12/16/12: We all have relationship needs that are important for us to be healthy. Some of these are particular to us (certain levels of control, trust, or ways of communicating), but there is a basic, universal set of needs that we all have that researchers and psychologists have been working on understanding for decades. These include companionship, affection, and support. This post will cover each of these in more depth, and is an update to a previous post of the same topic.
The basic relationship needs written about here are all things that we cannot provide ourselves, and we rely on others to help provide them for us. The original concept about this kind of need was from psychoanalytic therapists who called them “dependency needs”, because we were dependent on others to meet them. Specifically, when we are first born into the world, almost every need except for oxygen is a dependency need. An infant is dependent on caregivers for food, comfort, care, etc. As we get older, these needs change because we learn to provide some of these things for ourselves. However, as adults, there is still a universal set of relationship needs that remain. These are
1. Companionship & Belonging: this is our need to share our lives and have a sense of belonging, acceptance, and affiliation with others. When this is met we usually feel contentment, warmth, and security.
2. Affection (Verbal & Physical): this is our need have care from others expressed to us through words and touch. When this is met we usually feel happiness and excitement, and have a sense of confidence.
3. Emotional Support & Validation: this is our need to be attended to, validated, and supported when we are struggling. When this is met, we usually feel a sense of relief, relaxation, grounding, and efficacy.
For couples, these needs are ideally met in the partnership. Strong couples are able to be good companions (sharing their day to day lives, personal histories, and interests together), give verbal and physical affection (affirmations, hugs, sexual intimacy, compliments, etc), and provide emotional support (being there to help during tough times, validations when the person is struggling, etc).
In a healthy relationship, both members of a couple get used to depending on the other for these needs, and when they are not met, each person starts to become dissatisfied, which ultimately can lead to a break up. For more on this, check out Healthy Relationships.
Individuals that are not currently in a partnership need to have these met in other ways. Usually a lot of this occurs in strong bonds with friends and family. A good example would be a group of friends or a family that knows you well, gives big hugs when they see you, always get your back and know the right thing to say when you are under stress, and make you feel like you have an important place in their lives.
Another wrinkle is that people have different levels of these needs. It is generally believed that a lot of these variations are due to our early relationship experiences.
Additional Relationship Needs
It is also important to note that these are usually not the only needs people have in relationships, they are just the universal set. Since we all have variations on our family systems and experiences relating to others, almost everyone has some individualized needs as well. For example, in addition to the basic set, some people have different needs for amount of control in a relationship, or have specific requests to feel balanced and comfortable in it. Some of these can ultimately be changed if the person wants to work on it, especially if it is due to negative or traumatic experiences in an earlier part of life (abuse, neglect, assault, infidelity from a previous partner, etc).
When Needs Are Not Met
The results of these needs not being met are different depending on the individual on where he or she is in life. If these needs are not met when we are children, it can lead to longer lasting problems relating to others. As adults, not having these met adequately leads to feelings of loneliness and sometimes can move into hopelessness or depression. Most adults can manage some periods of time without these being adequately met, but it is important for our overall health that they are attended to.
Unfortunately, many family cultures and role expectations in the United States dismiss the importance of these needs, and instill values that not needing these things is somehow a superior way of being. When a person holds these values, and these needs are not met, there can be a compounded level of shame and distress, which is more complicated to work through. These can also get in the way of meeting the needs of your partner or friends. Some examples of values or beliefs that interfere with these are: “I don’t need anyone”, “I can always rely on myself”, “I don’t want to burden others with my problems”, “crying or being angry doesn’t solve anything”, and “I only say ‘i love you’ infrequently because it will mean more when I say it”.
Generally, counseling (particularly for couples) can be very helpful for people wanting to understand relationship needs, and find healthy ways of meeting them in life.