The theme of “honesty” comes up frequently in the context of relationships. Most of us would probably agree that honesty is important. It helps establish trust and makes us feel safe. So why does it sometimes seem difficult to simply “be honest about what we need?”
Perhaps because emotional needs are not factual, scientific pieces of information – they’re nebulous and subjective – tricky to pin down sometimes. There are countless ways to express emotions in words, and unfortunately, there are likewise countless ways for a partner to interpret those words. Add to this the fact that our own thoughts and feelings often shift from moment to moment. Misunderstanding may be the root cause of relationship conflict.
Communicating our needs usually requires us to be honest with ourselves first, before we can be truly honest with our partners. Try these this 5-step process to get more clarity around what you need and communicate it to your partner.
What would best serve your well-being right now? What is missing that, if you had it, you might relax or breathe easier? Some abstract examples might be: privacy, comfort, freedom, or support. Some concrete examples might be: a walk, a bath, a conversation, a new project. Let go of any “shoulds” and other judgements that might arise as you are asking yourself this question. Remove the internal censor, and simply allow your feelings to be present in your body. What are they asking for? Write down the answer(s) in a journal or notepad.
Consider what kind of quality you want your conversation to have before you speak any words at all. Even using the same words, two different intentions (say, calm vs frustrated) can produce two radically different conversations. And, your intention is likely to influence your choice of words as well as your body language and energetic resonance. Some examples might be: connected, clear, calm, curious, exploratory, adventurous.
With your intention in focus, share your needs with your partner. If appropriate, listen to your partner’s needs in return.
Surprisingly, often this exchange is enough, even without any specific decision or agreement. The new knowledge and understanding may organically influence your tone, speech and actions going forward. Most of us want to support a partner’s needs, and will find creative ways of doing so. If you feel strongly about expressing more, try these two additional steps:
If your partner is willing to listen, consider what can he/she/they do to help you achieve it? Make sure your request is specific and actionable. If your goal is support, a request for your partner to “say goodbye before you leave in the morning” is more useful than a request to “support me.” If your goal is concrete, a request to “watch the kids for 30 minutes while I take a walk” is more useful than “give me more time to myself.”
Remember that the request is a request. It is not a demand or an obligation, and there is no guarantee that you will receive what you ask for.
Even if your feelings are very strong, it’s essential that you accept whatever response or lack of response your partner gives, recognizing that the response does not necessarily alter or change your own original need. Ultimately, as an adult, you are responsible for meeting your own needs, just like everyone else. In healthy relationships, partners generally strive to meet some of one another’s needs and support one another in meeting the rest of them.
If you feel attached to a certain thing that you want your partner to do for you, step back and identify the emotional need underneath it. What are you getting or hoping to get from that action? What are some other ways that you (or both of you) might think of to achieve the same goal?
Beware Zero-Sum Thinking
Sometimes “needs conversations” can fall into a zero-sum game trap. Either your needs or your partner’s needs can be met, but not both. This is black and white thinking, not creative thinking. Don’t give up. There is always a way for both of you to win, it just may not be the first solution you think of. Get creative. Remember that every day is a new day, and you are always both free to make a new choice.