10 Emotional Needs of Couples
Build a secure and stable relationship by identifying your emotional needs
Posted Feb 05, 2020
Part of my practice in psychotherapy is working with individuals who are struggling with anxiety or depression caused by circumstances in their lives. We often work together for 8 to 12 weeks until symptoms fade out due to the individual’s changes in patterns of thought, behavior, and awareness. For clients who are in a couples’ relationship, the remaining issues that are still to be resolved become apparent at that point in the therapy process. The remaining problems are usually tied to specific concerns in their relationships, such as arguing frequently, feeling distant or lonely, being sexually frustrated, or feeling unloved and unappreciated.
One of the common complaints from clients is that their spouse or partner doesn’t listen to them. They feel unheard, unimportant to the other person, and essentially unloved. When this complaint occurs, I find it helpful to explain it in the context of basic emotional needs. The relationship complaints almost always relate to one (or more) of 10 emotional needs, which are not being met in the relationship. To borrow a definition from psychologist Willard Harley, an emotional need is “a craving that, when satisfied, leaves you with a feeling of happiness and contentment, and, when unsatisfied, leaves you with a feeling of unhappiness and frustration."
The 10 most common emotional needs were identified by Harley after interviewing numerous couples (Harley, 2001). The following is a list of those top ten needs, along with some examples and explanation of the need. There is no particular order of importance within this list since all that matters is deciding what is important to an individual and to that person’s partner. They are listed here in alphabetical order.
- Admiration/Appreciation: Receiving compliments, comments about positive traits, appreciation for work done at home or at a job, avoidance of criticism
- Affection: Receiving a hug, a “love you” note, a text greeting, a loving smile, holding hands
- Companionship in Recreational Activity: Participating together in a sport or hobby that requires more than one person, such as tennis, basketball, or a game of cards
- Domestic Support: Getting help with cooking meals, washing dishes, doing laundry, house cleaning, child care, pet care
- Family Commitment: Spending quality time with children, teaching/modeling values, sharing responsibility for children’s well-being
- Financial Support: Having a partner who provides an income, having a certain standard of living, having a partner who stays within an agreed-upon budget
- Honesty/ Openness: Willingness to reveal facts about past and present events, as well as hopes and plans for the future
- Intimate Conversation: Having discussions to inform or ask questions, discussing topics of mutual interest, willingness to listen to each other, giving and receiving undivided attention
- Physical Attractiveness: Factors such as weight, clothing style, hairstyle, and hygiene
- Sexual Fulfillment: Having sexual closeness (this usually predates the relationship and is distinct from the need for affection)
Most of my clients are at least vaguely aware that they have personal emotional needs that take priority other others. For example, one client may not have a strong need for financial support but may feel a need for appreciation or admiration. Frequently, that person’s partner may not feel the same need for admiration, but does have a strong need for domestic support.
Harley interviewed numerous couples in therapy and asked each person to identify their top five emotional needs. He determined that the several needs listed as most important by one partner were usually the least important for the other partner (Harley, 2001). Given this difference in the priority of needs, it is not surprising that many individuals have little understanding of what their partner actually needs from them emotionally. Most of us tend to assume that the other person’s needs are the same as ours.
You may have noted that some of these needs are more often reported by men, while others are more commonly reported by women. Whether or not there are gender differences is really not the relevant issue. The critical point is that all 10 emotional needs are valid and commonly experienced. Some of them may not appear to be emotional, but rather physical (sexual fulfillment), or even superficial (physical attractiveness). However, given the definition provided earlier, it is easier to acknowledge that all 10 of these stated needs are emotional in nature. When met, they result in happiness, while if unmet, they can lead to unhappiness and frustration.
In my clinical experience, there is no room for making judgments about which needs should be more important for anyone. Of course, circumstances change and needs may change. For example, the needs for domestic support, family commitment, and financial support may all increase in importance when children become part of the family.
Each person is faced with their own determination of what they can or cannot do for the other without sacrificing their own well-being. Those decisions are critical. The value of Harley’s description of needs is in the understanding and the empathy that it adds to the relationship. Each of us wants to know that we are important enough to our partner that they will at least accept our needs as valid and make efforts to meet them.
Harley, Willard F. (2001). His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage, Fifteenth Anniversary Edition. Revell Publishing.