Why talking about needs is important in a relationship
In couples therapy partners can often feel that their needs are not being met and, despite their best efforts, get frustrated when their partner cannot fulfil these unmet needs. Marshall B. Rosenburg PhD and author of Non-Violent Communication - A Language of Life argues there may be a reason for this.
Dr Rosenburg suggests that couples and human beings in general seldom communicate needs in a very clear way or are unaware of what they are. The following article explores the reasons for this using Rosenburg’s model as a template to help couples reflect on what they truly want from their partners and to articulate that clearly to avoid confusion.
What is Non-Violent Communication (NVC)?
This model devised by Rosenburg seeks to give people the tools to express their needs through observations (When I see…), feelings (I feel…) needs ( I need…) and requests (Would you consider…).
Action and analysis statements
These types of statements are used quite regularly by couples in session and involve sentences such as “I need you to help me out more around the house”. This piece of communication is an action statement in that it is a request to action, but does not express any particular unmet need.
For example, consider how the statements sound when we bring in how we feel “When I see the house in a mess, I feel frustrated because I need to feel more supported, would you consider finding ways we can divide the household chores in a fairer way?”. By rewording and focusing on our unmet needs (the need to feel supported) we refrain from making demands on our partner which may feel like an attack and make the probability of unhelpful conflict more likely.
Analysis statements are equally problematic as they can be heard as judgements by a partner. These statements tend to start with, I think… “I think that your problem with alcohol comes from your childhood experiences!”. It is important to remember that when attending counselling, or if you have had experience of the therapeutic process and your partner has not, taking up the counsellor role (a role they did not ask you to perform) will either shine a light on their felt inadequacies or that you’re taking a superior position over them or simply judged.
Consider this amendment to the statement “When I see you drinking, I feel disconnected from you and I need to feel useful, would you consider exploring why alcohol is important to you?” Again, you are talking about your unmet needs and your own feelings rather than pointing out your partner's flaws, which can be unhelpful for you, your partner and your counsellor.
Being vague about your needs
Consider how many times you have said to a romantic partner “I need to be loved!” only to have a vacant look stare back at you till at some point you shout “you just don’t get it do you!”. In some cases, this may be apathy and the other person does not care about your feelings. But Rosenburg argues that in actual fact the request to be loved is a vague statement, because we all express and receive love in different ways. This can be seen in the way we express love to family members, friends, work colleagues or even favourite sports team, actor or singer.
So, couples need to work on ways to articulate to their partner what they mean by the unmet needs they seek to have met. For example, “What I mean when I say that I need to feel loved is, I need to feel that I matter to you, that our connection is something that just exists between us, it is personal to us”
It may be helpful for couples to consider how they express their needs; they should be in the form of a request not an instruction, remember that as adults we have the right to autonomy and any communication heard as potential order could be met with a defensive reaction.
Consider how a request might sound if it was said to you, but keep in mind that you understand what you mean which can prejudice your thinking. Make sure your partner understands the unmet need and be open to the idea that it may not be able to be met in the way you would like, try and find other reasonable ways your needs can be met.
Not all needs can or should be met, for example when we feel our needs are not being met, we may become disillusioned, unfulfilled, and unhappy. These feelings can lead to disconnection and a perfectly good relationship can break down. Consider some couples who split up on amicable terms and report no breach yet felt no spark between them and ultimately, they made the decision to separate. Both parties may have been unable to meet the needs of the other and thus the ability to reconnect was not possible.
As mentioned earlier about autonomy, as adults we have our own agency, or at least that is the idea within a democratic society where ideas about right and wrong are continuously debated. If a partner’s needs involve the other surrendering too much agency or causes them harm then it could be argued this need may be based on an unreasonable request. For example, for someone who needs to have their need for power and control subjects a partner to threats and coercive control techniques then it would be reasonable for the other partner not to seek to meet this need.
Marshall Rosenburg’s NVC can help couples articulate their needs and help both partners feel heard and loved. Being specific about in what ways a partner is not meeting our needs and ways that they can be met is a useful tool because as relationships age, a couple’s need’s seldom stay the same. So checking in with your partner about how the relationship is going can help you keep on top of things.
If couples are struggling to articulate their needs to one another then couple’s counselling can help by working on communication. From a systemic therapy position the couples focus on the counsellor the partner not speaking is placed in the role of observer and may hear their partner’s issues in a different way. It is important that both partners feel heard by the counsellor but keep in mind that counsellors are not there to take sides and will gently bring attention to any partner trying to place them in the role of judge. Their role is to facilitate the sessions to help the couple draw their own agreeable resolutions.