Jessica and Richard told me they were at the end of their 9 year marriage. Their relationship was draining their energy and optimism. She thought him self-centered and distant. He found her constant chatter annoying. They started counseling with me for the sake of their two children, but without much hope that their marriage could be saved.
Many people suffer in relationships that do not meet their needs and wants. In fact, you’d probably be surprised to learn that most people don’t even know what they need and want in their relationship (i.e. need for security, freedom, nurturing, approval, connection, solitude, intimacy, sex.) You might also find it surprising to learn that their models for relationships are collages borrowed from their parents, friends, television sit-coms, or Hollywood stories.
What’s missing in all this? The recognition of the uniqueness of each individual. People have their own complex constellation of characteristics that determine their needs and wants in relationships. Unfortunately, people often choose a partner based on their attractiveness, status, or sociability, rather than an assessment of whether the potential partner can satisfy their need and wants. Some people spend more time choosing a new car than a spouse, mostly because they are not sure what features in a partner will meet thir needs over the long haul.
Ironically, the first step in rectifying this problem is for each partner to gain perspective by shifting the focus to themselves instead of the ailing relationship. By becoming crystal clear about your own needs and wants, you are in a better position to have them met. When your partner knows precisely what you are requesting, it is a simpler task to provide it. In my experience, most people want their partners to be happy.
Jessica knew Richard had no interest in the things she talked about. She was simply seeking a way to feel connected to him. Richard found Jessica’s neediness suffocating. He loved her, but needed more personal space.
Jessica agreed to allow Richard more quiet time. Richard offered to give Jessica more non-verbal communications (i.e., touch on the shoulder, peck on the check) to reinforce the feeling of connection. Over time, by articulating all of their needs and wants, Jessica and Richard transformed their relationship into one that satisfied them both.
This couple got to the heart of the matter. They didn’t change their core selves, but made small behavioral changes and deepened their understanding of the underlying cause of their conflict based on an in-depth assessment of their needs and wants.
Jerry Duberstein, Ph.D.
Dr. Duberstein is the author of the book, Relationship Transformation: How to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too, co-authored with his wife, Mary Ellen Goggin. The husband-wife team hosts private couples retreats attended by couples from across the US and Canada.