by Carista Luminare, Ph.D.
When you feel neglected by your partner, it’s often because someone is unaware or suppressing one or more essential human needs.
All people share the same basic human needs. Sometimes they are simple and easily fulfilled. At other times, they are complex and nuanced – and they take more time and skill to satisfy.
How savvy are you in recognizing what’s behind your feeling of neglect?
In 1943, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced the “Hierarchy of Needs,” which is still used today to understand our developmental requirements as we grow throughout our life.
Maslow proposed that healthy human beings have specific needs which he arranged in a hierarchy, presented as a multi-level pyramid, with higher needs coming into focus only when the lower, more basic needs are met.
Maslow called the bottom four levels of the pyramid ‘deficiency needs’ because a person becomes anxious if they are not met. The first level, at the bottom, are our physiological needs such as air, water, food, rest and sleep. The second level are our safety needs, including personal, health and financial security, and environmental and job stability. The third level of needs are our social needs, including belonging, friendship, being loved, family, and relationship intimacy. The fourth tier are our self-esteem needs, which include personal power, status, recognition, and being valued by others.
Maslow called the fifth level of the pyramid a ‘growth need’ because it enables a person to ‘self-actualize,’ to reach their fullest potential through personal development, growth, and creativity.
Once a person has met their deficiency needs, they can turn their attention toward self-actualization, which includes becoming more self-aware, development of one’s virtues, and realization of one’s True Self. It also includes the pursuit and fulfillment of goals, and using one’s talents and abilities to make a difference.
“Making a difference” can be in any realm: work, parenting, marriage, spiritual development, or any form of service to uplift others, whether personal, community, or global. Another name for this need, which Charles Darwin identified in Origin of the Species, is altruism – our inner drive to support and cooperate with others.
We often work to fulfill two, three, or more needs at the same time, all at different layers of Maslow’s hierarchy. Due to our highly complex culture and lifestyle, navigating the fulfillment of our various needs requires skill, wisdom, and practice.
Your four bodies + their four bodies
It’s important to remember that we have four different “bodies,” each with their own needs. You have physical (body), emotional (feelings), mental (thoughts) and spiritual (soul) needs – and so does your partner. Sometimes your needs are aligned, and other times they are not. For example, you might want to share your feelings and thoughts and be heard, so you can feel connected. At the same time, your partner might want to snuggle in silence to feel connected. Your need for connection is aligned, but your methods are not. Secure functioning couples know how to negotiate those differences in a “win-win” way.
You may get most of your needs met in one area of life that’s important to you, and your partner agrees to let go of their own needs because they love you and want to support you. The situation may be reversed in another area of life. Ideally, you share the commitment to navigating those many differences in a spirit of kindness and collaboration to optimally fulfill as many of each other’s needs as possible.
Secure love can be described as the mutual feeling that you can depend on your partner to care about your deepest desires most of the time. There is a back-and-forth dynamic over time between giving and receiving, ensuring that you are both cared for in a balanced way with mutual sensitivity.
When your sweetheart forgets to give you the attention you need (e.g., because they are distracted, or are busy, or forgot), it’s important to know your specific needs and express them clearly, without making your partner wrong. Also you want to learn to negotiate how to have your desire considered and fulfilled in a timely manner. You may need to each give something up for mutual satisfaction.
It is your responsibility to be precise about what it is that you need, and it’s their responsibility to acknowledge your requests, and let you know whether they can fulfill them at that moment, or later, or not at all. All this can be done in an adult conversation without judgement or upset. Most of us don’t have this skill – it takes time to learn and practice together. The goal is to become increasingly attuned to your own – and each other’s – true desires in body, mind and spirit.
HOW you express your needs is the key to fulfillment.
How you express your needs is as important as what you want. In fact, how you express yourself often determines how the other person will respond. If you want someone to care for you, care about how you express your request. Is your body language, eye contact and vocal tone kind-hearted? Is it enticing? Without demand or whining?
If you make your partner wrong, through judgement or rejection, your request will likely be disregarded. Most of us feel resistant when a request is laced with overt or subtle control or hostility.
You know this from your own experience. If someone shames you or blames you for neglecting them, do you give a hoot about caring for their needs? When we feel judged or reprimanded, most of us escalate quickly into defensive reactions. Our open heart closes down in a nanosecond. If you want your partner to be open and loving in response, be open and loving with your requests.
Another problem for many of us is that expressing our deepest desires can make us feel vulnerable. What if I’m rejected? Or abandoned? Or taken advantage of? There needs to be deep trust between you and your partner in order to take the emotional risk of exposing what’s really true.
When our core needs are being satisfied, we feel empowered, engaged, supported, and safe. Our confidence and contentment about our life increases. This makes us more willing to be affectionate, engaged, and optimistic about the relationship. When our desires are appreciated as important, we can relax and open. We’re inspired to love, express tenderness, and be kind and caring.
On the other hand, when our needs are not met, it’s natural to feel anxious, sad, angry, or annoyed. Once we feel that way, it’s very difficult to remain in our adult emotional self and make clean, clear requests. Are any of these emotions your “go to” state when you’re with your partner or spouse?
Behind almost every complaint is the simple need to be cared for in a kind-hearted way. Each partner must develop the skill of “need attunement.”
“Attunement” is the instinctual ability to sense and respond to the feelings and needs of others (as well as your own). As we grow up, we are supposed to learn how to self-regulate our own feelings, as well as co-regulate with other people when they are available to connect. Some partners are really good at this. You can see them being deeply aware of each other’s state of mind and feeling, making sure their partner feels loved. They also know how to relieve their partner’s distress, and they do so automatically. Or if they are not sure, they ask caring questions.
Highly attuned people have the intuitive ability to provide their partner with what they desire – even before there is a request. This leads to deep intimacy and relationship fulfillment. These folks are obviously happy together – connected like two peas in a pod. With practice, you can achieve that kind of relationship.
Cultivate the fulfillment of your relationship needs.
As a mature (or maturing) adult, the first step is to expand your understanding of your own needs. If you don’t know your own requirements, it’s unlikely you’ll get them satisfied – unless your partner is a mind-reader. Learn to clarify and express your needs. It’s critical to the development of a positive, growing connection.
Once you’re more attuned to yourself, you can become more attuned to your partner, and enhance your mutual care for each other. Sometimes needs have to be negotiated – do your best to communicate in a caring, loving way. “Honey, I know you want dinner now, but I feel the need for a 15-minute rest. You could start dinner, and I’ll join you in 15, or you could come join me and we could lie together quietly. Which one is better for you?”
Increasing your awareness and communication skills will strengthen your connection and enjoyment of each other. You can create deeper intimacy, and true fulfillment when you deeply trust that you are loved.
These are some of the most common relationship needs:
- To be accepted and empowered with affirming words.
- To be loved and cherished for who you are without having to do, be or have something that “earns” you love.
- To feel free of the need to defend yourself.
- To freely express your truth, so you are heard and respected.
- To feel safe to be vulnerable with your sensitive feelings without fear of judgement or criticism.
- To trust your partner to not unilaterally reject or abandon you.
- To know that you are their top priority, and won’t be displaced.
- To feel that your relationship is dependable and secure, even when you fight.
Think of your partner (or another person you want to have secure love with) as your “need attunement partner.” Close your eyes and ask yourself: What need am I afraid to speak out loud, because I might be rejected or disappointed? Which of my needs aren’t being met? Has it caused me to withhold my love, or close my heart to them?
Now ask yourself, “Am I willing to communicate my vulnerable truth to my partner so we can feel closer, and understand each other better? Do I feel safe to do so? Am I willing to do for them what I want them to do for me? Or would I rather wait, hoping that my partner figures it out eventually?”
When two emotionally mature adults work together in harmony to discuss a need, concern, or problem, they keep each other’s safety and security in mind. They stay aware of how they are expressing themselves, and the impact that their tone, style, and words are having on their partner.
This level of deep care sets up a positive cycle of wanting to hear their partner’s desires and do their best to fulfill them. In this kind of secure functioning relationship, their goal is to bring sensitivity and understanding to the conversation. They both lead what they need, speaking to the other person in the way they want to feel spoken to, and relating to the other in the way they most want to be related to.