By Carista Luminare, Ph.D.
All human beings have similar core needs, whether we’re infants or adults. Some of the most important needs include care and attention from another person, the feeling of being deeply connected, and being a priority to someone else. The great gift of being in relationship is having these needs fulfilled.
But many people are frustrated in their romantic relationship because they aren’t getting these basic needs met, and they don’t know what to do to change the situation.
Does this resonate with you? If so, I have some practical and helpful advice to offer. As a professional relationship counselor for 40 years, I’ve helped thousands of couples shift from surviving to thriving in their ability to fulfill each other’s deep desires for dependable, positive connection. I’ve had to learn many of these lessons in my own relationships.
Everyone has their own unique style and level of mastery in expressing their needs. It often depends on your childhood conditioning – whether your parents and primary caregivers were attuned to your needs when you were young – and if they could be trusted to listen, see and value your wants so they could be addressed in real time. Their sensitivity, and their ability to care for you, defines your attachment style – the strategy you used as a child to connect (or disconnect) from your caregivers.
Some people aren’t able to identify their needs. In childhood, they may have not been allowed to have needs, or express them. Or, their needs were ignored, or made wrong – so they decided that having needs was a bad idea.
Other people are aware of their desires, but afraid to express them. This can be caused by a negative response to their expression of needs in childhood, such as being abandoned, punished, or frowned upon – whenever they made a request for care. The child then creates adaptive strategies to suppress their needs in order to avoid the pain of further rejection.
On the other side of the spectrum, if a child had very attentive parents who noticed and answered their needs immediately, they might grow up and assume that their partner will know and fulfill their needs immediately, and they’re disappointed when it doesn’t happen.
You can become more aware of your need fulfillment process and learn to make changes if it hasn’t been working well in your life.
Your LoveStyle™ can define how you express your needs
Every infant’s primal need is to be seen, heard and held in a safe and secure way by their primary attachment figure – their parents or caregivers. If something goes wrong in this natural bonding process, it results in an attachment wound. As we mature, we are supposed to learn how to navigate through our many different types of needs, and find healthy ways to get them fulfilled.
However, our childhood attachment wounds can get in the way of this developmental process. We each have a LoveStyle™, or attachment style, and this can determine how we respond to our own needs and the needs of others.
In order to create a loving partnership that feels safe, secure and nourishing, we need to understand our own LoveStyle and our partner’s LoveStyle, so we can navigate the wide range of dynamics that exist in an intimate relationship.
Research into the neuroscience of attachment identifies how we react when our sense of security is threatened, or when we get triggered by our partner. Depending on your LoveStyle, you may react in particular ways when your core needs are felt, expressed or suppressed.
When two people are “securely attached,” they are in each other’s care. This means that they have the skills to express and satisfy each other’s needs in a mutual way – in at least four out of five interactions.
People who have either of the two common insecure attachment styles – “insecure avoidant” or “insecure anxious” – find it more difficult to create a positive connection that feels dependable and loving, because they didn’t experience that kind of security with their parent or caregiver. They often lack the wisdom and skill set to know what healthy love is.
If you are an avoidant type, you tend to withdraw from relationship stress or conflict. You may not be aware that you have suppressed some of your essential needs, and you are subconsciously agitated because they are being ignored.
Do you shut down your connection to your partner by withholding your truth? Do you have a fear of being rejected if you share your feelings and concerns? You may not know how to express what you’re feeling, or why. As a child, you may have learned that being vulnerable is too risky, or that others don’t value your feelings or needs, so you can’t depend on anyone else to care about you. It’s easier to just go away and take care of yourself.
Remember: Just because you move away from the conflict, or take care of yourself, doesn’t mean that your wants are any less important. Your habit of ignoring your essential needs for how you want to be cared for by your partner can’t change if you don’t learn how to be vulnerable about your suppressed concerns and desires.
If you have the “insecure anxious” LoveStyle, you are likely less able to withhold or suppress your needs. Instead, you will do whatever it takes to re-connect to your partner. Fearing abandonment or rejection, you may raise your voice, escalate the intensity of your emotions, or argue in order to get attention. You tend to pursue the other person even if they show no interest, or try to withdraw. Behind your pursuit is the deep need to be reassured that you are not going to be abandoned, and that your needs will, in fact, be met.
People with both types of insecure attachment simply lack the wisdom of how to be successfully heard and nurtured. As an adult, many of us complain about not getting our needs met, but if you’re not clear about what you specifically need, how can your partner care for you?
Or if you think you know your partner’s need because you have that requirement, how do you know they share that same want if you haven’t asked them?
There is a third LoveStyle called “insecure traumatic.” This is an additional complication that results from a child being scared, traumatized, or abused by a parent or primary attachment figure. When a person with this style gets distressed, their reaction is often disproportionate to the situation. They may emotionally explode or severely withdraw in reaction because their unresolved trauma from the past got triggered. In these sudden reactions, they are often so disassociated from the present moment that they are distantly separated from their actual needs.
When you feel insecure or triggered in your relationship, your LoveStyle grabs the wheel and starts driving your automatic behavior. With the couples I counsel, this type of reaction is often the chief complaint between partners. If you find yourself involved in endless processing, having the same disagreement over and over without resolution, there’s a good chance that your attachment style impacts your ability to lead what you need.
How to lead what you need: A lifelong practice
Leading what you need is a commitment to recognizing what you need or want from your partner, and consciously initiating that behavior in the relationship. For example, if you want more affection and you need a hug, wrap your arms around your partner as they walk in the door. If you want to be seduced into intimate sex, what are you waiting for? Start initiating the connection you want in order to inspire your partner to join you in the adventure.
Do you want to be listened to with heartfelt concern? Kindly ask your partner compassionate questions and appreciate what they share, then ask them to reciprocate. My partner and I make a playful game out of it.
You can create what you want by leading it – creating the experience you want. If you want space, kindly and clearly communicate your desire. How much time do you need, and when will you be back to re-connect? Do you desire more love? Call your partner by an affectionate name with a loving tone, especially when you want to inspire them to notice and fulfill your wishes.
When my clients express anger or sadness about their partner or spouse, I know that they’re trying to process a real grievance – an essential human need that isn’t being fulfilled. They may want to be listened to with respect, or be cared for in a specific way, or comforted, or simply have their desires acknowledged.
When I feel hurt, or frustrated, or feel a complaint rising, I know that I have a need that is not being fulfilled – and it’s my job as an emotional adult to discover what it is. I pause, look inside myself, and ask these two simple questions: What is my specific need right now? How do I want my partner to support me?
I can then communicate my insights to my partner as a direct request, which makes it easier for him to say “Yes.” For example, I might say, “Hon, I notice that I’m stressed because I’m not getting enough affection. Will you hold me for a while?” Or, even better, I can actually lead that behavior by reaching out and touching him, inviting him lovingly to respond. If I lead with hostility, such as blame or judgement, I understand that he will probably not be open to my bids for connection.
Because my partner likely has no clue that I have a specific desire, it is my responsibility to create the relationship conditions that will get my needs fulfilled. If I want him to love and support me, especially when I feel distressed because he hasn’t been doing so, I remind myself to lead what I need – with as much loving presence as I can.
Expressing your needs does not ensure they will be met
Mastering the art of leading what you need does not necessarily mean that you have to say “yes” to every one of your partner’s requests. Secure partners care for three different aspects of the relationship: Me, Thee, and We. The needs of all three are equally important. Sometimes your own needs are primary, sometimes your partner’s needs are the priority, and there are times when the relationship’s needs are most important. For example, the relationship might need you to spend more relaxed time together, especially when you’re both very busy with your own projects.
The goal is to be sensitive to the other person’s reality, your own truth, and the relationship’s needs all at the same time. You make a commitment to keep all three as healthy as possible. You might say, “Honey, I know you want me to spend time with you after dinner, but I have this important work to do tonight, so I can’t. I promise that I’ll put work aside so we can have Friday night and all day Saturday together. Will that work for you?” After being direct about your truth and your commitment to care, check to see whether it works for them. Commit to a win-win outcome, and negotiate together toward mutual benefit and fulfillment.
When we express our truth in a caring way, and there is mutual concern and respect, we can navigate and negotiate our wide spectrum of needs, concerns and considerations. This offers you both a daily opportunity to become wiser and more loving together.
If you want an emotionally enriching dynamic with your partner, you both need to have your adult self in the driver’s seat. It’s easy to let your early childhood patterns and reactions hijack a conversation.
Be willing to lead what you need – because the other person is likely unaware of your desires. You can be serious or playful, simple or elaborate. Your HOW always matters, so lead the connection with a kind tone, and a clear request – or at least, as clear as your heart can muster.
Read next: Childhood Wounds May Be Sabotaging Your Adult Relationships