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Why Relationships Fail

Poor personal need management could explain relationship failure.

Key points

  • Relationships often fail, frequently with unhealthy consequences to our emotional and physical health.
  • Poor personal need management can explain relationship failure.
  • "Need Management Therapy" offers a new treatment approach to good personal need management.
Source: Kelly-Sikkema/Unsplash

Without question, the intimate relationship is complex, difficult, and challenging, so not surprisingly, it often fails.

When it does, it can devastate us not only emotionally, but physically as well. In fact, divorce and separation rank No. 2 on the all-time list of stressors. Only the death of an intimate partner ranks higher.

A Statistical Nightmare

The statistics on relationship loss are very sobering, if not shocking. To illustrate, one marriage dies every 36 seconds. The failure rate for first marriages is roughly 48% (National Center for Health Statistics). And despite its rising popularity, cohabitation is not the answer; sadly, unmarried couples who "partner up" fail at a slightly higher rate. Nor do these dismal statistics suggest that couples who survive—the nondivorced, or unseparated—bask in a heavenly bliss of warm, untroubled togetherness. Doubtless, an inestimable number of relationships hang fragilely by a thread, or are flimsy, moribund unions barely alive for questionable reasons of family, social, religious pressures, or from fears of economic or emotional loss, or, the classic, "for the sake of the children."

This is bad news, but it gets worse

At best, the marriage or cohabitation survival rate approximates a coin flip. Alarmingly, couples who marry for a second and third time split up at stratospheric levels: 60% for second marriages and 70% for the third round of nuptials. A famed English writer, Samuel Johnson, once quipped, "Remarriage is the triumph of hope over experience!" And worse, most afflicted couples rarely seek counseling, and regrettably, when they do, it often comes too late when their relationships teeter on a dangerous precipice or have already gone over it.

An embarrassing paradox

Ironically, even marriage counselors separate and divorce at roughly the national average, and according to some studies, at an even higher rate. And, to pile irony atop irony, a significant number of them don't seek treatment. Imagine, the very professionals charged with the sacrosanct duties of protecting the health and vitality of our closest relationships, suffer the same or similar injuries to their relationships, the same failure rate, and many don't seek treatment.

However, in defense of our beleaguered colleagues, I strongly believe these bewildering statistics reflect the inherent complexities, difficulties, and challenges of the intimate relationship as well as the glaring need for new, innovative, and effective treatment models and strategies.

A quick sidebar

Of course, every relationship you have ever been a part of has failed, ended, or will end. All relationships have an expiration date—they inevitably end by one means or another. But despite this mirthless fact, the majority of us optimistically choose to be partnered in close relationships and in harmony with Alfred Lord Tennyson's famous aphorism, "Tis better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all."

Just as you probably are, I'm taken aback by the bleak and discouraging statistics on separation and divorce. And I confess, I myself am a statistical victim of divorce. A sizeable portion of my motivation for developing a new couple's treatment model is born of my personal suffering coupled with an aspiration to lessen the suffering of others. Do you recall Fredrich Nietzsche's famous epigram, quoted so often it has morphed into a cliche, "Whatever doesn't kill you simply makes you better"? Well, here's my "better"—the "Need Management Therapy" treatment model, or "NMT," for short. In large part, it's the sublimation of my divorce pain. I propose it as an alternative short-term approach to extant couple's therapies that tend to be lengthy, complicated, and difficult to apply, even for seasoned therapists, whereas NMT can be readily deployed like a "first responder," as a sole therapeutic intervention, or it can be used as an addendum, or a compliment to conventional couple therapies.

NMT: a simple, effective organizing perspective

A high-ranking NMT "article of faith," as it were, is this important presupposition: Human needs are self-defining, self-constructing, fundamental building blocks of the self. Therefore, their effective management and the effective management of the emotions orbiting them are paramount to creating and maintaining a positive sense of oneself and a healthy intimate relationship.

In condensed form, NMT teaches the couple the stepwise tools necessary to better manage their needs using these simple steps: First the couple is encouraged to identify the most predominating needs each one brings to the other, including the primary emotions most closely associated with their needs. Second, partners are taught to recognize that at their most basic, irreducible level, their needs are valid and thus deserving, or even require, active management. Third, and the last step, partners are taught specific techniques for actively and effectively representing their needs.

NMT in action

This last step is launched with an initial investiture of partner respect to grease the wheels of communication, followed by a clear expression of the need and, most crucially, the feelings that embrace it. These efforts are pursued within the framework of this overarching goal: Our individual growth and maturity and the health of our intimate relationship are tightly harnessed to the quality of our personal need management skills. Therefore, it is the effective management of the need, and not its gratification, that should be our highest priority.

For example, on those occasions when important personal needs become activated, rather than taking one's partner's willingness to listen for granted, instead, one might say, "Can I take a moment to share something very important to me?" Or "I would appreciate your understanding about something I'm very concerned about." Or "Are you real busy right now?" And so on. As simple, even as commonsensical, as this common courtesy may seem, it's important to understand that this initial investment in partner respect balances the self and partner respect scale which paves the way for a return of reciprocated respect. This vital step sets in motion a good piece of communication, and fortunately, it can be relatively quickly and easily put into play.

Next, partners learn that at their most fundamental level, their needs are legitimate and thus warrant active representation. For example, one's need to be respectfully, and sensitively understood by their partner is incontrovertibly valid. Also, and very critically, partners learn that by verbalizing the emotions generated by their needs, they achieve a necessary and deep connection within themselves, which is a precondition to having a better connection with their partner. For example, a partner might say, "When I get your understanding, I feel respected, cared for, and closer to you." Now, with this example fresh in mind, consider this related concept: Will I be any closer to my partner than I am first "close" to myself?

The magic of good need management

This last step can be the most difficult, but for a good reason: It's also the most fulfilling. For instance, effective need managers prioritize the management of their needs over the immediate gratification of their needs because as reasonable as personal need gratification may be, it doesn't promise the same personal growth or maturity, nor does it ensure the health of our relationships in the same way. Here's the magic: As an incentivizing bonus, good individual need management can rapidly spawn partner respect, like a positive contagion, and partners who respect one another are more likely to gratify each other's needs.

A common pitfall

Conversely, the often-self-centric insistence, nagging, haranguing, and other forms of unmitigated clambering for personal need gratification are a common flashpoint that frequently sparks couple discord, and when these forms of need mismanagement are chronic, they lead to longer-term erosion of the intimate partnership. Further, need mismanagement can significantly lower the probability of individual need gratification, or make it disappear altogether. Granted, of necessity prioritizing effective need management summons our best "emotional IQ" by requiring that we, in the moment, side-step, postpone, or push aside our desires/impulses for immediate need gratification, which at times can be especially challenging. After all, our needs are fundamentally valid, so why shouldn't they be gratified? Herein lies the pitfall.

Surely, poor personal need management is an ever-present couple hazard, perhaps the most common bombshell that threatens the intimate relationship. Further, when thoughtfully and thoroughly considered, it can persuasively, even convincingly, explain why relationships fail.

Ask yourself: What are the most important needs you bring to your partner and how well do you manage them? What are your personal need management skills like?


Rosenfeld, M.J., Roesler, K. (2019). Cohabitation experience and cohabitation's association with marital dissolution. Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 81, issue 1, 1-5.

Brambilla, M.D., & Mosha, D. (2002). Cohabitation, marriage, divorce, and remarriage in the United States. Vital Health Statistics, 23(22).

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