The fact that the divorce rate in America is soaring above 60% tells us that the majority of relationships are suffering at any given moment. Couples choose to split because they are unhappy and are no longer willing to continue living in misery. As a couples therapy specialist, I know much of the misery is derived from the fact that one or both partners are not getting their needs met. As a couples therapy specialist, I also know that you don’t need to end the relationship in order to regain a sense of joy in your life. Most often what is really lacking is honesty.
For some reason many people think that communicating with their partner means gearing up for battle, for another one of those long nights where they talk in circles, rehash every argument previously had, and end up right where they started, unhappy with no progress to speak of. The reality is that (according to the Gottman’s – the “gold standard of couples therapy”) 69% of conflict in a relationship is perpetual. It’s not about ridding the relationship of conflict – don’t you wish – it’s about moving it from gridlock (where you fight incessantly about the same things and get nowhere) to dialogue (where you can communicate effectively, feel heard, and hopefully reach compromise).
Being in a space where you’re not getting your needs met is painful. It can feel hopeless and like there’s really no point in trying. Today, I invite you to consider an alternative. A different way to step into a conversation with your loved one in a way which will lead you both to getting your needs met and therefore creating a culture of happiness, love, and respect in your relationship. The truth is you both have needs and you both deserve to have them met. Allow me to take you on a quick journey to uncovering just how you can do that and you can even start today. Trust me, I know.
First I want to encourage you to take time to reflect on the current status of your relationship. If you and/or your partner are feeling disconnected, disrespected, unappreciated, etc. then it’s no surprise individual needs are falling to the wayside. It goes against our natural inclination to do for someone who makes us feel bad and doesn’t do for us. For the purposes of creating a new norm in your relationship, table that natural inclination. In order for the process to work, you need to be willing to meet the needs of your partner despite their efforts towards you. Counterintuitive, I know, but trust me, it’ll only be for a period of time.
Living in misery is not what I want for you so before you get started, tell yourself you will be two feet in to improving the relationship regardless of your partner for 30, 60, or 90 days. You need to give time and space to develop the new norm, but you don’t need to be taken advantage of indefinitely. What we want to rid the relationship of is that tit-for-tat mentality of I only do for you if you do for me. While 50/50 effort is ideal, it’s not very realistic, especially when you’re starting off in the negative.
Reflect or even journal about the current status of your relationship. Take an inventory of what’s good and what’s not so good. I want to caution you, if you’re in negative sentiment override (another Gottman term) then studies show us that you miss out on 50% of the positive things your partner says and does for you. 50%!!! That’s a lot. And likewise, your partner is missing out on 50% of the positive things you say and do for them. So neither of you are really getting credit for what you’re doing right. We want to change that – and we will through the course of cultivating a healthier norm in your relationship via meeting each other’s needs.
Take time to recognize the strengths and growth areas you each bring to the relationship. One thing I always tell my couples is that you each contribute positively and negatively to the relational dynamic. We want to cultivate the assumption of similarity (Gottman) and we do this by acknowledging the positive traits we see in ourselves also exist in our partner and likewise, the negative traits we identify in our partner also exist within ourselves. This helps create a unified front rather than an us versus them mentality. Both partners are good, they just each have bad behaviors – again, separate the person from the behavior. This doesn’t justify bad behavior, but it lessens the rigidity around he did something bad therefore he is bad. If we believe our partners are “bad” people, then we treat them as such, reinforcing the bad behavior and also instilling negative core beliefs in them.
Once you’ve taken an honest inventory of the current status of your relationship and why it is the way it is, paying particular attention not to blame it all on your partner, think about or journal about your needs. Oftentimes we don’t take the time to identify what our needs are. If you don’t know, then your partner surely doesn’t know. No one can read your mind. When you expect your partner to “just know” then it leaves you open to disappointment because your need isn’t getting met and it leaves your partner confused because, how the heck are they supposed to know?
Dr. Chapman created the five love languages and I mention them here because often our needs fall into one of the five categories – physical touch, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and gifts. Think about these five and identify what your top two are. Then brainstorm what specifically could be done to meet these two love languages for you. There’s a quiz at http://www.5lovelanguages.com/ you can take if you get stuck. Encourage your partner to take the quiz as well.
Once you’ve identified what specific needs you have, fill yourself up first. Yep, that’s right, DO YOU. You cannot expect your partner to meet all of your needs. That is unrealistic and also overwhelming to your partner. Think of ways you can love yourself and do these things regularly. Think of it like the airplane mask, if you don’t put yours on first, you die before you get the mask on the person next to you. Showing yourself love will not only make you feel loved, but it will lessen the load you expect from your partner, making it more likely that they will meet your need and less likely that you will be disappointed because they didn’t meet every last one of them.
Reflect back over the last few weeks. What has your partner done for you? What needs have they met? Now oftentimes we tend to give love the way we want to receive it rather than the way our partner needs to receive it, so your partner may be meeting needs they assume you have but don’t actually make you feel loved. Give your partner credit for their efforts. Thank them. Express gratitude. This will make them feel appreciated and positively reinforce their efforts. Gratitude is life-giving to your relationship. Use it often and I assure you, you will sense a difference in the culture of the relationship.
Now it’s time to give your partner the feedback they need to be successful in meeting your needs and making you feel loved. We want to do this in a way which will make you feel heard and your partner not feel criticized. The Gottman’s provide a structured way to do this, called The Gentle Startup. It goes like this: I feel…about what…I need. It’s important to express positive needs rather than negative needs, this will decrease the likelihood your partner will feel criticized. Starting your statements with I instead of you will decrease your partner’s natural inclination to become defensive, and increase the chance they will actually hear and implement the need being expressed. A gentle startup could be as simple as, I feel appreciated when you help clean up after dinner. I need you to do the dishes a few times a week. Or I feel loved when you take time to connect with me. I need to hear from you sometime throughout the day. Whatever your need is, you can use the gentle startup to express it to your partner. Starting with a positive feeling word will help them understand the emotional benefit of meeting the need.
Give Time & Space
Realize your partner is an imperfect being…just like you. Expressing a need one time might not be all it takes to have the importance of it sink in. Give your partner time and space to implement your request. This will allow it to feel more natural than rote exercise. Remember, we want to create a new norm in which you are meeting each other’s needs. This will take time and intentionality – on both of your parts. I want to encourage you to be intentional to meet your partner’s needs during this period so they not only see the behavior being modeled but they experience the positive emotional impacts that result.
I hate the word nag and I tell my couples not to use it because like the word crazy, it is a red hot trigger for many people and it does not bode well for accomplishing anything you set out to before you say it. However, as your helper, let me implore you, do not nag. Nagging will not make your partner want to meet your need any more. In fact, nagging will make your partner not want to meet your need almost out of spite. Your partner is your equal. Treat them as such and they will feel respected. When people feel loved and respected, they are more likely to meet the needs of their partner regardless of whether or not it’s requested. Again, we want to cultivate a new norm. One that positively reinforces positive behavior and therefore gets you on a cycle of connection and intentionality.
Ask for Feedback
During the conversation in which you use the gentle startup to request your needs be met, also take time to ask your partner for feedback. What needs are you currently meeting that they appreciate? What are some needs you’re not meeting that they have? How would you meeting those needs make them feel? How would it change the relationship for the better? Share the gentle startup or even this blog post with them so they too can be on the same page with regard to meeting each other’s needs.
Likely there will come a time when you need to gently remind your partner of your needs. Please communicate these reminders in a healthy way. Use the gentle startup. While it may feel a little foreign at first, it works. And the more you integrate this communication technique, the more natural it will become to both of you and before you know it, boom, you’re communicating with one another in a healthy, consistent manner because you no longer have to fear that initiating a conversation will devolve into those nasty cyclical fights of the past.
Regardless of whether you’ve only been dating a year if you’ve been married for fifty years, know there is tremendous benefit to seeking professional help. Couples therapy is a safe, neutral environment in which a specialist (I say specialist because it takes a good ten years to become a licensed marriage and family therapist with specialized training in couples therapy) can successfully navigate the two of you through difficult conversations and give you the tools you need to create a new culture in your relationship, one of openness, honesty, love, and connection. It is possible and typically so in a much shorter period of time than trying to go it alone. Should you have the desire, I would be honored to help you along your path to creating the relationship you both deserve, one in which both of you are getting your needs met consistently and authentically. Best of luck on your journey.