How To Get Your Partner To Meet Your Needs When You’ve Spent Your Whole Life Ignoring Them

These 7 things might just finally make you feel secure.

Most of us are uneasy about the idea of “having needs.” We may know logically that they’re necessary. We may fully expect everyone around us to have them. But when it comes to ourselves, we frequently misfile any feeling of need as “being needy.”

It’s an idea that springs directly from the stirring reality that most of us just took care of our OWN emotional needs as kids, which paved the way for us to not expect it from other people, especially our partners.

Hopefully, by now, with the advent of so much therapy, we finally understand that needs are ok and normal and human. But how do we reconcile wanting them met with living for so long without a willingness to admit we even had them?

For those of us who’ve clocked decades ignoring our needs, we’ve probably either predominantly hidden them from others, or we’ve learned a way of expressing them that isn’t adaptive and doesn’t inspire the response from the other person that leads to our needs being met. So we’re left feeling chronically (at least somewhat) unsatisfied. Unfulfilled.

The good news is, we can learn a different way.

According to The Gottman Institute, which has spent decades studying couple relationships, there are tangible ways that both people in a couple can “get better” at making their needs known. And at meeting each other’s needs in ways that makes each person feel more secure. More themselves. More sane.

And so, here are 7 ways we can make our needs known to our partner:

1. Pick the right time when both of you have agreed to talk.

Very often, both people in a relationship spend more time than they should glossing over their needs. In turn, they might let them spill out in small ways: an eye roll here, a passive-aggressive joke there. But eventually, many of us come to a point where we’re revved up enough to approach the other person. Unfortunately, our timing can be terrible. We might be feeling too triggered to communicate how (or what) we hope to. Or we might be completely calm and coherent, but our partner is caught so off-guard, the conversation slams to a halt pretty much as soon as it starts.

One of Gottman’s key principles is that you make time to talk to your partner about the “state of your union,” but according to Certified Gottman Therapist Karen Bridbord, Ph.D., both of you should choose when and where to have this talk, so that you’re both ready to communicate openly and listen to the other person’s needs. “I tell couples all the time when having critical conversation, timing, timing, timing is key, because you might be ready to have the conversation, but they might not be ready to have the conversation,” said Bridbord.

2. Soften your start-up

Considering the mess of feelings around our history with having needs, it takes a certain degree of vulnerability to get better at expressing them. Ultimately, it breaks down to “the ability to express one’s self, including one’s feelings, needs, etc. rather than feeling inhibited,” said Mike McNulty, Ph.D., founder of The Chicago Relationship Center, senior certified Gottman therapist, and Advanced Clinical Trainer for The Gottman Institute.

Because many of us have a knee-jerk impulse to protect ourselves, it’s immensely helpful to have a very specific technique for how to approach our partner with a need. This is where a Gottman concept known as aGentle Startupcomes in:

A gentle startup is ‘the antidote to criticism,’ said McNulty. “This template helps people complain without blame.” You can phrase your “start up” with your partner by filling in the blanks of the following statement:

“I feel _____” about “_____” and “I need_____.”

3. Express a positive need instead of a complaint.

“When you bring together two people with different personalities and fundamental needs, 69% of the time people will have differences [around] the typical problems that they face in their life together,” said McNulty. “Having complaints is normal and natural. As long as they are expressed without blame, complaints are not problematic.”

So, what’s a better way to express a complaint? According to Gottman, it’s by stating a positive need. A positive need is a clear, direct expression of something specific your partner can do to support you. Using the framing of a “gentle startup,” you can start to get comfortable saying these needs directly to your partner.

For example:

“I feel hurt when you start looking at your phone while I’m talking to you about something personal. I need to feel like I have your full attention for a period of time to show me that you care what’s going on with me.”

“I feel drained when I spend a lot of late hours cleaning by myself. I need to feel like we’re taking care of our house together and spend more time sharing little projects.”

4. Resist using blaming language by switching “you” statements to “I” statements.

Dr. John Gottman, who founded The Gottman Institute, famously said that, “behind every complaint is a deep personal longing.” One way to make sure you’re giving away a positive need and not just unleashing a sea of blame onto your partner is to keep starting your sentences in the first person, being open and vulnerable about what you need as opposed to critical of the other person for failing to meet that need.

For example, instead of saying:

“You always talk over me. I can’t get a word in. You’re so self-centered.”

You might say:

“I feel like I’m not being heard, and it’s really important to me that you take the time to let me finish a thought before you respond.”

5. Be specific about what would make you feel good.

No matter how well another person knows you, you can’t expect them to mind-read. In this same vein, making sweeping, unspecific statements like, “You’re barely affectionate with me anymore” or “I never have a second to myself” can feel vague and unrealistic to the other person who may become defensive or feel somewhat clueless about what they can do to resolve the issue.

As uncomfortable or vulnerable as it might feel feel to say things like “I need you to pause and hug me a few times a day” or “I need to spend a couple hours alone right now just to feel more myself,” the more specific you can be about your needs, the better able your partner will be to actually do something about them.

6. Avoid the “4 horseman” during rough conversations.

Gottman describes four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse, which are characteristics that actually help predict whether a marriage will end in divorce. It’s helpful to keep these four elements in mind when talking through something that stirs up a lot of emotion or just plain isn’t easy for one or both of you. By noticing if you’re creeping into the territory of any of these 4 dynamics, you can keep things empathetic and on track when communicating about each other’s needs.

  1. Criticism

  2. Contempt

  3. Defensiveness

  4. Stonewalling

7. Let them know about vulnerabilities you have around ways you feel triggered.

We all have certain sensitivities, specific words we loathe being called, certain tones that make our skin crawl. We may feel triggered by feeling ignored or overwhelmed by being asked too many questions. Obviously, these might be things we ourselves need to work through in order to show up and support our partner, but we can also let them know that we have these sensitivities.

This gives the other person a chance to cushion us with a little more support in the areas where we struggle. For example, we may be super easy going about our partner planning activities independently from us but feel anxious when they don’t check in once in a while to let us know they’re okay. Whatever our triggers might be, including our partner in this awareness, gives us a chance to know each other in a way that makes each person feel seen, understood, and ultimately, more forgiving and better able to repair in moments when wires inevitably cross and needs don’t get met.

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