How To Communicate Your Needs in a Relationship

As we’ve discussed before, many men these days have trouble being assertive. One of the things these “Nice Guys” struggle with is communicating their needs to others. Because they shy away from conflict, and don’t want to trouble or inconvenience others, they constantly let other people’s needs supersede their own, and they find it difficult to articulate their personal goals and desires. Instead, they rely on “mind-reading,” believing their partners should intuitively know what they need without them having to say anything. If the Nice Guy’s partner isn’t skilled in telepathy, he becomes resentful and begins ascribing negative qualities like selfishness to her, even though he’s never actually given her a fair chance to meet his needs.

Relying on mind-reading to get your needs fulfilled creates feelings of chronic anger and contempt towards your partner, conditions which will almost invariably lead to the demise of your relationship. To keep your relationship strong and happy, it’s up to you to make your needs clearly known. As the authors of Couple Skills, Matthew McKay, Patrick Fanning, and Kim Paleg (hereafter referred to as MFP), put it, nobody is in a better position to understand your needs than you are:

“You have a right to ask for the things you need in a relationship. In fact, you have a responsibility to yourself and your partner to be clear about your needs. You are the expert on yourself. No one else, not even your partner, can read your mind and know what you need in the way of support, intimate contact, time alone, domestic order, independence, sex, love, financial security, and so on.”

So if articulating your needs isn’t something you’ve felt comfortable doing, how do you start going about it? And how do you do it in a way that doesn’t create defensiveness and anger, and offers the best chance of your partner being willing to listen and fulfill that need?

MFP offer a really helpful “needs script” to follow when initiating this kind of sensitive conversation. Obviously, it’s not a word-for-word script – what you say will vary greatly according to your relationship and personal situation. Instead, it offers a very simple template for communicating your needs in a healthy and productive way. However, if expressing your needs is something you really struggle with, you may actually find it helpful to write out your “script” beforehand. You don’t need to read it to your partner, but putting down your thoughts on paper can help you prepare. That way, in the heat of the moment, you don’t fall into old traps of passiveness or aggressiveness and can instead navigate the healthy middle path of assertiveness.

The Needs Script

Situation (specific, objective description of facts). Start off the conversation by offering a straightforward description of the situation you want to address. Leave out analysis, interpretation, and inflammatory or accusatory language – try to make it as specific, impersonal, and objective as possible.

  • Our relationship has really sucked lately. We’ve been fighting a lot more than usual these last few weeks.
  • Our bedroom looks like a bomb went off. There are a lot of clothes on our bedroom floor.
  • Your spending is out of control. We’re $300 over our budget this month.
  • I’m going crazy in this sexless marriage. We haven’t had sex in two months.
  • I’m always stuck at home and never get to see my friends anymore. I haven’t been out with my friends since the baby came.

Feelings (non-blaming “I” statements). When you tell your partner what you’re feeling, you need to be careful to not vent or explode in a vague, accusatory way (“I’m angry/stressed/upset and you’re to blame!”) which may feel cathartic, but isn’t actually productive. In order to keep the conversation as a problem-solving discussion rather than a heated argument, you want to accurately convey the nature, intensity, and cause of your feelings. So before you begin the conversation, you’ll want to have honed in as much as possible to the specifics of what you’ve been feeling. Once you’ve identified the broad feeling that first comes to mind (angry, upset, hurt, etc.), MFP suggests narrowing down its nature and focus with these modifiers:

  1. Definition. First, make your broad feeling more specific by adding some synonyms. When you say angry, do you mean angry and stressed, or angry and irritated? Or are you really more confused or disappointed than mad? When you say you’re upset, are you upset and disappointed, or upset and depressed? The more specific descriptors you can use to describe how you’re feeling, the better.
  2. Intensity. Add modifiers that accurately convey the intensity of your feelings. Have you been feeling a little resentful or a lot? Slightly discouraged or majorly depressed? Be honest here.
  3. Duration. How long have you been feeling this way? Have you been stressed since you lost your job or ever since you got married? Have you felt irritated for weeks or for days?
  4. Cause and Context. You want to avoid naming your partner as the cause of your feelings, no matter how tempting, and even if their actions really have been the catalyst. Blame begets defensiveness, not communication. What will result is a fight that doesn’t end up addressing the real problem whatsoever. Instead, try to communicate the cause of your feelings in the form of their impersonal context, and describe your own feelings rather than those of the other person. You can accomplish this by using “I” statements rather than “you” accusations.
  • Your clinginess is making me feel suffocated. I miss seeing my friends.
  • Your nagging is driving me crazy. Getting numerous reminders about doing something makes me feel patronized.
  • You’re such a slob. I feel frustrated when there are things all over the floor.
  • You’ve really been bringing me down. I have been feeling depressed and unhappy lately.
  • Getting this overdraft notice makes me feel like you’re not competent enough to handle our finances. I get really worried about our finances when I see an overdraft notice arrive in the mail.

Request (for behavior change). MFP spell this part of the script out well: “Ask for a change in behavior only. This is a very important rule. Don’t expect your partner to change his or her values, attitudes, desires, motivations, or feelings. These characteristics are very hard to change. It’s like asking someone to be taller or more intelligent. People feel personally threatened if you ask them to change intangibles that are seen as part of their very nature and beyond their conscious control. For example, what does it mean to ask someone to be ‘more loving’ or ‘less critical’ or ‘neater’? These kinds of requests are heard as attacks, and little real change is likely to result.”

MFP counsels that instead of going after someone’s “core” attributes, and having them react defensively, stick with making a request that they modify a specific, observable behavior.

  • I want you to be neater. I would really like it if you could put your dirty dishes away in the dishwasher and close the cabinets after you take stuff out of them.
  • I want you to be less critical of me. I would appreciate it if you didn’t make jokes about me being out of work in front of your parents.
  • I want you to be more loving. It would mean a lot to me if you gave me a kiss when I came home from work and asked me how my day was.
  • I wish you were up for sex more often. I know we’re both crazy busy, but I’d like us to commit to trying to have sex at least once a week, even if that means scheduling it.
  • You need to be less clingy. I want to hang out with my friends at least once a month.

When you make your request, only tackle one situation and 1 or 2 observable behavior changes at a time. You don’t want to overwhelm your partner – she’ll just shut down. Pick small changes that will make her feel like, “Okay, that’s reasonable. I can do that.” See if your partner follows through on those changes. If she does, then bring up something else to work on down the line.

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