I have been reflecting on my counselling work of the last week, when I worked with a number of couples that were in enormous emotional pain. It had me asking myself the question, what is it that happens in relationships that causes pain?
One answer I come back to again and again is related to needs. It is normal for all of us to have needs in relationships and one of the joys of being in relationship with another person is that we can take pleasure in the experience of having those needs met. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen in the way that we want.
The other side of the equation is that some people believe in the notion of ‘perfect, unconditional love‘, which is often not realistic. So when they think they are not creating a perfect relationship, this creates distress for the partner.
Unmet Needs = Emotional Pain
Many couples experience pain because their needs are not being met by their partner. Sometimes when one partner expresses a need, the other will respond defensively and angrily. Or the partner will not understand the need or simply ignore it. Some partners will retaliate by immediately expressing their unmet need, instead of responding to the need their partner has expressed. This is often the beginning of a cycle of anger, blame and criticism, which can then lead to contempt. And we know from the research that when a couple begins to feel contempt, the chances of the relationship surviving are significantly lower.
The Nonviolent Communication Model:
Marshall Rosenberg, in his groundbreaking book Nonviolent Communication (NVC), introduced a model for expressing needs through effective communication in your relationship. I find this model particularly useful when working with couples. It is a model that uses four steps:
This part of the communication process is about describing what we hear or see. We describe what we like or dislike, without judgment, evaluation or blame. e.g. “John, I notice that your clothes are on the floor”
This part of the process is about sharing your feelings when you observe this action, so that you are known by the other e.g. I feel hurt, scared, happy or angry.
When we state our need, we are expressing what our values are, and how they are connected to the observation. Here is how you might link the first 3 steps: “John, I notice that your clothes are on the floor, and I feel irritated because I have a need for a clean house.” It is important to note that the need is not about John picking up his clothes. A need is often related to a value that we believe is important, and for this reason they tend to be more broad and general, such as, “I need to feel appreciated”; “I need to be professional and on time”; or “I have a need to be honest and open with those I love”.
This is the part of the model where we make a request for change. The request is what we want from the other that would enrich our life. So the last part of the example might be “John, I would really appreciate it if you would pick up your clothes and put them in the laundry.”
The great thing about this model is you can also use it in reverse so that you can deepen your connection and empathy with your partner. Use the four components to sense what your partner might be observing, feeling and needing and then become aware of what might enrich their life with the fourth part, a request. In my experience this is a wonderful way to deepen your relationship and to voice your feelings, needs and requests in a way that you can truly be heard.
Are your needs being met in your relationship?
Perhaps your communication around needs is not working in your relationship. I encourage you to try this process in your communication with your partner.
What communication works for you in your relationship? Add your comments below.
The concrete actions we are
observing that are affecting our well-being
How we are feeling in relation
to what we are observing
The needs, values, desires, etc.
that are creating our feelings
The concrete actions we request
in order to enrich our lives
Do you need relationship help?
photo credit: Auzigog