Written with Briana Borten
Figuring out your needs is a worthwhile process if you strive to have a lasting, harmonious, and fulfilling relationship. Why have a needs list for your relationship? Not knowing your needs is like going into a Safeway without a shopping list. No list on paper, no memo in your cell phone, you don’t even have it in your head. You’re just wandering around in the meat section (well, depends what you like) hoping something will make you happy. You eat a few samples of orange chicken in little paper cups from a woman named Dolores, you meander into the baby section, and then, at some point you’re like, “I don’t know why I even come to Safeway! It never makes me happy!” and you burst into tears.
Maybe Safeway is the right store for you, maybe not. How would you know? You never made a list. Imagine instead that you were to go into the store, walk over to the customer service counter, and say, “I’m a fun gal, I clean up nicely, and here is what I need.” Then you hand them your shopping list.
They look it over and maybe they say, “Hmmm. Belt sander. Nail gun. Riding lawnmower. Gee, I’m not sure you’re going to get your needs met here.” Well, that’s a bit sad, but it’s not your fault and it’s not their fault. Nobody’s to blame. The good part is that at least you know this is not a store worth wasting your energy in, looking around for a nail gun! But, who knows, maybe they’d say, “Look, we’ve never met these kinds of needs before. But we’re willing to give it a go. We’ll place some orders and see how that works for you.” None of this clarity would have been possible without your figuring out what your needs are and then sharing them.
One could argue that nobody needs a relationship, and therefore, there’s nothing a relationship provides that is an absolute necessity for a human being. But, let’s be honest here. We enter into relationships because we want something from them. Companionship, affection, inspiration, support, fun. If our “needs” – whether they’re truly NEEDS or not – aren’t being met, it doesn’t feel good. While they may be biologically non-essential, we sure can feel like hell and act like a baby if they’re absent.
When composing your needs list, the key is to figure out what things you absolutely won’t compromise on. Whether or not you believe you should be willing to compromise on these items is irrelevant. The point is, at this time in your life, you won’t. No judgment here, just honesty.
When we have a need that is not being satisfied in our relationship, we may feel deprived, or like something is wrong. We might start fantasizing about other people, we may get angry with our partner, or we may do things to sabotage the relationship. It is common for us to subconsciously place blame for our not being happy. The target of the blame could be ourselves, our partner, our parents – just about anyone or anything. Most of the time, we are not even aware of the specific unmet need that underlies this, and therefore we can’t do anything constructive to address the root of the matter.
Only when we know what our needs are can we know whether or not they are being met. If something feels wrong in our relationship or we notice we are acting in a destructive way toward the relationship, this is a good time to go over our needs list and see if there is an unmet need. Our needs list is also a valuable tool if we are ever having trouble determining whether a relationship will work for us. For instance, if we can see that our partner meets all our needs or is at least genuinely working with us to help us get all our needs met, yet something irritates us about them, this gives us perspective: it is probably not a critical issue. Often, the problem is something we have to work out in ourselves – perhaps by uncovering, understanding, and deactivating a “button” of ours that our partner is pushing (probably unknowingly).
The importance of knowing each other’s needs becomes clear when there is a sincere desire to have a relationship founded upon honest, direct communication. If we are resistant to sharing our needs, usually it is because we are afraid we will discover that we are unable or unwilling to meet our partner’s needs, or that they are unwilling or unable to meet ours. If we avoid discussing needs because we’d rather not know that perhaps we’re playing a different ballgame than our partner, we are, in effect, choosing to employ acts, assumptions, and manipulation to try to get what we need.
But we’re so much more likely to actually get what we want and need, and to feel good about how we arrived at it, if we just lay it on the table! If we’re concerned that our partner has needs we cannot fulfill, isn’t it better to invite them to express these, and see what can be done toward their fulfillment, than to remain in the dark?
When making a needs list, it is helpful to discriminate between needs and wants. A want would be a nice enhancement to the relationship, but is not a requirement. If we identify a certain desired quality or action – for example, having a partner who gives us massages – we must then ask ourselves deeply and truthfully, if this didn’t happen or weren’t present, would the relationship still work for us?
It’s also important to discriminate between relationship needs and personal needs. Personal needs can be met whether or not you’re in a relationship, and they’re things no one else should be held responsible for. Like relationship needs, you can survive even if they’re not fulfilled, but life doesn’t feel right. Examples of personal needs could be: “I need to approve of myself,” “I need to feel like I’m contributing to the world,” or “I need to practice a regimen of self-care.” If you wake up one day, realize you haven’t been doing these things and feel bad about it, you have no business blaming your relationship. Keep personal needs off your relationship needs list (you may want to make a separate personal needs list, if this appeals to you).
As you practice self-inquiry and refine your needs list, you may get increasingly specific about certain needs. Something unquantifiable, like “I need to be appreciated,” may turn into “I need my partner to acknowledge the ways I’ve contributed to the upkeep of our house – at least once a month.” But, remember, it’s unfair to expect your partner to guess what your needs are.
In our opinion, it’s healthier to view a relationship as an opportunity, rather than simply a needs exchange. As we see it, the point of the relationship isn’t just to meet each others needs, but rather, to get your buttons pushed and grow, and get your buttons pushed some more and grow some more. This only happens when there is a willingness to turn frustration into growth. Moreover, the benefit of communicating clearly about your needs is not just that you’re both likely to feel more satisfied, but also that a tremendous amount of wasted energy – the energy we spend mired in our negative thoughts and emotions, and the energy we put into circuitous efforts to get what we want – can be reclaimed when we just grow up and start using our words.
Below is a list of needs ideas. (Some of these are adapted from Vern Black’s book, Love Me? Love Yourself, and Miguel Ruiz’s, The Four Agreements.) Take a look at them and see if any resonate with you. Also consider what qualities have been present in relationships that worked well for you, and what qualities may have been absent in relationships that didn’t work. What have you learned about yourself through relationships?
Also, note that in some cases the sample needs below are worded as “I need someone who …” and in others cases they are worded as “I need both of us to …”. It’s up to you to decide whether the need applies just to your partner or to both you and your partner. Sometimes it feels right to choose language that involves both you and them. It makes the relationship even more of an active vehicle for your growth, it encourages you to live up to the same standards you hold your partner to, and it helps you to see that many of the judgments you place on your partner originate in judgments you have of yourself.
I need. . .
– Frequent / clear / honest communication
– Regular physical affection
– To feel safe sharing my feelings with my partner
– For our relationship to be my mate’s top priority
– Deep / engaging / easy / non-judgmental conversation
– To be physically attracted to my mate
– For us to be in love with one another
– Someone who supports me to achieve my goals
– Us to demonstrate a joint commitment to maintaining a clean living space
– Someone who demonstrates equal initiative in the development and maintenance of our relationship
– Both of us to demonstrate a commitment to not make assumptions or to take anything personally
– Someone who demonstrates a commitment to always do their best
– Someone who keep their agreements (with me, with themselves, with others)
– Both of us to see the relationship as an opportunity to give the other person a totally rocking life!
– Both of us to follow through on the projects we start and the seeds we plant
– Private time to myself (for at least a half hour each day)
– Someone who doesn’t ask me to be different than I am, but who is willing to tell me how they’d like me to be
– Both of us to strive for good health
– Both of us to be monogamous
– Us to resolve arguments before going to bed
– Us to be responsible for openly communicating all we want each other to know or feel is important, leaving nothing to assumptions
– My partner to recognize (and tell me) when I’ve changed something about my appearance or done something new
– A partner who doesn’t abuse alcohol or drugs
– A mate who I can share my spiritual practice with
– Both of us to attempt to come from a place of love in all that we do
– Both to want to challenge ourselves, in the relationship and in life in general
– Regular compliments
– Us to set aside quality time for us on a regular basis, for both serious stuff and play
– Kindness in our actions and communications to each other
– Us to have goals of service larger than our relationship
– Us to live together
– My partner to contribute to our household income
– Us to sing and dance together
– Us to travel together
Start by making a broad list of all the things that matter to you. It will probably be much shorter than the list above. Then, in the spirit of compromise and a willingness to grow, narrow it down (if possible) by determining if any of the items you’ve identified as needs are actually just wants. (As you may have noticed, especially at the end of that list, many of these items are more likely to be wants than needs. You may find it useful to keep a wants list, too. You can share it with your partner so they’ll have some ideas of how to enhance the relationship.) We’re not saying you should invalidate anything that is truly critical to you. Just consider, if the core needs you’ve identified were all being met, would you still identify “must enjoy playing Monopoly” as a need, or is it merely a want?
When you have your list, go through it and (if you are currently in a relationship) see if there are any that are not being met. If so, it’s time to explain to your partner that this is a need of yours that could use some attention. Make a request of them to help you get this need met. Your request is most likely to turn out favorably if you avoid stating it as something they are doing wrong, or that is wrong with the relationship. Instead, propose it as an opportunity for the two of you to be closer and more honest – a chance to enhance your relationship. Express your appreciation for your partner’s support in this, and your anticipation that this will lead to a more fulfilling relationship for both of you.
Finally, allow them to make any requests of you to help them get their needs met. Ideally, both of you will have lists and you can share them with each other. When you have your partner’s list, you have a better understanding of where they are coming from and how to support them. When you hear your partner express their needs (or read their list), be open. If you feel your heart tightening up, relax your chest, breathe deeply, stay light.
It’s a good idea to re-evaluate your list from time to time. Your anniversary is a good time for it. You may move something from the needs list to the wants list, or vice versa, and clarify items that you have new insights on.
As you go through your lists together and make requests, try not to view them as ultimatums. The process can really be a gift, no matter what the outcome. If it turns out that you and your partner aren’t willing or able to meet each other’s needs, coming to this realization in such a clear and blameless way, and then letting each other go, is so much more merciful than avoiding the truth, dragging it out, and feeling guilty and/or resentful about what’s missing from your relationship. If there are unsatisfied needs, the primary indicator that the relationship can still work is that you and your partner have a willingness to find a way to get the need fulfilled. In all cases, this work asks us to be creative, enthusiastic, flexible, open, supportive, selfless, and unconditionally loving. It is therefore one of the surest ways to evolve.