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Five Needs Every Marriage Has

Marriages have needs. Learn what they are and how to meet them.

Key points

  • A couple's needs within a marriage can be expressed using the framework of Abraham Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs."
  • A marriage needs survival and safety, meaning there must be a basic marital agreement and an abuse-free environment.
  • A marriage needs love, esteem, and actualization. This can translate into physical affection, commitment, and supporting each other's goals.

Like it or not, you have needs. We all do. We would hardly be human if we didn't. In my work, I am often surprised by how many people—both men and women—either try to deny their needs or don't know they have them.

These unmet needs are the leading underlying factors behind most disputes and disappointments couples have. The more disputes and disappointments you have, the more tumultuous your relationship and, therefore, more likely you are to divorce.

Gaining clarity on what your personal needs are, what your marital needs are as well as how and where to get your needs met has a huge impact on the direction you take in your marriage. Once you know and understand your needs, some of you can take action to meet them. Whatever issues were causing the problems can be addressed. For others, uncovering your needs may highlight that your spouse is unwilling or incapable of meeting them.

When people have needs that are not being met in the marriage, they either go without and suffer or get their needs met somewhere else. it's not realistic or even healthy to expect your spouse to meet all of your needs, but going outside the marriage for sex, for example, is almost always hurtful to the spouse who is being cheated on.

What is it about having needs that has such negative implications? Since we all have them, why can't we be more open about our needs with ourselves and others? What's the big deal? Well, by virtue of having needs we are rendered vulnerable—a state most of us don't feel comfortable being in.

If our physical needs don't get met, we can literally die. In the realm of our emotional needs, we may not die if they are not fulfilled, but we are open to being deeply wounded and to feeling tremendous pain or sadness. In having needs, we are often dependent on others to help us get our needs satisfied. This is most true in childhood when we are the most dependent we will ever be.

How well our needs were met and what we were taught as young people about needing and being needed sets the stage for the rest of our lives, in the sense that you cannot advance to the next level of need until your more basic needs are met.

Abraham Maslow, a 20th-century psychologist, developed what he called a "Hierarchy of Needs"—a series of needs that he believed motivated us on a day-to-day basis. Maslow postulated that these needs are progressive.

In observing chimpanzees, Maslow noticed significant behavior changes depending on the level of the need: The more survival-based the need, the more agitated, aggressive, or even violent the behavior of those seeking to have that need filled was. The more advanced the need, the more inter-relational and cooperative the behavior.

Maslow saw that there was more of a sense of urgency in getting the lowest needs met (as if their life depended on it, which it did) while, on the contrary, when the primates could focus on their higher needs, they came from a calmer, more trusting and cooperative place. Maslow then translated these observations to humans and found the same patterns held true.

Marriage and the Hierarchy of Needs

Just how does a marriage survive? What must be present for both spouses to feel safe? How do both get their love needs met? And the same questions may be asked as to how both people get their esteem and actualization needs met within the marriage.

While some of the answers may differ from couple to couple, there are basic qualities of a marriage that most people in most cultures would agree must be present. By way of introduction, the Marital Hierarchy of Needs breaks down as follows:

  • Marriage Survival Needs: You must be legally married (in the eyes of the State or Church), have a mutual agreement to be married, live in the same house, or at least have regular contact with your spouse. You don't have to love or even like your spouse to have a marriage in survival mode; you simply need to maintain your status as married.
  • Marriage Safety Needs: To feel safe with each other, you take care of and provide comfort to one another, create a home, have financial security, mutual trust, mutual honesty, protect one another physically, mentally, and emotionally, and create an abuse-free environment within the marriage.
  • Marriage Love Needs: Mutual love is an obvious requirement to have a marriage that operates from this level. Kindness, compassion, companionship, intimacy, affection, sex (lovemaking) are also important factors here.
  • Marriage Esteem Needs: To reach this level, you need to have self-esteem and esteem of your spouse, mutual respect, honoring of commitments.
  • Marriage Actualization Needs: Because the lower needs have been met, one or both spouses can support each other to reach respective goals, each can sacrifice their own needs (to a healthy degree) for the bigger picture, they have maturity, they maintain a healthy balance in life, each feels a sense of fulfillment in life and they give back to the community.

We have all been taught that when it comes to marriage, "love is all you need" and, as a society, we often focus on maintaining this love. But what we are not taught is that we must feed, water, and nurture our marriage by meeting the lower needs of the union.

When we as humans don't have our basic needs met, we become more pushy, aggressive, and fear-based. When we feel safe, comfortable, loved, and esteemed, we tend to have more confidence, ease, and trust that we will continue to get what we need.

This article is an excerpt from Chapter Five of Contemplating Divorce, A Step-by-Step Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go (New Harbinger 2008).

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