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Universal Relationship Needs

The importance of companionship, affection, & support

There are a lot of ways that psychologist and researchers try to quantify the health of a relationship. Some look at the quanitity of positive interactions, others ask about satisfaction, and another group looks at how needs get met by partners. The latter is centrally important in working therapeutically with couples, and I hope the following post will highlight some information that readers can apply to their own relationships or groups of friends.

Relationships Needs Throughout Life
The basic relationship needs written about here are all things that we cannot provide ourselves, and we rely on others to help provide them for us. The original concept about this kind of need was from psychoanalytic therapists who called them "dependency needs", because we were dependent on others to meet them. Specifically, when we are first born into the world, almost every need except for oxygen is a dependency need. An infant is dependent on caregivers for food, comfort, care, etc. As we get older, these needs change because we learn to provide some of these things for ourselves. However, as adults, there is still a universal set of relationship needs that remain. These are

1. Companionship / Belonging
2. Affection (Verbal and Physical)
3. Emotional Support / Validation

For couples, these needs are ideally met in the partnership. Strong couples are able to be good companions (sharing their day to day lives, personal histories, and interests together), give verbal and physical affection (affirmations, hugs, sexual intimacy, compliments, etc), and provide emotional support (being there to help during tough times, validations when the person is struggling, etc).

In a healthy relationship, both members of a couple get used to depending on the other for these needs, and when they are not met, each person starts to become dissatisfied, which ultimately can lead to a break up. For a good model on fulfilling these in your relationship, read "Healthy Relationships".

Individuals that are not currently in a partnership need to have these met in other ways. Usually a lot of this occurs in strong bonds with friends and family. A good example would be a group of friends or a family that knows you well, gives big hugs when they see you, always get your back and know the right thing to say when you are under stress, and make you feel like you have an important place in their lives.

Another wrinkle is that people have different levels of these needs. It is generally believed that a lot of these variations are due to our early relationship experiences, which you can read more about here: Attachment Styles.

Additional Relationship Needs
It is also important to note that these are usually not the only needs people have in relationships, they are just the universal set. Since we all have variations on our family systems and experiences relating to others, almost everyone has some individualized needs as well. For example, in addition to the basic set, some people have different needs for amount of control in a relationship, or have specific requests to feel balanced and comfortable in it. Some of these can ultimately be changed if the person wants to work on it, especially if it is do to negative or traumatic experiences in an earlier part of life (abuse, neglect, assault, infidelity from a previous partner, etc).

When Needs Are Not Met
The results of these needs not being met are different depending on the individual on where he or she is in life. If these needs are not met when we are children, it can lead to longer lasting problems relating to others. As adults, not having these met adequately leads to feelings of loneliness and sometimes can move into hopelessness or depression. Most adults can manage some periods of time without these being adequately met, but it is important for our overall health that they are attended to.

Unfortunately, many family cultures and role expectations in the United States dismiss the importance of these needs, and instill values that not needing these things is somehow a superior way of being. When a person holds these values, and these needs are not met, there can be a compounded level of shame and distress, which is more complicated to work through. These can also get in the way of meeting the needs of your partner or friends. Some examples of values or beliefs that interfere with these are: "I don't need anyone", "I can always rely on myself", "I don't want to burden others with my problems", "crying or being angry doesn't solve anything", and "I only say 'i love you' infrequently because it will mean more when I say it".


Will Meek PhD is a counseling psychologist in Providence, Rhode Island. Get notifications of all his new posts through Facebook.

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