16 August 2007

Emotional Needs In A Relationship

All people have emotional needs that must be met by other people. In a committed relationship, it is natural that some portion, often a large portion of them, would be met by your partner.

Steve Harley, a marriage and family therapist has a website called MarriageBuilders. He also runs MarriageBuilders seminars. I do not know anything about the efficacy of his approach, but one thing that seems pretty good to me is his list of the ten emotional needs that people need to have met. In alphabetical order, they are:
  • Admiration - "Many of us have a deep desire to be respected, valued and appreciated by our spouse. We need to be affirmed clearly and often." This one is easy to fulfill, but it is a two edged sword. Critical words can really hurt someone with this need.
  • Affection - Expressions of caring. Hugs, foot rubs, flowers, walks. For many people the defining emotional need. Affection need is often high for women.
  • Conversation - "Good conversation is characterized by the following: (1) using it to inform and investigate each other, (2) focusing attention on topics of mutual interest, (3) balancing the conversation so both have an equal opportunity to talk, and (4) giving each other undivided attention while talking to each other. "Conversation fails to meet this need when (1) demands are made, (2) disrespect is shown, (3) one or both become angry, or (4) when it is used to dwell on mistakes of the past or present. Unless conversation is mutually enjoyable, a couple is better off not talking to each other at all." Conversation need is often high for women.
  • Domestic Support - Financial Support and Domestic Support. Bring home the bacon; fry it up in a pan. These often carry gender biases, but they work both ways. The working spouse is expected to contribute at home. The arrival of children can place a huge stress on this one.
  • Family Commitment - Being "active in the moral and educational development of the children." I would include their physical development as well.
  • Financial Support - This one, like physical attractiveness, may seem a bit shallow. But here's a way to think about it. " It may be difficult for you to know how much you need financial support, especially if you were recently married or if your spouse has always been gainfully employed. But what if, before marriage, your spouse had told you not to expect any income from him or her. Would it have affected your decision to marry? Or, what if your spouse could not find work, and you had to financially support him or her throughout life?"
  • Honesty and Openness - "Those with a need for honesty and openness want accurate information about their spouses' thoughts, feelings, habits, likes, dislikes, personal history, daily activities and plans for the future."
  • Physical Attractiveness - Not just for Shallow Hal. It is important to have a spouse whose looks appeal to you. Perhaps the most important issue on this is that the couple is well-matched. I'm not sure how much I agree on this one. Maybe, your spouse has to have at least some minimum level of physical beauty.
  • Recreational Companionship - "The need for recreational companionship combines two needs into one. First, there is the need to be engaged in recreational activities and second, the need to have a companion." Recreation companionship need is often high for men.
  • Sexual Fulfillment - A need exclusively for marriage. This need cannot be ethically met outside. "When you married, you and your spouse promised to be faithful to each other for life. You agreed to be each other's only sexual partner. You made this commitment because you trusted each other to meet your sexual needs, to be sexually available and responsive to each other." Sexual fulfillment need is often high for men.
This seems like a pretty good list to me. Dr. Harley says that men and women tend to have five different needs as their highest ranked.

Men: Sexual Fulfillment, Recreational companionship, Domestic support, Physical attraction, and Admiration
Women: Conversation, Affection, Financial support, Honesty and Openness, Family commitment.
Your mileage may vary. (YMMV)
Each person has his or her priorities. Dr. Harley provides a questionnaire to help people ascertain their emotional needs.

The Five Love Languages

One fairly well know framework for defining those emotional needs is described in a book called "The Five Love Languages" by Gary Chapman. The five love languages are:
Words of Affirmation
Quality Time
Receiving Gifts
Acts of Service
Physical Touch

His premise is that by doing things that are part of your partner's love language, you fill their "tank." In turn, they feel more loving and respond by filling yours. A lot of people really like this approach. I think it makes sense. It ties in neatly with M. Scott Peck's definition of love, which is that love is not a feeling but rather a choice. It is what you do.

However, the five love languages don't work very well for me personally. I think the categories are a little vague. I like a more specific set of needs that were set out by Steve Harley.

The Six Secrets

Another framework for the emotional needs in a relationship is CREATE: chemistry, respect, enjoyment, acceptance, trust, and empathy

From the book The Six Secrets of a Lasting Relationship, by Mark Goulston. I have not read the book, but here is what I think.

From Goulston's website:
KEEP THE CHEMISTRY - Chemistry is the passion that sweeps you away when you first fall in love.
Test yourself: How often are you turned on by the way your partner looks dressed and undressed?
Answers: 1/Rarely... 2/Sometimes... 3/Often.
EARN EACH OTHER'S RESPECT - This has more to do with how good a person you are -- and how good a person your partner is -- than how good each of you makes the other feel. You demonstrate respect by how well you listen.
Test yourself: How often do you listen to your partner and hear him/her all the way through without interrupting?
Answers: 1/Rarely... 2/Sometimes... 3/Often.
ENJOY EACH OTHER - This is about having fun being together. When you're with your spouse -- or think about him -- it makes you feel lighter and puts a smile on your face. Unpleasant people -- judgmental, easy to disappoint and difficult to please -- drain your energy.
Test yourself: How often do you and your partner dine alone together?
Answers: 1/Rarely... 2/Sometimes... 3/Often.
ACCEPT YOUR PARTNER AS IS - It is better to hope for change, rather than to keep acceptance contingent on changes being made. When acceptance is missing, partners feel judged and as if they can't do anything right.
Test yourself: How often do you feel you can be yourself with your partner?
Answers: 1/Rarely... 2/Sometimes... 3/Often.
BUILD TRUST - Trust makes it safe to confide fears and dreams without concern that what you say will be exploited, betrayed, trivialized or ridiculed. It takes seconds to destroy trust -- and years to rebuild it.
Test yourself: How often are you able to tell your partner things you feel embarrassed or ashamed about?
Answers: 1/Rarely... 2/Sometimes... 3/Often.
EMPATHY TO DEFUSE RESENTMENT - Empathy is about understanding and feeling understood by your partner. It's asking, "What's it like for my partner right now?" Don't presume you know.
Test yourself: How frequently do you feel understood by your partner?
Answers: 1/Rarely... 2/Sometimes... 3/Often.

HOW DO YOU RATE? If you and your partner scored 3's across the board, you have the basis for a lasting relationship. Congratulations!If, however, either you or your partner scored less than 3 in any of the six areas, you may want to improve.Set aside time to talk through when and why any of those areas deteriorated. Make every effort to have a dialogue instead of a debate... to talk with instead of at or over... to listen openly rather than defensively.Then decide what each of you specifically needs to do now to restore the chemistry, respect, enjoyment, acceptance, trust and empathy so that you can fall in love again -- and stay there.

My take on Goulston: It seems pretty reasonable overall. I am not sure that the chemistry is something you can control. All the recent research indicates that it is determined by levels of neurotransmitters in your body and brain. This gets back to the bag of chemicals concept. I think the other five are extremely important. However, like the Five Love Languages, this one is not specific enough in my opinion. It is at a higher level and not as actionable as the Ten Emotional Needs by Harley.

On to More Emotional Needs In A Relationship >>>>>


  1. I am so glad I stumbled onto your blog. My boyfriend is trained in computer engineering and mathematics. We love eachother so much yet have a lot of friction in our relationship when dealing with situations involving difficult emotions. It would be funny if I were watching these conversations as a third party, but they are infuriating as a non-engineering partner trying to get my emotional needs met. I will share your blog with him and maybe we can do a better job of bridging the divide. The emotional world really is foreign and frustrating to him. Thanks again for putting yourself out there, it means a lot to those of us who love those "trained in logic and objectivity".

  2. Hi Anon,

    Thanks for your kind words. I am glad that you see some hope through this blog. Please encourage your boyfriend t leave messages if he wants to discuss or has any questions.