Emotional needs in relationships
November 3, 2019 1:32 AM   Subscribe

When I’m in relationships, I have a bunch of emotional needs, things that make me feel loved —and if these aren’t met, I’m absolutely miserable and the frustration builds up .

They’re small and fairly easy for some people to meet, especially the more obliging sort of man, but others find them oppressive. They have to do with communication and touch, things like expressing affection often enough, being responsive and empathetic when I’m going through something difficult, kissing me when we meet and when we part, apologising when we hurt each other even unintentionally, and so on.

I’m now in my thirties and looking for a long lasting stable relationship. Would you say I should accept these as needs and look for the kind of partner who can meet them? Or should I be working on myself so I’m more flexible and relaxed? If the latter, do you have suggestions?
posted by miaow to Human Relations (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
A long term partner could be with you for 50 years or more. In that time, you could expect the relative importance of your non-emotional needs in a relationship to tail off a little: physical attraction, money and so on. Your emotional needs are lifelong however. If they are not met then any other redeeming features of a partner will (increasingly) not compensate. If they are met then it will help paper over the cracks of other shortcomings.

So - don't compromise on this. On the other hand, I believe men can learn to get better at fulfilling your emotional needs - you may just have to be specific in communicating what they are.
posted by rongorongo at 1:50 AM on November 3 [6 favorites]

Well, for what it is worth, I have found that with partners of either sex it is better to focus on the what you need rather than the how. So for something like the apologising-- that could be comforting for you, but it might feel fake to someone else. You may find it easier if you negotiate for what you want by focusing on the outcome you need: "I don't like to let hurt feelings pass by in silence-- can we make sure the other is okay after an incident?" puts the discussion on the outcomes rather than: "I need you to apologise for me to feel okay." You may end up in the same place, but I think it is easier to build a love language both parties understand.
posted by frumiousb at 2:31 AM on November 3 [31 favorites]

I have found the Five Love Languages framework really useful for communicating this sort of thing with my partner - it's pop psych at best, but, like a lot of pop psych, it can provide a common vocabulary for talking about emotional needs. (I have never read the book and feel no need to - the core concept is a paragraph and five bullet points at most, and that's plenty.)
posted by restless_nomad at 3:57 AM on November 3 [4 favorites]

Agreed that you shouldn’t compromise. I also agree that you will have more success if you work on communicating your needs so that you get them met while being flexible and letting your partner feel autonomous in the way they show you affection. You talk about emotional needs but then you list actions and behavior. I would want to know how my partner needs to feel, not what they want me to do, otherwise I might not get it right. If my partner wants to feel considered by me, wants to know that I value their feelings always, I absolutely will apologize if I hurt their feelings unintentionally, but if I don’t know why they want that from me, I might just feel like I’m checking off a box and it might make me resentful. I also wouldn’t have the opportunity to surprise and delight them with other ways to meet their needs that they haven’t imagined or asked for, one of the best ways I can find to show my partner I really care and I really know and love them. Consider separating the emotional needs you have (maybe a list of feelings and emotions that add up to feeling loved) and a list of actions and behaviours that create or negate those emotions. You don’t need to hand anybody this list, but if you are clear on the differences you’ll have more productive conversations, I think.
posted by pazazygeek at 4:05 AM on November 3 [10 favorites]

I think that things coded as "feminine" (apologies, hand-holding, emotional support) get treated like some kind of huge burden or imposition in relationships, like they're a favor that the other person is doing. This is even more true when the person who wants them is female. I think this contours the discourse about them.

Compare how we talk about sex in relationships - while there's an appropriate emphasis on consent, not pushing people to do things they really don't want to do and so on and while there's a greater awareness of asexuality and companionate relationships, the baseline assumption is that the the majority of the time, a relationship has a sexual element and that it's not a favor that one party does for the other but rather something that constitutes the relationship. The assumption is that unless you're specifically looking for an asexual or companionate relationship, there's a certain amount of sexual give and take which is normal and good, and that both partners should try to make each other comfortable and happy, within reason. We take it for granted that for many people, sexual connection is a big part of relationships.

But once we're in the realm of girlie feelings that we've been socialized to see as weak and demanding and, well, something that girls like, then all of the sudden we're in the realm of the non-standard and extra effort and so on, as if the human norm were actually soulless banging and only some kind of deviant would want a partner to be nice to them when they're having problems. (And soulless banging isn't the situation even in communities where there's a lot of very casual sex - community connections develop even when people aren't looking for individual romance.)

So I'm going to go right out there on a limb and say that emotional support, apologies, expressing affection and so on are baseline qualities of a relationship. (Maybe not literally down to the "kissing every time we see each other", which seems like an individual variant.) You should expect them unless you're specifically sought out a less emotional, more distant, more friends-with-benefits situation, or unless you've found an unexpected situation where you feel loved and secure anyway.

I think that if you're a grown-up, anyone worth dating is going to be aware that they should provide emotional support when you're having a tough time, and anyone worth dating is going to be aware that part of figuring out your relationship is going to be figuring out how to express affection in a way that makes you happy. These are not weird things that are some kind of stretch, and someone who is so grossed out by apologizing when he hurts your feelings that he just won't do it is not someone you want to date. There's some negotiation involved here, but most of what you're describing is extremely basic.

If you've been encountering a lot of people who don't understand intuitively that they need to be supportive when you're having a hard time, or who balk at apologies, or who make you feel bad for wanting those things, I think a part of your dating journey should be carefully evaluating how you meet people.
posted by Frowner at 4:16 AM on November 3 [56 favorites]

Would you say I should accept these as needs and look for the kind of partner who can meet them?

Yes, unless you find yourself expecting a partner to be perfect at delivering these instead of good. If your partner met the needs you describe 75% of the time, and sometimes in ways you didn’t expect (but are still comfortable with), would that feel ok to you, or would it start to fester and bother you? I’ve seen this go wrong in relationships where the person asking for affection started policing the issue and kind of escalating the demands, and it made their partner feel like they were always being monitored to meet a checklist.

Good for you for thinking through what you want.
posted by sallybrown at 5:36 AM on November 3 [1 favorite]

Dissenting view: If you need those things to feel happy you will not have control over your own happiness which is giving your partner way more control than is healthy. Moreover in a long term relationship there will be days and weeks where your partner is not going to be able to look after your emotional needs more than very cursorily. It won't be good if the year when your partner is working two jobs you are in misery and feel that, despite her working fourteen hours a day to support both of you and keep you on the medical plan, you are unloved.

The last thing you need is to be going through an emotional cycle where your partner looks after you on the weekend, but during the week when they don't have time to interact you get more and more grumpy and resentful, or sad and lost, and by Friday you have built up the thunderhead of an emotional storm so there is an outburst and reconciliation. I'm not saying you do this, far from it, but that's the direction too much uncontrolled need for emotional connection can take you.

Of course cycles of affection and connecting in relationships are valuable patterns. It's not the being separate during the week and re-connection on the weekend that is a problem, it's when the work week is misery for you and the re-connection is exhausting for the partner. If you're not going through a cycle where you push for more affection and have to create a storm to get it then then you are probably decent at managing your own emotional needs and communicating. The key factor is the storm - if you are repeatedly going to your partner upset and telling them they are not meeting your emotional needs, the relationship is not going to work. However if you are both looking forward to Friday night snuggle time and you know it will happen and there isn't drama and recrimination, then the cycle of distance and re-connection is working reasonably, even if you are lonely from Tuesday through Thursday. If there are constant relationship discussions and even recriminations someone in the relationship has attachment issues - not necessarily you.

There is also the question of if you need these things to feel connected or not. There are plenty of people who only bond during the intense stages of a relationship. If there isn't affection and intensity and eye contact they withdraw emotionally. Once the courtship phase is over they are only going through the motions until they can find someone else to engage with. If not getting affection from your partner makes you feel sad you can work on finding your happiness internally and may be able to keep things going and end up glad you did. If not getting affection from your partner makes you not feel like partners any more then your relationship is a fragile one.

That said you have to have a partner with complementary needs. Some people need lots of down time where they are not interacting and that is healthy and functional and some people need lots of connecting time where they share emotions and touch and re-affirm the bond and that is healthy and functional too. Having a partner who does not have to always be reminded that you want to be hugged is critical and is not asking too much. If your partner totally takes you for granted and can't be bothered and is incapable of remembering these things she is not partnering you sufficiently, any more than a partner who lives off your income without contributing is partnering you sufficiently. Sometimes we have good and sufficient reason for partnering with someone who doesn't do their share of the emotional labour or the financial labour or the executive labour, but there has to be a reason for it, other factors about the relationship that make it worth continuing with. You are absolutely entitled to lots and lots of affection within your relationship. It's one of your bedrock needs. If your partner can't meet that need then they should be out looking for a partner who needs to be given lots of space and tactful, not very visible support, and who finds affection and cuddling to be a bother. They shouldn't be staying with you. It means they are a bad fit.

There are many people who can support a high intensity high affection level during courtship, but then it drops way off and it stops working for them. It's a real problem figuring out if a prospective partner is only into affection during the courtship phase, or if they can provide affection for the long haul. The trick there is to observe the degree of affection they show their close long-term connections. If she is the one who grabs her team mates into a huddle and punches shoulders after the game, if she is the one who writes lengthy e-mails to her sister and has pet names for her, if she is the one who enthusiastically praises the grilled chicken to the waiter, you have someone who won't need a lot of priming to show affection to you.

I'm going to say, as with almost every question where you are trying to decide between alternatives, that the answer is to firmly straddle the fence. Do not settle for a partner who does not also want a hand-holdy, cuddly, frequent check in type relationship AND work on finding alternative ways of meeting your own need for this intensity in a relationship. You neither want to be with a cold, indifferent partner for life, nor do you want to leave your soul mate because they spend three difficult months in another city settling up their recently deceased parent's estate.

In order to get more flexible and relaxed you need to know how to meet your own needs, how to help you partner meet your needs, and now to be aware of when it is appropriate to ask your partner to meet your needs. This means being aware of when you need affection and closeness and being able to articulate it.

So observe yourself. Be aware when you want some affection and act on it. Partner busy? Do something that gives you some emotional lift - cuddle the cat, make a cup of that special tea, read a web comic that makes you smile. Partner available? Observe how available she really is. If she is on the phone pissed off with a customer, leave her alone, go cuddle the cat or put the kettle on for your tea. If she is not busy and is approachable, then you state your needs and use your words. "Can I have a hug?" But also, learn to communicate your needs clearly and state them. "I like to hug whenever you get home." If your partner does not thereafter hug you when she gets home, check if it is a memory issue or if they simply don't want to. If they don't want to get into rituals of that nature check if a different ritual will work - such as if they make you tea and sit down and encourage you to talk instead. It may be that they need to be alone and decompress when they get home, but you both can still subsititute something else that works for you the relationship could work. But if not, then you are a not good match and you have to figure out something you can do, either getting affection from someone else, or providing caretaking for yourself, or perhaps, unfortunately, downgrading the relationship from long-term-potential to not-long-term.

This can be hard. If you get flooded with emotions, and if you feel that they are breaking a commitment they made, withdrawing yourself enough to manage the situation and not feeling that there is something wrong with you may take a lot of calm and comforting self talk. Abandonment issues can cause emotional storms. But that's emotional maturity, and we all have to work on that, our whole lives long so it's not a sign of something wrong with you, it's just a key that this is something you can work on to make yourself happier in the long run.

Remember than needing emotional support is NOT being needy. You also need oxygen, water and food. Wanting affection is just who you are. And since it's one of the things that make you who you are, it's valuable and wonderful. It means that you are a loving and lovable person who will meet the needs of someone else who thirsts for that kind of closeness and connection.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:44 AM on November 3 [26 favorites]

Love is like food, if you'll allow me, there's a lot of ways to cook and enjoy it, many tastes and many recipes. We all need nutritious love. Do you feel you're focussing too much on specific ingredients rather than whether your over-all love diet is healthy? In other words, are you insisting that there has to be tuna at least once a day or you'll be miserable? It's good to communicate flavour preferences in a long term relationship but I'd be worried about insisting on specific dishes.

But, yes, you absolutely should demand a partnership with someone who can feed you right. I hope this makes sense.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:48 AM on November 3 [7 favorites]

Would you say I should accept these as needs and look for the kind of partner who can meet them?

absolutely not. the kind of partner who would only express casual physical affection grudgingly and instrumentally, in order to supply your 'needs,' or because he is "obliging," is sure to have other deep problems as well.

What I do think you should do is develop a real expectation of non-transactional mutual affection and be willing to leave any unsatisfactory partner who is not amenable to change after a brief negotiating period. but being free and easy with embraces, continually volunteering sincere compliments and repeatedly voicing one's love, these are part of a general personality type -- an attractive one, I agree! -- not a list of tasks to present to each new candidate to see whether he says Yes or No. it's not that you can't have what you want -- you can and you should. it is fine to select for this personality type. it is fine to exclusively date men who have it. but it is not so fine to assess romantic partners as adequate or inadequate need suppliers. not only is this dehumanizing, it is a ticket to forgiving the unforgivable, because it encourages the reframing of outrageous cruelty, meanness, thoughtlessness, selfishness, into the bloodless bureaucratic technicality of misunderstanding or failing to fulfill your needs.

also -- you don't say whether you would or wouldn't be agreeable to the presentation of a similar Needs List from a man, and I don't know how you would feel about meeting, without regard to your own mood or enjoyment, his stated Need for (say) a big smile every time you see him. but I know I would not respond well to such a directive. (In fact I do smile almost every time I see someone I'm happy to see, and because it comes from me and not from someone's imperative need list, the signal it sends is true.)

I think that women who frame incredibly basic and conventional relationship behaviors as "needs" have usually become convinced that men are some kind of cyborg monstrosities who desire from women nothing but sexual duties, laundry service, and humility, and thus can only be induced to feign affection for us through a rigorous instructional and training process. and I don't doubt that hard experience does some of this convincing. but in spite of the fact that such men do exist, there are other kinds. it is always better to deal with a man who already speaks human language than one to whom you have to teach it.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:59 AM on November 3 [7 favorites]

First, I do not think the decision is binary. It is not either your partner does these things or not or you get 100% of what you need or you compromise your needs. There are many many places inbetween.

Second, I am in a relationship now, likely leading to marriage where this very conflicted dynamic exists. I am in my 50's and divorced. My current partner is also in her 50s (younger than me she likes to point out) but never been married. She has almost verbatim the same needs you mentioned above like the kiss hello and goodbye, etc. She never compromised and never found a lifelong partner. That is only one data point and I have to say she was very happy in life as she had built up a network of family and friends that gave her a lot of emotional support.

Along came me, the opposite. I like to think of myself as the strong silent type. No PDAs, I sleep on my back on my side of the bed, etc. Over time, with communication and effort, I have learned to meet many of her needs and she many of mine. One way is that we live together only 3 or 4 days a week. Mon-Thurs we go to work and live separately although we have generally an hour or more video conference each night.

I happen to think that the point of decision is not immediately, but after you two have gotten to know each other and see if you cqn work together as a team to meet each other's needs. My gf and I have two different love languages if you will. We have both learned to talk each other's language and to recognize when each of us are expressing love or a need. It is not perfect, but to me the important thing is if you can each work together to meet each other's needs after trying to caring enough to try. Just because the person does not express their love the way you want immediately does not mean they never will.

My gf has told me she dropped dating people because of the types of things you mentioned in your question and for many other reasons such as a particular manner or lack of manners in a particular situation. Now, in her 50s, she has given me a chance and we have worked together to overcome our differences. She never married, never had the kids she wanted and never had a really long term relationship (3+ years), but she never compromised either. To thyne own self be true. Don't compromise, but see if you can work together to overcome your differences.
posted by AugustWest at 6:01 PM on November 3 [1 favorite]

I've mentioned this before on AskMe, but I often think of something one of my professors (a licensed professional counselor) once said: your significant other should meet 40% of your emotional needs. They are the single most important emotional support in your life, but they don't even meet half of your needs unaided. You still rely on friends and family for the other 60%.

In your case, if there are certain things you absolutely need to be content in a relationship, then, sure, don't compromise and wind up in a situation that makes you miserable. But it sounds like you are expecting your SO to be way more than 40% of your emotional support. Perhaps the ideal approach is to look for someone who naturally does quite of few of the things you want, while also working on developing other sources of emotional support to fill in inevitable gaps.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:57 AM on November 4 [1 favorite]

Following along from Pater Alethesias's comment, David Richo -- author of the oft-recommended on MeFi books How to Be an Adult in Relationships, How to Be an Adult in Love, and a bunch of others -- says that healthy adults probably get around 20% of the "5 A's of Love" met by our significant others. He says these 5 A's of Love are affection, appreciation, acceptance, allowing/autonomy, and attention. The rest of our needs for these things come from our other friends and family, our work/career, hobbies and creative expression, pets, community, and ourselves.

Another thing is that different people can have different-sized "buckets" for each of the A's. And if we didn't get a particular thing from our parental figures, or got a weird and distorted version of an A, it might be that some A's are more important to us than others. Or we might be unconsciously repeating patterns from our childhoods with some of the A's.

A book that cross-walks the 5 A's with the 5 Love Languages would be interesting, no?
posted by acridrabbit at 8:32 AM on November 12

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