Way back in 1943, American psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper titled, “A Theory of Motivation.” In it, he set up a hierarchy of human needs from the most basic, physical needs (like food, shelter, etc.) at the bottom through safety (sense of security, employment, health, etc.) all the way to what he called self-actualization, which is the fulfillment of one’s potential and talents, along with basic relationship needs, including sense of belonging, love and affection, respect, and esteem. And this is where romantic and intimate relationships fall on the hierarchy.
Romantic relationships are complicated. You get this if you’ve ever been in one or are now in one. And if you’ve ever had a relationship/partnership “go south,” you get it even more.
According to psychologists and relationship experts, there are between 7 and 10 reasons for relationship failures. Among them, most seem to agree that lack of commitment, unmet expectations, infidelity, and lack of communication with accompanying conflict are at the top. All these reasons revolve around a larger concept – one or both partners are not meeting their basic needs. The result? No relationship satisfaction.
Thus, a healthy relationship means that both physical and emotional needs are being met. And we are here to define those basic needs so you can examine the current state of your relationship.
The term ’emotional’ has psychological overtones, relating to a person’s feelings. In any successful relationship, each partner is aware of the other’s emotional needs in a relationship and will do what they can to provide emotional support for them. In this regard, here’s a list of the most common and important emotional needs in a relationship.
Important note: Can a partner satisfy all of the emotional needs of their SO? No, they cannot. But as a relationship evolves, each partner must remain aware of the emotional needs of their other and determine which of these they can fulfill, and which will be fulfilled by others in their life.
The simplest definition of empathy is your willingness to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see a situation through their eyes.
You and your partner will not always be on the same page. But when you are not, each person needs to believe that they are feeling heard by the other. And this is where empathy comes in. And relationships, where both of you are capable of showing empathy in any circumstances, have a strong chance of long-term survival.
You have been working 14-16-hour days because of a huge project with a tight deadline. You are stressed and exhausted. Your partner made plans a few weeks ago for the two of you to meet up with some other couples for a night of clubbing. Frankly, the only thing you are looking forward to is some Chinese takeout and your bed.
You tell your partner you just can’t do it tonight. Now, they have two choices. They can get angry with you or at least express their extreme displeasure, or they can say, “I totally understand. You need some relaxation and sleep. I’ll message them and let them know. Meantime, you get yourself a nice hot bath and I’ll go get the Chinese.” That’s empathy and a strong sign of understanding and concern for your well-being too.
Related reading: Vulnerability in Relationships: How To Be More Open
Here is what it means to feel safe in close relationships:
When physical and emotional safety is present, both partners have improved mental health and feel safe expressing themselves openly and honestly.
It’s normal for partners to share interests and spend lots of quality time together, especially when their relationship is new. And they both probably feel fulfilled emotionally because of their strong emotional connection.
But like most relationships, this wears off a bit over time, and both partners tend to return to some of their original interests and activities before their relationship begins. This is totally normal and to be expected, because sometimes there are unmet needs within a relationship that can and should be met somewhere else.
Sometimes, certain emotional needs are met by a partner’s family members or close friends. Time with them alone is important. Other times, emotional needs may be met by a partner engaging in individual personal growth – going back to school, for instance.
Thus, both partners need to respect the space and autonomy needs in a relationship. In fact, healthy relationships require it. You need to do your own thing when you have that need.
Healthy relationships are not just built on mutual respect, though that does figure highly into this whole element of trust. Trust is built on honesty. Open and honest communication means that partners do not keep important information from one another. And they do not lie to protect themselves from things they don’t want their partner to know about. When one partner does this, and the other person finds out, trust is lost.
Both partners must respect each other enough to be completely honest. Once trust is lost, the offending partner will have to go to great lengths to restore a happy relationship. And it may even require couple’s therapy to get back on the right track.
Related reading: How to Build Trust in a Relationship: 15 Tips
Maslow talks about the need to belong as one of the most important human needs in relationships. And that’s what acceptance is.
Acceptance by your partner means that you are loved just as you are with all of your faults and quirks. Your partner accepts you and will not try to change who you are, your priorities, your values, or your goals in an attempt to meet their own needs.
But there are other factors involved as well. Acceptance means that your partner sees you as someone they want their friends and family to know and accept too. They make efforts to include you in events and activities with others they are close to. Make sure that you do the same – it’s an important relationship need to feel accepted.
If this is not happening, and you are feeling a bit like an outsider, you need to communicate your feelings via a serious conversation. Be direct and state that you don’t feel accepted and thus do not feel secure. If things don’t change, this may not be the right person for you.
What does being a priority actually mean in a relationship? First of all, it does not mean that your partner puts you first 100% of the time. To expect this means that you are highly insecure or a narcissist. To demand this is probably one of those deal-breakers that will kill your relationship. Remember, among other needs in a relationship, is the need and the right to have your own time and to pursue individual interests and goals.
Related reading: Insecure Men: How a Fragile Ego Can Ruin Romance
So, while you cannot expect your partner to focus on only you, you can still expect you to be one of their top priorities. If you feel that you are always #2 in their lives, then something is not right. Here are a few examples:
These are clear signs that you are not a priority and that they are not meeting your relationship needs.
On the other hand, you have to be mindful that there will be times when others they are close to have relationship needs, too. Maybe a close friend has a crisis, and they have to cancel something with you to help them out. Maybe a close family member needs their help, and they have to spend a lot of time providing physical and emotional support to them.
Be reasonable, see the balance, but also be aware that if you are continually put on the “back burner,” this is probably not the relationship for you.
Again, we have to define what this actually means. In short, it relates to the whole concept of empathy. This is one of those needs in a relationship that can make or break it.
If your partner focuses only on their own needs, they are not validating yours, which could be somewhat different from theirs.
So what do you do in this situation? You start by having that talk about it. You have to make your needs known and be sure that they have the understanding that your needs are just as essential as theirs. It is really a matter of balance and compromise between partners.
This may be the time for both of you to prioritize your individual needs and agree on which ones you will both focus on. That way you will both feel supported and validated – a healthy way to communicate, compromise, and strengthen your relationship.
“When we talk about ’emotional intimacy’ we are referring to the sense of closeness you develop with another person over time. Having this kind of bond with someone will usually involve feeling safe, accepted, and understood. The other person comes to understand how your mind works and how you will react to things. They begin to understand your thought processes on an intimate level… emotional intimacy provides a deeper connection that allows each person in the relationship to express worries and vulnerabilities without fear. It means that you can wholly be yourself without worrying that anything you do puts your relationship at risk.”
Andreas Narum, psychologist and couples therapist
Two other aspects of intimacy and connection are intellectual and spiritual. Intellectual intimacy means that the two of you can share differing ideas and opinions about lots of things with both partners expressing those without fear and being open to learning rather than just debating.
Spiritual intimacy does not mean that both partners in a relationship share the same religion. It does mean that, on a higher level, they share the same values and principles as they approach life. Partners meet on common ground, for example, on their commitment to important life principles – honesty, integrity, faithfulness, and such. If you have major differences in these areas, your relationship needs will not be met.
Related reading: What Are the Symptoms of Soul Ties?
We cannot leave this discussion without a serious look at physical needs in a relationship. Most people in a relationship will feel physical desire toward their partner. Of course, this is perfectly normal, and you spend time together being physically intimate in a variety of ways.
Both of you have to determine what your physical relationship needs are and how you can satisfy them, even though they may be somewhat different. And when they do differ, it will be important to communicate those needs and reach a point of compromise – the whole point of a healthy relationship.
You are into physical touch, even in public or when you are out at social events. That physical touch – handholding, an arm around the shoulder, a brief kiss, and such – is important to you. You want your partner to display this physical intimacy in front of others.
Your partner, though, is not into public physical intimacy. They avoid it in favor of physical intimacy in private when you are alone together.
How do you resolve this difference? Much of this depends on how important the public display of affection is to you in this relationship. Sometimes, it can be a bit of a mental health issue. You may have some insecurities or tend to be jealous and have a need for others to know that your partner “belongs” to you.
If your partner accepts your current need, they will try to accommodate you, at least in part. But as you become more secure in your relationship, that need may dissipate.
Related reading: Understanding Physical Touch Love Language
How important is sex in your daily life? How important is it to your partner? These needs may vary.
Sex is a normal part of any romantic relationship, but the amount and type that each partner needs is something that must be discussed openly.
Suppose that your sexual needs are rather traditional. You enjoy sex in the bedroom, even in a few different positions, and you need foreplay and an intimate period of afterglow. Your partner enjoys more variety in sexual activity. They want to try more variety of positions, places, and even some kinky activities.
How to resolve this? Again, this is a time for honest and open communication. And from that communication should come some compromise, so that both of your needs will be met.
Related reading: How to Be a Better Lover – Inside and Out
As we go through life, we may have a number of relationships. And in those relationships, we try to have our needs met. But everyone’s needs in a relationship vary, they can change over time, and only you have the power to satisfy your own needs by 100%. Thus, you should remember that there are two overriding principles at play in all of this discussion of fulfilling needs in a relationship:
People in relationships have priorities of needs. One may value trust and personal space the most; another may value empathy and security more than anything else. These relationships can be healthy and successful if both partners are willing to meet the needs of the other while they have their needs met, too.
Finally, don’t delude yourself by thinking your romantic partner can satisfy all of your relationship needs. Nor should you expect them to. You have relationships with friends and family that can also meet some of your relationship needs. They do too. Both of you need to prioritize those needs in your relationship, and then seek relationship satisfaction for other needs with others you are close to.