Have you been told it is important to express your needs? Find out why this is bad advice.

I am going to say something somewhat controversial. We have very few needs in our relationships.  I might go as far as saying that we don’t need anything from our partner.  

We need air to breathe and food to eat. This is the level of need. It is associated with our survival. Language is powerful. This is why when we use the word need to express what we want in relationships it has the energy of ‘must-have urgency’ behind it.  It is a demand. 

Let’s compare expressions for a moment.  I need your attention vs I want your attention or can I have your attention?  Take a moment to say each phrase out loud and notice any difference in how you feel in your body.  Ask your partner to say them to you, and take time to notice the difference in your response.  How easily could you say you are unavailable or accept someone is unavailable? 

What the focus on needs leads to.

Psychology and the self-help industry have put a lot of emphasis on people expressing their needs. Unfortunately, I think this has created a sense of entitlement to things we want from each other and feelings of shame and guilt when we can't ‘meet our partner’s needs’. In other words, needs can be used as a way of control. 

Eric Fromm wrote a lovely little book on The Art of Loving that first came out in 1956.  He distinguished between relationships based on love vs need and need as an immature basis for intimate relationships. Even though the book has outdated aspects this is still very relevant for our present-day relationship struggles. 

Terry Real (Founder of Relational Life Therapy) talks about three different parts of us operating in communication, the wounded part, the adaptive part, and our wise presence.  Most of us come from the wounded and adaptive parts when we are in conflict in relationships. Our wounded and adaptive parts are rooted in our needs from childhood.  As a child not getting attention is a matter of survival. So when we express that we need something, consciously or unconsciously, it activates our childhood experience and that something bad will happen if we don’t get it.  This is why conflict is so difficult for a lot of people.

A few words about the difference in these parts.

Wounded part. This part carries the pain of our unmet needs in childhood and wants to be taken care of. In addition to food and shelter, a child needs attention, safety, comfort, and protection to thrive and develop secure attachments.  This also supports our authenticity because when we have these things taken care of we are free to explore our experience and be vulnerable. 

Adaptive part. This is also rooted in childhood and can be conceived of as the part of us that is a child in adult clothing. This is the part of us that stepped in to take over what adults failed to do.  For example, if our environment was unsafe we might develop ways of comforting ourselves or distracting ourselves to protect ourselves and not feel fear.  

How do these two parts play out in our adult relationships? 

Let’s take an example.  Wanting attention from our partner is a common request and where we often can feel neglected in our adult relationships.  So when we express that we need attention and don’t get it our wounded part will be activated. This might be experienced as hurt, fear, or shame.  The ways we learned to deal with this in childhood, and since, then come into action to protect us from feeling this pain.  A few typical examples of ways we do this might be;

  • to make our partner wrong for not being available, 
  • shut down, and withdraw to feel safe

These behaviours to protect ourselves will then activate other parts of our partner.  

When their lack of availability is rejected (by criticism or withdrawal) their wounded part will be activated.  This is also likely to activate feelings of shame, or fear and the adaptive part that tries to protect them.  Examples might be;

  • express anger and resentment 
  • try to fix it by agreeing to spend time when they don’t want to
  • feeling they are never going to be good enough and give up trying

So in this example, we can see how expressing what we want from each other as needs, in this case, attention and acceptance, can affect the dynamic.  Our wounded part experiences the disappointment as a childhood neglect/wound and our adaptive part moves into urgent action to try and pressure our partner to give us what we want.

How do we come from our wise part and what might that look like?

Let’s jump to what this might look like.  As an adult, we don’t need attention. It’s great when we get it; many would agree it makes life more bearable.  Not getting attention might result in a decision that a relationship does not fit for us, but demanding it is immature.

When we understand that our desires and ‘needs’ are negotiable and not something we must have, or that the other should meet, this brings in freedom for each partner to be truthful, and respond with willingness and compassion.  When something is demanded it is possible to stay in our truth in responding. To know it is our choice and that we are not bad for being unavailable. To remain calm and connected to our partner despite any reaction on their part.  This is the shift into our wise/present self in conflict.

Ironically, when we can free ourselves from the shame of not meeting others' demands we can experience our willingness to be there rather than trying to protect ourselves which causes us to be less likely to want to be there. 

Final Thoughts

This post highlights the expression of needs as a demand in relationships and how it is used to control and manipulate.  This dynamic reflects the attempt to avoid the pain of our unmet needs of childhood.  

By saying that we have no needs from each other does not mean I am encouraging you to disregard what your partner wants from you, but rather,  being relational is an ongoing negotiation around what we want from partners that supports each person's true desires and limitations. 


If you are looking for a counsellor to help with these struggles, we provide individual and couples counselling.  Check us out.

Delyse Ledgard
Turning Point Therapy
11420 Pemberton Cres,, Delta, v4C 3J4

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