Your spouse is curled up tight on the far side of the bed.
You know you won’t get another peep out of them.
Let’s face it, you’ve also drawn the line in the covers, a balled-up fort of emotions.
You don’t even remember exactly what frustrated either of you this time, but it looks like a long night of tossing and turning again.
The thought runs through your head “What do I even want from this relationship anymore?”
What you should be asking is “What does this relationship need?”
Think of an apple tree trying to grow in the middle of the desert. Sure, it has plenty of sunshine…too much actually. It’s hot and there’s no water to be found to keep it alive.
Your relationship functions in the same way. You need to cultivate the right environment to help it grow. And the gardeners of this tree? You and your partner, of course.
What a relationship needs is healthy people.
Relationship Needs vs. Relationship Wants
I might want a slice of chocolate ice cream cake, but I don’t actually need it. Even when everything in my brain is screaming at me to give it more sugar, I still don’t need it to thrive.
Relationships have similar confusing signals. What is something a relationship needs as opposed to something that I simply want?
What we want out of a relationship is a feeling of wholeness. We want to feel understood and accepted.
What a relationship needs is the input to make those things happen.
After years working as a psychology professor, analyzing countless relationships, and writing more than a dozen books on the subject, here’s what I’ve found.
5 Universal Needs in a Relationship
The most basic needs of a relationship apply to more than just the romantic, but includes relationships with your family and friends as well.
Let’s go back to our two gardeners (you and your partner), you need to bring the correct tools for the job.
Think about that apple tree again. Your goal is for it to produce the juiciest, healthiest apples possible, right?
But if the only tools you have are a broom and a vacuum cleaner — you’re not going to have much luck.
The tools below will help you cultivate a relationship that produces fruit. Those fruits are what help us feel complete, accepted, and ultimately loved in a relationship.
You bring a lot to the table right from the start of every relationship. There’s your childhood, experiences with parents, time with friends, hurts, victories, fears, and a variety of other things you carry with you.
We need an emotional understanding of the things that happen in our life. We don’t have to have everything figured out all at once, but awareness is the key. We need to know how those events in our life have played into who we are.
These events can affect how we behave in a relationship, because we bring a certain amount of history into it.
I knew a young man once who changed his favorite movie with every relationship he had. He and his significant other always loved the same movie. How lucky!
That might sound trivial, but this too often runs to the core of who we are. We change ourselves to fit the puzzle of another person, rather than becoming aware of our unique personality.
We focus so much on the fruit of the relationship — the desire to be accepted — that we forget to give the relationship what it really needs, which is honesty (with ourselves and our partners).
2. Desire to Grow
Hand-in-hand with self-awareness is a desire to be our best selves.
You may understand how your childhood relationship with your father plays into a specific part of your personality. Yet, if you don’t want to work on that part of yourself, then being self-aware does little for the relationship.
Both participants need to grow. The danger of any relationship is stagnation. We get comfortable with how things are, even the unhealthy things. It’s applying our self-awareness into action that makes all the difference.
This is by no means the most fun point on this list, but some of the other advice will help us with this too.
The journey to grow sees us stumble and fall and have to pick things back up again. There’s plenty of times it’s not easy and requires patience from our partners.
After all, the apple tree doesn’t produce perfect fruit every time. The tree needs shearing, fertilizer, and some good ol’ fashioned patience too. Just because there’s a bad apple doesn’t mean you get rid of the whole tree.
The ability to step into the shoes of the other person in the relationship is key to making it through those times that hurt.
Your partner may even hurt your feelings, but there’s a reason they act the way they do.
Maybe it was a particularly hard day at work for them.
Or they feel like you are missing the point on their own feelings.
Even a bad night’s sleep can affect a conversation.
Instead of lashing out, we need to take a step back…right into the shoes of the other person.
Which leads right to our next relationship need.
4. Conversational Skills
How many times have you been explaining something just to be cut off?
Frustrating, isn’t it?
Even though conversations dominate our day-to-day interactions with other people, information is constantly missed, meaning is misinterpreted, and points are lost.
We need to learn to communicate what we are really feeling, without accusations. You are in control of your feelings, not the other person.
It’s easy to say, “You MAKE me so angry.”
But, your feelings are your own. How can someone force them out?
This also sounds like an attack. Arguments are so difficult because there’s disagreement, frustration, and a whole lot of emotions that play into them. It’s natural to get defensive.
Let’s try to avoid curling up in bed in angry spirals this time.
Instead of expressing how your partner is forcing you to behave a certain way, state your emotions from a personal perspective.
“I feel frustrated because we’ve talked about those cabinets being left open and it’s not getting better.”
This way shares not only how you feel but the issue at hand without making someone the bad guy.
Working as a team instead of opposing sides is a huge stride towards real empathy.
Which leads us to our last need for every relationship.
Remember being cut off in the earlier example? Here’s why that’s so infuriating:
Because you don’t feel heard when someone interrupts you.
And both people in a relationship need to feel heard. Remember, we want to be understood. You can’t be understood if you aren’t heard in the first place.
You might even think you are listening to your partner, but they still don’t feel understood at all. That’s where reflecting comes in.
Reflecting is simply restating what the other person has said.
“So, you feel frustrated because I left the cabinets open again?”
It may feel a little clunky at first, but that simple act helps the other person know you’re listening. The problem might not be solved yet, but both of you are now working on the same page.
The Sign of a Healthy Relationship
These relationship needs are foundational to forming healthy bonds. Two healthy individuals create a healthy relationship.
How is a healthy relationship different from an unhealthy one?
In a healthy relationship, both partners recognize they are two gardeners actively cultivating and growing the relationship they want. They show up with the right tools and do the work — even when it’s difficult.