“It’s never overreacting to ask for what you want and need.” ~Amy Poehler
It was yet another stupid argument that escalated from nothing to a hundred miles an hour in seconds. I’d been there so many times before, entrenched in warfare with us both preparing our defenses and priming our attacks.
The intense emotions of the moment always took over, denying me the opportunity that hindsight would later afford me. Huge issues were, upon reflection, only minor disagreements about who had said what about the cooking, or where something had been left in the bathroom.
On this occasion, once again we were both 100 percent committed to our side of the argument, when I stopped and thought:
“This is crazy. What am I missing? There must be another way.”
In that moment I had an insight that revolutionized my relationship and how I relate with my partner. But before I explain, let’s rewind a little.
In the beginning, our relationship was pretty typical. Things started off great because we were really curious about each other. There wasn’t much judgment, as we always gave each other the benefit of the doubt, and with a lot of goodwill between us, we always knew we had each other’s best interests at heart.
The adrenaline was pumping and the dopamine flowing, as we were in hormonal ecstasy with the excitement of exploring unchartered territory, something that made us so interesting to each other.
After the honeymoon period, though, things started to become a bit routine. We started assuming things about each other, thinking we knew the other’s responses and desires because, after all, we’d been together a while now. I would always think, “I know you.” Only I didn’t know her anywhere near as well as I thought I did, and because of that assumption things started to go sour.
This happened because we were not consciously aware of our own core needs, or each other’s. As a result, we couldn’t meet those needs for ourselves or communicate them in a way that empowered each other to meet them. So instead, we created unconscious strategies to get our needs met, like nagging and manipulation, which led to blurred boundaries and resentments.
Eventually we became co-dependent, as we felt as if we each needed the other to keep us happy and satisfied. We knew we weren’t getting along as we once did, but we had no idea why. Now I know.
We all have core needs, and they drive most of our behaviors, whether we realize it or not. By core needs I mean elements like safety, connection, autonomy, peace, meaning, and love.
When we aren’t consciously aware of our core needs it’s often because we’ve become too distracted by other egoic needs, like the need for success, wealth, control, and dominance. Our core needs then become misunderstood and miscommunicated, which leads to us meeting our partner’s needs under duress or not at all.
Here’s a simple example from my life to explain.
Around a year ago my partner and I were having some minor ructions in our relationship. Nothing major, just some low-level tremors. I’m sure you know the type.
I’d moved into her house a few months earlier, and we were still navigating the “how things are done around here” phase of the relationship, as I saw it. One of the areas of frustration for me was that she was always asking me to do things she could quite easily do herself, like taking out the trash.
I’d do this, but kept thinking it would be easier if she did it herself whenever she noticed instead of always asking me. It triggered a lot of stuff in me, and I didn’t handle it well. I’d either fly off the handle and lash out, saying something I’d later regret, or I’d repress my emotions and go passive-aggressive, pretending everything was fine as my blood silently boiled.
On this occasion, though, I stopped and slowed down. I became curious about why this was so important to her, and we had a conversation that changed everything for me.
For my partner, I wasn’t just taking the trash out. I was meeting her need to feel safe and protected, and ultimately, loved. When she asked me to take out the trash, it wasn’t because she was being lazy. It was because, for one reason or another, this met those needs for her.
The problem was, she’d never shared that this was about more than taking out the trash, so I interpreted her words through the lens of my life experiences and childhood memories, and it annoyed the hell out of me. But when I learned about the core need I was meeting for her, I totally understood it. Now I love putting the trash out, and I never thought I’d ever say that.
When we continued to explore this I realized it went beyond the trash. I protect her and make her feel safe in many areas of our lives, which in turn makes her feel loved and cared for. Other things that met the same need for her were:
- Securing the house before bed
- Checking the car before long journeys
- Standing on the outside of the path
- Looking after our dog
It’s worth noting here that we must also be able to meet our own needs. This isn’t about solely depending on someone else to make us feel how we want to feel.
If we put the responsibility of meeting all our needs in someone else’s hands, we’ll never feel whole, strong, independent, or in control of our happiness and contentment. We’ll likely end up using unconscious strategies, like nagging or manipulation, to get our needs met, as my partner and I did. And we’ll also become increasingly needy and controlling.
The key is to create a balance between honoring own needs and communicating with our partner when there’s a need they can meet, if they’re willing and able.
We must also be aware that sometimes our needs might clash. For example, you and your partner might both have a need to feel safe and may look to each other to meet that need in the same exact way. In these situations it’s crucial that you become aware of this and discuss it together to find compromises that support you both.
The important thing is that you understand what’s driving each of you so can set the stage for open communication and loving compromise instead of getting caught up in the same petty arguments over and over again.
This can be harder than you may think. Oftentimes we don’t realize that our partner’s frustrating, demanding requests are actually badly communicated unmet needs, and we also don’t realize our own motivations.
How can we dig a little deeper to get to the root of the issues? Here’s a simple exercise I learned from Harville Hendrix to help you and your partner understand, communicate, and meet each other’s needs:
Step 1: Put aside some time and create a peaceful, intimate space for you and your partner.
Turn off your cell phones, put the kids to bed, if you have any, and take a moment to create a safe and relaxing space between you both.
Step 2: Get two pieces of paper so you can each write the answers to these three questions:
- What do you need from your partner to help you feel loved and cared for that they currently do?
- What do you need from your partner to help you feel loved and cared for that they’ve stopped doing?
- What do you need from your partner to help you feel loved and cared for that they’ve never done before?
Once you have completed writing out your list, highlight the ones that are most important to you.
Step 3: Now swap your sheet with your partner.
Take a look at their list and get curious about them. Ask questions to better understand the needs behind each one.
For example, it may not seem particularly important to you to give each other a play-by-play of your day right after work. But this might meet your partner’s need to feel connected to you and express their emotions.
Once you peel back the layers, you’ll be better able to create compromises if need be. So if you require space right after work to decompress, you could suggest discussing each other’s day over dinner, instead, so you both get your needs met.
Step 4: Get clear on what you can and can’t do—and commit.
Note on each other’s lists which things you are prepared to do for each other and which you are not. Then share this with each other and commit to doing one thing on each other’s list every day for two weeks.
Step 5: Communicate throughout the process.
Whenever your partner does one of your requests thank them for it and tell them how you feel as a result. This is important because you will both become more committed to this exercise when you understand the impact you are making for each other.
I’ve done this exercise with my partner, and it was a simple and moving experience. You will find that your partner’s needs are not always what you think they are, and the simple things that might seem inconsequential to you are the ones that mean the most to them.