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You Can’t Always Get What You Want: Identifying Needs vs. Wants in a Relationship

You’ve heard the adage “Pick your battles,” but that can go out the window when your partner leaves dishes in the sink for five days… again. Do they not value your time? Do they not care about the house you share? 

You mention it, and they’re upset – nothing they do is enough. But everyone has relationship needs, and you feel like you haven’t asked for much at all. Have you?

Acclimation, Criticism, and Appreciation

In the same way that we adjust to a hot bath or a cold winter day, we get used to our partners and what they do for us. Plus, we’re humans. When you live with or see anyone super often, you start to notice annoyances.

This can lead to mounting criticism and taking for granted gifts we used to appreciate.

A key way to fight this negative trend? Work to recognize your relationship needs versus your relationship wants. This will determine the flexibility or inflexibility of your requests. And it will also help clarify for your partner when they’re getting things right – we mustn’t forget how important that is!

So, how can you tell if something is a “need to have” or a “nice to have”? Let’s go through a few simple guidelines.

Gauge Your Emotional Reactions

Emotions are a barometer of how your relationship needs are being met. We jump to blaming other people when we really need to pause and take stock.

“How does this reflect a need of mine? What need is not being met?”

This is not to absolve people of their responsibility in an exchange. Say a bank teller is rude and impatient, and you feel ruffled and irritated. It’s obvious in this case that your need to be treated with respect wasn’t met.

With partners, it can be more complex. Our expectations heighten, and our emotions run deeper. The next point may help lend clarity in this subterranean emotional world of underlying expectations, hope, and disappointment.

Consider Core Human Relationship Needs

Desires can span the scope of your imagination. But these basic emotional needs resonate with most people on some level:

  • Security
  • Trust
  • Acceptance
  • Validation
  • Independence
  • Connection
  • Empathy
  • Love/affection

You’ll notice that some of these seem a little paradoxical, like independence and connection. And that’s true. Relationships need an interwoven ebb and flow of contrast to remain vibrant and alive.

Look over these needs next time you feel upset. Figure out what’s being touched upon.

Decide Your Priorities

Now let’s make a list of some concrete parts of your life that you highly value. For example:

  • Exchanging daily encouragement
  • Sharing news
  • Going on dates
  • Having children
  • Maintaining a household where you can host
  • Traveling often

Go through the list and decide how much you’re willing to compromise on each one, from 1 (not at all)-5 (very flexible.) Reorder the list in numeric order to see where your priorities fall!

You might realize that going on dates around town is far more important to you than traveling often. Travel fulfills more of a want while date night fulfills more of a need-connection and affection, for example. 

Now maybe you’ll want to budget more for date night, in time, finances, and attention. And maybe you want to let your partner off the hook if he’s fallen behind on learning Spanish with you.

Trouble Deciphering Your Relationship Needs and Wants? Seek Help to Get Out of Your Rut

Has deciphering the needs and wants for yourself or your partner begun to feel too big, overwhelming, or stressful?  You can always enlist a professional counselor for a caring, outside perspective. We’ll end this post with another adage, “It takes a village” – and that’s for people of all ages. We could all use a little help to lighten the load.



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Copyright @2020 Dana Cole, LMFT