Emotional Needs in a Relationship

What Your Partner Can and Can't Do

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Everyone has emotional needs, in relationships and outside of them. Many people turn to their partners to help fulfill these needs. But that is a lot to ask of a partner and of a relationship. While helping to meet each other's needs is an important piece of any relationship, the ultimate responsibility for emotional fulfillment rests on the individual.

Know Your Emotional Needs

An emotional need "is a craving that, when satisfied, leaves you with a feeling of happiness and contentment, and, when unsatisfied, leaves you with a feeling of unhappiness and frustration," says clinical psychologist and author Willard F. Harley, Jr., PhD. Some of these needs include affection, conversation, honesty and openness, and family commitment.

Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist and professor who specializes in helping clients face relationships issues, work or academic stress, and life transitions. She suggests a four-step process, using the mnemonic STOP, for thinking about your own emotional needs. This process comes from the field of dialectical behavior therapy.

  1. Stop: When you feel that your emotional needs are not being met, stop. Don’t react, just freeze," says Romanoff. "Freezing for a moment helps prevent you from doing something impulsive, dismissing your needs, or acting without thinking."
  2. Take a step back: If you feel overwhelmed, it’s difficult to identify your needs. "Give yourself some time to calm down and process how you’re feeling. Take a step back, either mentally or physically, from the situation," says Romanoff. Use deep breathing to help regulate your emotions.
  3. Observe: Look at what is happening both around you and within you. Who is involved? What are they doing or saying? "It is important not to jump to conclusions," Romanoff advises. "Instead, gather the relevant facts to understand what is going on and what you need."
  4. Proceed mindfully: Romanoff suggests asking yourself, "What do I need from this situation? What is my goal? What decision or behavior would make this situation better or worse?"

Fulfill Your Own Needs

Understand that you are in a relationship to bond with your spouse, to share events—big or small—and to build a life together.

"When we have an expectation that a husband or wife fulfill us, we set ourselves up for disappointment, because no human being can satisfy another human being," says Mark Altrogge, a pastor at an Indiana church and creator of the relationship website The Blazing Center. "To hope that another human can meet our needs is asking too much of anyone."

"Don’t look at where your spouse needs to change," Altrogge says. "Look to where you need to change. Don’t have expectations of your spouse. If you have expectations, place them on yourself."

Romanoff suggests being alert to when you tend to reach out for others to fulfill your needs. For many people, this might be when you are bored, lonely, or anxious or otherwise need to regulate your emotions.

"Once you identify your triggers, you can begin to reduce your dependence on others in these situations," says Romanoff. "If you delay reaching out, you could strengthen your own internal resources to process difficult emotions, for example by journaling, exercising, taking a warm shower, or another relaxing activity."

Depending on a partner to meet your needs is not only difficult for them; it's also holding you back. "By reflexively reaching out to others to meet your needs, you are reinforcing the idea that you are not capable of caring for yourself in these difficult moments," says Romanoff. "It is important to prove to yourself that you are stronger than you think you are."

Help Meet Your Partner's Needs

While self-soothing is important, you can still help your partner meet their needs in a healthy, non-codependent way, says Romanoff. Strive to be of help when your partner asks for it. "This will help strengthen the relationship, as it will be based on intentional and purposeful connection instead of neediness or expectations that your partner can read your mind."

Consider what your partner wants and values: Is it a home-cooked meal? A special dinner at a fancy restaurant or a quick burger at a fast-food eatery? Fixing that leaky faucet or loose door handle? An affirming word or affection gesture?

An Act of Kindness Goes a Long Way

It doesn't really matter what the act of kindness might be. The important thing is that your partner knows they are valued—that you know what they want and need and you are ready to provide it.

This effort to understand and willingness to give is key to a good relationship, and ultimately, to have your own needs met.

Talk About Your Emotional Needs

Once you are in the mindset of being a loving and giving partner, you can then start to advocate for your own needs—but you have to be careful about how you go about it.

When you want your spouse to perform some kind of action to magically meet your needs, you are really asking for them to change, says Barton Goldsmith, PhD, a psychotherapist and author, and that's a nearly impossible request.

Instead, be direct. "Ask for what you need," says Goldsmith. "Do you want change, understanding, or compatibility? Whatever your need, asking for it directly will greatly improve your chances of getting it."

In order to be direct, you have to be clear in your own mind about what you need. "Once you are able to self-reflect, sit with your emotions on your own, and understand what you need, you will be more able to communicate what you would like from your partner," says Romanoff.

"Oftentimes what we need the most is to have a partner who is willing to be more accessible, emotionally receptive, and engaged," says Romanoff. That means being emotionally present during difficult situations.

"It is usually best to communicate your needs and expectations for your partner when you are calm and not acutely in distress," says Romanoff. Otherwise, you might come across as blaming, which could lead your partner to feel defensive and not hear what you are trying to say.

A Word From Verywell

If your partner knows that you care for them and will be there for them through big things and small, they are much more likely to reciprocate. Having your emotional needs met starts with sharing and caring for your partner. A person who feels loved, cared for, and appreciated is far more likely to reciprocate in kind.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can you tell if your emotional needs in a relationship are being met?

    If your emotional needs in a relationship are being met, you will feel comfortable expressing your feelings to your partner. While you may certainly have disagreements, you will fight fairly, knowing that the ultimate goal is to reach a mutually agreeable solution.

    When partners are meeting each other's needs, they are likely to spend time together and to share details of their lives with one another. They both feel valued and validated in the relationship.

  • How can I meet my own emotional needs?

    You can meet your own emotional needs by taking the time to notice what helps you manage difficult feelings and situations. Helpful strategies might include exercise, working on your sleep hygiene, immersing yourself in a craft or hobby you enjoy, practicing meditation, or working with a therapist.

  • How do I communicate my emotional needs?

    Once you have identified your emotional needs, it is important to communicate them clearly to your partner. That means being direct, not expecting that your partner will know what to do without you asking. You might say, "I'm nervous about my doctor's appointment. Could you please come with me?" or "Please text me when you get to your sister's so I know you arrived safely."

  • What does emotional fulfillment mean?

    All humans have emotional needs, such as for affection, security, trust, and purpose. When those needs are met, we experience emotional fulfillment. Importantly, as emotions come from within us, fulfillment must too, That's why a partner can help support us emotionally, but can't be the only way for us to feel fulfilled and content.

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