Thomas Fiffer poses the one question that just might save your next relationship.
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You just might find
You get what you need
You Can’t Always Get What You Want—The Rolling Stones
“We don’t connect anymore.”
“I’m so bored with her.”
“All we do is fight.”
“We haven’t had sex in weeks.”
On the surface, every breakup is different, but deep down, every breakup is the same. Infidelity, emotional distance, loss of interest, communication breakdown, sexual shutdown, even meeting someone else—these are not the causes of relationship death but symptoms of the same underlying disease: the unmet needs of one or both partners. Unmet needs are relationship kryptonite; they weaken and kill by causing unhappiness, frustration, disappointment, and resentment. There are numerous unmet needs, but only three distinct types:
- Unmet needs we don’t know we have
- Unmet needs we know we have but don’t express
- Unmet needs we express but our partner ignores
We’ll look at each type in a minute, but with all three, we tend to blame our partner—for not discovering, not intuiting, or not responding—when in truth we are the ones responsible for our own happiness and the health of our relationships.
You might ask, shouldn’t the question be, “Am I giving enough to my partner?” because we’ve been taught that relationships are about giving. They are, but they’re also about staying, and we don’t stay where we’re not getting our basic emotional and physical needs met. So self-assessing your giving, while healthy, can only provide you with part of the picture. You may be loving and devoted and giving your partner everything you’ve got but still not meeting a need that you or possibly neither of you know about. Conversely, you may not be getting what you need for the relationship to survive. Only you can determine if it’s working for you, so it’s up to you to decide, “Am I getting enough?” and if not, “What will I do about it?”
By asking yourself this question—and answering it honestly—you will force yourself to confront any dissatisfaction you may have with the relationship and to open a constructive discussion of that dissatisfaction with your partner, a discussion we have much too infrequently. We’re surprisingly reluctant to bring up real relationship issues or ask for what we want. It’s somehow emotionally counterintuitive even though we know intellectually that communicating through the problems is the only way to ensure a healthy, long-term partnership. Instead, we bicker about specific instances of behavior—failure to take out the garbage, forgetting an important date, coming home late, or not responding to a text—then generalize these into criticisms of character. If you are unhappy but can’t put your finger on the source, you may have a hidden unmet need that requires self-exploration, either self-guided or in therapy. But much of the time, the unmet needs are shockingly basic. They include:
- Feeling supported
- Feeling respected
- Physical affection
- A sense of excitement
- Freedom from control
Instead of voicing these needs of their own, many people complain about their partner’s behaviors that leave these needs unsatisfied or worse, invalidate them. Making it about you and not your partner is hard, because it means owning your own needs, admitting your vulnerability, and taking charge of the relationship dynamic instead of passively blaming everything wrong on your partner. After a while, if there is no discussion or only arguments about who’s to blame, the partner with the unmet needs goes and gets them met elsewhere—at first emotionally, and eventually sexually. Infidelity is less often a sudden, spur of the moment decision based on instant physical attraction and more frequently the result of an absence of intimacy or affection in the primary relationship.
Coming back to the three types of unmet needs, each one results in different types of problems.
Unmet needs we don’t know we have cause us to feel unsupported even though our partner may be extremely supportive. An unmet need we’re unaware of is like a leak in the psyche or internal emotional bleeding. The love and support we receive drains out through an invisible wound, and we can’t replace it fast enough. We need constant transfusions, and these drain our partner and can make the relationship unsustainable.
Unmet needs we know we have but don’t express cause us to feel frustrated and angry, as much with ourselves for not saying anything as with our partners for not intuitively knowing what we want and giving it. They are sores that fester and never heal as long as we stay silent. And the longer we go without saying anything, the harder it gets to speak up, because we’ve led our partner to believe everything is OK. But eventually, we can’t take it anymore and start screaming.
Unmet needs we express but our partner ignores are the most devastating of the three types. These cause us to feel worthless and even non-existent. Few things are more invalidating than having someone treat you as if you don’t matter. Ignored needs knock the wind out of us, leaving us in a perpetual, oxygen-starved gasp. But ignored needs also give us the clearest indication that we’re not getting enough, that our needs are not being taken seriously, and that something has to change if the relationship is to continue.
The best way to protect your relationship against the damaging effects of unmet needs is to ask yourself regularly, “Is my partner giving me enough?” and answer yourself honestly. If the answer is yes, you’re in good shape. If the answer is no, you can put your needs out on the table and give your partner the opportunity to meet them. You can’t always get everything you want, but if you try this, there’s a good chance you’ll get more of what you need.
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