The following is a condensed version of the first post in a series on couple’s communication I’ve been working on that synthesizes many of the concepts I present to couples and families who have trouble communicating. For the full post, check out my blog at www.jacquelineabeling.com.

One of the most common complaints I hear from couples is: “We need better communication.” Clear and accurate communication is the cornerstone of healthy relationships be it with your partner, your children, your family, your co-workers…or whoever! And I almost always start with a lesson on emotional needs…so here goes!

Ever wonder how conversations with your partner can sometimes end in absolute disaster in a matter of minutes? You know the kind, you’re talking about what to make for dinner and, all of the sudden, they storm off in a rage and you’re left standing there not knowing what the heck just happened.

Psychologically speaking, these seemingly bizarre reactions are the result of an emotional need that was not met at the time of that interaction. In layman’s terms, your partner caught a case of uncomfortable feels and did whatever it took to try to right it.

WHAT ARE EMOTIONAL NEEDS

You ever hear the phrase, ‘You’re pushing my buttons!’? Emotional needs are those buttons at their deepest level and are often informed by our past experiences. In my experience, I found our emotional needs tend to fall into four categories — significance, competence, acceptance, and security. When emotional needs are unmet, we tend to get anxious and we try whatever we can to get those needs met.

A good example of this would be a toddler’s temper tantrum. They need something — whether a physical need or a want/desire— they can’t have, and they do whatever it takes to get it. Think: throwing themselves down in the middle of the grocery store aisle and screaming bloody murder. Yeah, well we have our own adult versions of that too.

Let’s take a look at each emotional need in a little more detail.

We all want to feel important, especially in the eyes of those closest to us. So, how horrible is it when you feel completely invisible or excluded by those most important in our lives? Not good, and we often try to do things to get them to notice us when we’re feeling this way, some of those things being more healthy than others.

Ever have someone say they felt like you weren’t listening to what they had to say and there was a huge blowup over the whole thing? In other words, their thoughts, beliefs, and opinions, and by extension, they as a person felt insignificant and unimportant to you in that moment (or it may have been building for a while and this was just the cherry on top) and you didn’t see that before the blowup. The blowup was the way they decided, likely unconsciously, to show you how they were feeling. In children, this may be a tantrum; in adolescents, slamming their bedroom door. You get the gist.

You ever have that friend or family member who is so critical of your every move? Like you just can’t do anything right? What about when your partner does it? What about when you do it to your kids? It’s frustrating as all get out, right?

Constant and incessant questioning or second guessing your judgment often get interpreted as a “not good enough” message and makes us feel incredible small. Most of us don’t like that feeling — go figure! — and do whatever it takes to make it go away. We might ignore the criticizer, lash out to make them go away, or put our effort into overdrive with perfectionistic tendencies. However we respond, we’re trying to get the icky, “not good enough” feelings to go away.


If relationships are to be healthy, we have to feel like we’re accepted and loved by others, especially by our significant others or parents. But sometimes we can interpret their behaviors as being dismissive or rejecting. This often shows up in the bedroom with couples or keeping important matters from parents with children and adolescents.

Think about it this way: if you feel like what you say or do is going to be dismissed, rejected, or even used against you, why on Earth would you open your mouth? We can get into these stalemates in relationships when we’re not feeling accepted, which actually tends to reinforce the pattern, thus the feeling too. It’s like the old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Without feeling accepted in our relationships, we choose not to open ourselves up for rejection, so eventually we just stop trying.

Finally, the need for safety and security, I will argue, is probably the most hardwired need of the four. I mean, think about it, we cannot truly thrive if we’re constantly in fear for our life. Now, I’m not saying you fear your partner will physically harm you or you will harm your children (although that is sadly the case in some families and I’m not discounting that at all here), but we need to feel support and stability if we’re going to let our guard down, right?

The need for security can be triggered in many different ways. Of course, there is the need for physical safety and we can probably all guess that people don’t do very well in dangerous living environments like war-torn areas, rough neighborhoods, or neglectful homes. But the need for emotional security — the ability to feel genuinely supported and encouraged — is also necessary to thrive.

So, those are our basic emotional needs that drive our behavior in relationships with others. We all feel the need for significance, competence, acceptance, and security at one time or another in our relationships, but our relationships are also the place in which our emotional needs can get neglected as well…quite the Catch-22. So what can we do?

ADDRESSING EMOTIONAL NEEDS IN RELATIONSHIPS

Alright, so now you know what emotional needs are, but how do you take all of this lovely information and actually use it in your relationships? I firmly believe that knowledge is power, but what we do with it is even more powerful. So, let’s put this stuff into practice.

  1. Recognize your primary emotional need(s)

Do some soul searching and try to identify your one or two primary emotional needs that get triggered most often. Help your child do this when they’re upset. You might ask yourself, “What am I feeling when I get upset with my partner?” (HINT: It’s not anger.) Anger is a secondary emotion and gets triggered by feelings of being hurt, disappointed, confused, etc. Think about it this way, do you want to hash it out with someone who is angry? Or hurt? I’ll bet it’s easier to have compassion for and listen to someone who is hurting rather than someone who is angry, so really dig deep.

The next time that need gets triggered (and you know it will), name it and work through it with that person. Own the emotion because it’s yours, not something they did to you. Nobody makes you feel this way, you’re experiencing emotions because of things going on internally. It’s not your partner’s responsibility to know how you’re feeling and don’t assume that as a parent you know what your child is going through. In time, that understanding will develop, but no one will ever know unless you tell them. This is just as much an exercise in trust as it is communication.

  1. Give them a break

Do you actively seek to hurt your partner or children on a daily basis? Of course not! More often we’re just doing our thing and our intentions get interpreted the wrong way. It’s more than likely they are not intentionally trying to hurt you, just as you’re likely not trying to hurt them. But that’s the nature of relationships…we end up unintentionally hurting each other.  So try to give each other a break when these types of interactions arise and remind yourself that you love each other and are not trying to hurt each other.

  1. Stay curious

One of my many mantras in life is: “Everybody’s got to be doing something.” In other words, just because someone’s behavior doesn’t make sense to you, doesn’t mean it doesn’t makes sense to them. We do the things we do because they make sense to us at the time, whether is appears logical to others or not.

So, when you have no idea why your partner or child is doing what they’re doing or acting a certain way, stay curious about what is going on, don’t get defensive. All too often we take other people’s behavior personally and wonder what the heck we did to warrant such treatment. Guess what? This song isn’t always about you. Instead of taking their behavior personally, remind yourself that they are struggling at the moment and probably need help or some quiet time to process. Use this opportunity to lean in and let them know you’re there to support, not start a fight.

So there it is, folks! The basic building blocks of good communication starts with understanding your emotional needs, communicating them, giving each other a break, and staying curious about each other. More to come in future posts, so stay tuned!