic Human Needs

While I have you in the headspace of examining what you need in a relationship, I want to bring up an important psychology fun fact.

There's a widely accepted hierarchy of needs that suggests humans need their most basic needs met before they can focus on reaching their potential.

For example, a hungry child will focus only on finding food until they have the freed-up mental space to focus on things like love, self-esteem, and learning. This is why public schools provide free lunch to children: so they can focus on learning.

Similarly, an adult who doesn't feel safe at home (or in their relationship) won't have room in their priorities to focus on more sophisticated intimacies like humor or playfulness. Their most basic relationship need isn't being met.

Keep this in mind as we explore the different types of needs in a relationship.

 

10 Basic Relationship Needs

As you read this list of needs in a relationship, don't just think about how you relate to each one. Think about how your partner might be feeling, and whether they show signs when their needs are or aren't being met.

I've included examples and signs that there's a breakdown in each area, as well as how to address an unmet need in a relationship.

 

Trust & Security

Just like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs suggests, safety and security are paramount human needs. The stress of feeling unsafe or insecure around a partner can be all-consuming. This manifests in two layers:

Physical safety: Knowing your partner won't physically harm you
Emotional safety: Knowing your partner won't judge you, cheat on you, steal from you, and has your best interest at heart

This second layer can sometimes feel like "I feel insecure or uncomfortable and I'm not sure where it's coming from." This can stem from feeling attacked or being treated with passive aggression after expressing your opinions.

If this Need Isn't Met:
Despite what they show on TV about "loving the crazy," toxicity and cheating are downright stressful. Over time, it manifests as constant jealousy, arguments, and investigative behavior.

What You Can Do:
If you have trouble trusting your partner, pinpoint what triggers these feelings. Reestablishing trust requires radical honesty about the emotions being felt. Tell them how you feel using "I feel like....when...." statements. Consider discussing boundaries and acceptable versus unacceptable behavior.

If your partner struggles with trust, create a safe space for open conversation. If they don't feel safe with you, they may not want to make themselves vulnerable, putting up a wall. Couples therapy can navigate breaches in trust and address needs in a relationship.

Scenario:
Beth: I've been wanting to talk about something that's been bothering me.
Jack: What's up?
Beth: Sometimes, when you go out with coworkers after a shift and don't text me back, I feel a little insecure about what you're up to. I'm not accusing you of anything, but it makes me uncomfortable.
Jack: I didn't realize.
Beth: Maybe you could invite me some time, or at least send a text about your plans? Trust is an important relationship need of mine.

 

Mutual Respect

A healthy relationship requires mutual respect. A respectful partner:

  • Values your opinion
  • Trusts your judgment
  • Doesn't speak down to you
  • Speaks highly of you to others
  • Values your time
  • Respects your boundaries

If this Need Isn't Met:
Someone who doesn't feel respected won't feel emotionally safe and may be reluctant to express themselves. This breakdown of communication will eat away at the relationship. The disrespected person might also develop resentment, poisoning the relationship in their own way (not that being disrespected isn't also poisonous).

What You Can Do:
If your partner doesn't respect you, contemplate when this behavior started. Have they always been this way? Rather than repeatedly calling them out, tell them: "When you do/say 'insert here', it makes me feel really disrespected. Would you say that's an accurate way to interpret that?" Their answer will tell you a lot; you can continue the conversation or decide if that's a relationship you want to be in.

If you don't respect your partner, it's time for some serious introspection. Why did you lose respect for them? Is there something they can do that would earn it back? Do you want to be with someone who you can't respect?

Scenario:
Darius notices that his girlfriend, Tera, agrees with whoever she's with, no matter their opinion. With one friend she'll participate in harsh gossip and turn around to talk the same way about that same friend with others. This behavior erodes Darius's respect for Tera, and trust is one of his needs in a relationship.

Darius: Do you think it's right to trash-talk your friends like that?
Tera: I'm afraid that if I don't, they'll talk about me like that.

Now Darius understands that Tera isn't fond of gossip; she just needs help in the confidence arena (and probably finding new friends).

 

 

Acceptance

Part of love is truly accepting someone for who they are and appreciating them for it. This looks like introducing them to social circles, making future plans together, and not trying to change one another.

If this Need Isn't Met:
Love without acceptance looks like "I love you, and I'd love you more when you change 'insert here.'" It can make the unaccepted feel less than, lowering their self-esteem and pressuring them to pretend to be someone they're not.

What You Can Do:
This is where needs and wants in a relationship come in. There's a fuzzy line between wanting someone to change for the better and wanting to change someone. Good intentions don't always justify non-acceptance. Permanent attributes like looks, hobbies, or minor quirks should be embraced. Unhealthy behaviors like a hot temper, irresponsibility, or overconsumption might justify a discussion about change.

Scenario 1: Non-Acceptance
Sandra works at a preschool and David sells real estate for a living. David frequently pressures Sandra to get her real estate license on the side so they can make more money, but she loves her job and has no desire to work more. The constant pressure makes Sandra feel like David doesn't accept her career choices. David thinks he's pushing Sandra to meet her full potential.

Scenario 2: Loving Motivation
Mark and Tyrone are head over heels in love. When they go out with friends, Mark gets belligerently drunk and sleeps the entire next day, even losing a job over it in the past. Tyrone wants to see this behavior change because it bothers him and would benefit Tyrone's personal growth.

 

Intimacy & Affection

Physical intimacy is one way that couples connect; maintaining the "spark" is important for a healthy relationship. It includes non-sexual touching also exchanged between friends (hugging, back-patting, a hand on the arm) and sexual touching between partners (kissing, cuddling, holding hands).

Emotional intimacy can also be romantic or platonic and includes sharing feelings, crying together, or discussing hopes and dreams.

If this Need Isn't Met:
Without these, a relationship can resemble a roommate dynamic. Physical intimacy with no emotion isn't very fulfilling (I help couples get through intimacy issues in my sessions). Emotional intimacy without the physical aspect describes a friendship.

This loneliness can push people to rely on external sources of intimacy, increasing the chances of emotional or physical infidelity.

What You Can Do:
If you lack emotional intimacy, consider opening up to your partner without the expectation that they do the same. It may take a while for them to feel safe.

Physical intimacy can fade away for a ton of reasons, so there's no easy fix here. Since it's a touchy subject, consider meeting with an intimacy coach to work out the kinks.

Scenario:
Lewis has been avoiding physical intimacy and spending a lot of time on his phone. Mary is suspicious that he's cheating, so she asks him to come to a couple's therapy session. They unveil that Lewis is ashamed of his performance, and he's been on the phone researching things like "Is it normal for a guy to release quickly" and "How to last longer in bed." By discussing basic relationship needs in the company of a therapist, they learn healthy coping mechanisms and rebuild their sexual connection.

 

 

Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the emotions of others. It differs from sympathy, where you share those feelings or have been in their shoes. The ability (or effort) of a partner to understand the other even if they can't exactly relate makes their partner feel understood and heard.

If this Need Isn't Met:
When a partner feels unheard or unvalidated, they'll be less inclined to share their thoughts and feelings, leading to a sense of isolation. It's common to become frustrated with your partner's unwillingness to hear you out or put themself in your shoes. A relationship needs empathy to provide emotional support for both partners.

What You Can Do:
Some people may not be aware that they lack empathy and that it's something that relationships need. Offer a few concrete examples where empathy would have made a difference to you to help them understand the impact of their behavior on your emotions and the relationship.

Scenario:
Jess expresses concern that Jason's friends are rude and dismissive to her. Of course, Jason doesn't see this side of his friends and doesn't understand at first. His ability to stick up for her or even empathize with this feeling can determine how safe and heard she feels with him. It feels good to feel understood.

 

Uncertainty

The notion that girls love a bad boy or "men love crazy" (I don't condone the term crazy!) holds some truth: uncertainty is fun...to a certain extent. While a certain level of certainty is required to feel safe, uncertainty keeps us on our toes, intrigued and slightly mystified by our partner.

If this Need Isn't Met:
Routine can set in easily, leading to boredom or feeling like mere roommates navigating life together. It's one of the basic relationship needs that gets forgotten about over time.

What You Can Do:
Uncertainty is the reason that it's fun to visit a new country, learn a new skill, or get a new job. Experiencing some of these things as a couple can keep intimacy strong.

Scenario
Sarah and Tony recognize their routine becoming dull. To break the monotony, they surprise each other with activities: Tony arranges weekly cooking classes, and Sarah signs them up for salsa lessons. Learning new skills together not only adds excitement, it also brings them closer and gives them something to anticipate.

 

Autonomy & Individuality

Each member of a relationship is unique, with personal interests, goals, and values. Autonomy and individuality make room for personal growth, allowing partners to continually discover and fall in love with each other's evolving selves. It also saves room to nurture outside friendships, fostering a well-rounded and fulfilling social life.

If this Need Isn't Met:
Constant togetherness can lead to a sense of being overwhelmed, annoyed, or smothered. It can also lead to codependency, a situation where one or both people feel emotionally or physically dependent on one another.

What You Can Do:
Encourage each other to explore personal hobbies. Nurture individual friendships and social circles. Spending time with friends independently can bring fresh perspectives and experiences into the relationship.

Scenario:
Lisa and Alex have been together for several years, and they begin to notice that their lives have become intertwined to the point where they feel a lack of individuality. Alex doesn't mind, but autonomy is one of Lisa's core needs in a relationship, and she feels herself resenting him for it.

Lisa schedules some moments to get away each week: joining a coworker for a walk after work and volunteering at a women's shelter once per week. This gives her the opportunity to have a life outside of the relationship and reclaim her individuality.

 

 

Levity & Humor

Partners should be able to laugh together; humor is a powerful stress reliever and a way to diffuse the tension during uncomfortable situations. It keeps things fun, light, and makes us look forward to spending time with our partner.

If this Need Isn't Met:
A complete lack of playfulness can make things drab and overly serious. It makes conflict resolution even harder when you can't use humor to lighten the mood.

What You Can Do:
You know your partner best, so take these suggestions with a grain of salt and consider their sense of humor:

  • Play games together as a fun and childlike way to bond
  • Initiate some good-natured, light-hearted teasing
  • Share funny moments of your day with them
  • Watch comedy together so that even if you aren't jokesters yourselves, you share laughs

Scenario:
Jen notices that her sense of humor is more silly and goofy, compared to her boyfriend's which is more dark. Because humor is one of her needs in relationships, she needs to find a middle ground. She arranges a comedy movie marathon of sorts. One night, they watch a Jim Carey movie (classic goofy humor). The next night, they watch Knives Out (dark humor). Next, they watch Blockers (a light dromedy). The next thing you know, they're laughing over breakfast and texting each other inside jokes throughout the day.

 

Communication

Open communication makes us feel on the same page as our partner. When you have something important to say, you want to feel A) listened to, B) understood, and C) safe to express your thoughts. We need these things to resolve conflicts, express concerns, and feel emotionally and intellectually connected. It's not a relationship want; it's a need.

If this Need Isn't Met:
The first thing a lack of communication does is create emotional distance between partners. If you can't communicate, you won't feel understood. Over time, relationships become lonely and stagnant, and fights erupt over miscommunications.

What You Can Do:
Here are a few common culprits of communication breakdown:

  • Assuming you know how they feel and making based on those assumptions
  • Defensiveness
  • Dismissing or downplaying their point
  • Passive aggression and snide remarks
  • Refusing to apologize or compromise

If any of these sound familiar to you, you know where to start.

Scenario:
Michelle and Evan have a romantic getaway planned that they've been looking forward to for weeks. Evan invites his brother and sister-in-law without consulting Michelle, knowing she doesn't get along with them. Upset, Michelle gives him the silent treatment, turning Evan's apology into anger.

Mistakes were made on both sides:
Evan should have told Michelle before inviting people on their trip, explaining how important it was to him.
Even though Michelle was livid, she shouldn't have ended the initial conversation until they came to some kind of understanding. "I'm angry, but I know that this is a great chance for you to get closer to your brother."

 

Prioritization

Does your partner make you feel special? Do they treat you the same as other people, or better? In a relationship, it's important for both parties to see their partner put them first sometimes (I'm not saying every time). Couples who prioritize each other view themselves as a team, going through life with a dedicated, loyal teammate.

This looks like saying no to plans when your partner needs emotional support or going to see their favorite movie even though you hate rom coms.

If this Need Isn't Met:
Feeling like your partner always puts you last is a sad thing. You'll feel unimportant, unappreciated, and taken for granted, violating more than one of the core needs in a relationship.

What You Can Do:
To avoid sounding selfish, approach the topic gently. Coming out the gate with "You need to put me before your friends and family," isn't likely to be received well. They might not realize they're doing anything wrong unless you bring it up. So, start off with something like "When you 'insert here,' it makes me feel like I'm not a priority to you."

If they don't change, it's time for a different conversation.

Scenario:
Jack has a large group of friends from college who still get together regularly. Josie loves this about him and loves his friends. But there's always a birthday or baby shower to go to, and she feels like they never tend to celebrate their own relationship. One day, Jack flakes on dinner with Josie's parents to attend a last-minute hangout with his friends. Josie handles this well by saying, "Sometimes I feel like your last priority. Tonight you canceled my dinner to see friends that you see all the time. I know you love them, but this was important to me."

 

 

How to Tell Your Needs Aren't Being Met

Understanding your needs will help you know how and when to ask your partner to meet them. If you don't know, how can they fix it? You may have had consistent relationship priorities in the past, then as you grew and evolved, so did your types of needs in a relationship.

 

A Step-by-step Guide to Identifying Your Relationship Needs

Ask Yourself:

  • What do you love that your partner does?
  • What do you dislike that your partner does?
  • What is your love language? What's your partner's love language?
  • Is this causing a disconnect?
  • What do you get out of your non-romantic relationships? (intellectual stimulation, acceptance, emotional intimacy)
  • Are there any patterns in the types of friendships you've had throughout life? What about your romantic relationships?
  • Is there anything that you feel is missing in your relationship?

Remember that your basic needs in a relationship aren't stagnant, and neither are your partners. Checking in with yourself when things feel off can help you pinpoint why.

 

How to Tell if You're Not Meeting Your Partner's Needs

Remember, it's your responsibility to communicate your needs to your partner, and the same goes for them. No one can read your mind. If your partner isn't one for communication, here are a few things you might notice:

  • They're distancing themselves from you
  • They aren't displaying as much affection as they once did
  • They've started to put others before you and the relationship
  • They're acting passive-aggressive out of the blue

Without communication, it's impossible to tell if the problem is truly about the basic needs in a relationship, or if something else is going on. Regardless, someone has to initiate the conversation, to avoid long-term issues. The tips and real-life scenarios above should help!

 

A Few Things to Know

Humans are dynamic, and life is ever-changing. Your needs will evolve and adapt to your circumstances. What worked for you in the past might not anymore, which is why communication is so crucial.

Another thing: I know it can be awkward to bring up your needs and wants in a relationship to a partner who has never thought about this before. With that in mind, think about the alternative: ending an unsatisfying relationship without giving your partner the chance to make things right.

 

Your Partner Isn't Responsible For Meeting All Your Needs

It's unfair and unrealistic to expect one person to fulfill all of your basic relationship needs all the time. Do you want that kind of pressure?

Sometimes they might do it all for you, and we all go through seasons of life where we need our cup filled and don't have it in us to fill anyone else's.

 

You Are Responsible For Communicating Your Needs

Don't fall into the trap of assuming your partner knows what you're thinking. No one can communicate your needs and wants in a relationship but you.

When doing this, be specific and clear, and do it in a way that promotes open dialogue. Ideally, they'll feel safe enough to express their desires, too.

Example:
This: "I've been feeling a bit neglected by you lately. It's really important to me that we both feel important to one another"
Not that: "You don't make me feel special enough. Can't you put me first once in a while?"

Example:
This: "I love how much time we've been spending together lately, but neither of us has seen our friends in a while. I think it's important that we don't get so wrapped up in us that we push our friends away. Let's make it a point to see them this week."
Not that: "You make me feel smothered. I need some space away from you so I can feel less annoyed"

 

Self-Regulation Plays a Big Role

Take responsibility for managing your stress and emotions. There may be situations where your partner can't meet a certain need, and you can meet it on your own.

Therapy can help you build the emotional intelligence needed to recognize and regulate your own emotions. It can also help you decipher less important relationship wants from basic needs in a relationship that everyone should have met.

Example Need: Intellectual Stimulation
Emily likes to discuss literature in intellectual conversations, but Jake doesn't share this interest. Recognizing the need for mental stimulation, Emily joins a book club to satisfy her intellectual curiosity while respecting Jake's preferences.

Example Need: Affection and Intimacy
Taylor values affection and physical intimacy. Alex is stressed about work and is unable to reciprocate. Taylor explores self-care practices like meditation and yoga to maintain a positive connection with herself while respecting Alex's need for space.

 

Looking Beyond Romantic Partners

I mentioned that your partner isn't responsible for meeting all of your needs.

So, I encourage people to pursue friendships and hobbies that fulfill you in ways your partner might not be able to. A relationship needs this balance of connection and individuality.

Here's when things get rocky: when people look outside the relationship to have inappropriate needs met. For example, it's likely outside the range of acceptability to have your emotional or physical intimacy needs satisfied by a coworker of the opposite sex. Secrecy should never be part of the equation.

 

 

A Bit About Me

I'm Keeley Rankin, a leading relationship and intimacy coach based in San Francisco. I have a Masters in Counseling Psychology with a focus on Marriage and Family Therapy from John F. Kennedy University.

I've worked with countless couples to build more satisfying, connected relationships. If you're feeling like your relationship has lost the erotic passion it once had, I'm here to help. Let me help you fulfill your own and your partners' wants and needs in a relationship.

 

Couples Sessions

Working with a professional is the fastest way to get to the root of your relationship struggles and tackle them in a safe, reliable way. It can be fun to explore each other again, and I'll help you navigate the waters in a relaxed, no-stress environment. If you want, we'll even start with the basics, making a list of needs in a relationship for each partner. You'd be surprised how couples open up when the atmosphere is right.

What You'll Learn in Couples Sessions:
Effective communication skills
How to have more satisfying sex lives
Reconnection after infidelity or pregnancy
Recovering from lost or lessened desire
How to fulfill your needs and wants in a relationship

 

1:1 Sessions

Learn how to communicate your wants and needs in a relationship in a healthy, respectful, and digestible way. I help men and women get more in tune with themselves, working on personal acceptance and confidence building for both women and men.

What You'll Learn:
Dealing with performance issues
Regaining confidence
Overcoming body image issues
Moving past trauma
Understanding your sexuality

 

Courses

Men, do you struggle with performance anxiety? Check out my early ejaculation mastery video course and premature ejaculation audio course. From the comfort of your own home, you can learn:

How to form a deeper connection with your partner
How to relax during sex to enjoy it more completely
How to control your orgasms
How to improve confidence around sexuality
Where you are in terms of severity and how long it will take to reach your goals

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