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Emotional Needs in a Relationship: Building Stronger Bonds

February 9, 2024

We all have emotional needs that must be met if we’re going to be able to live the life we want. Even the most stoic or unemotional person you know is going to have emotional needs, and they’ll be unhappy and discontent if those needs are consistently not being met.1

When we’re in a relationship with someone we love, that relationship is usually the main way that we get our emotional needs met. Our romantic relationship is typically the closest and most intimate relationship in our lives, which means that it’s best placed to give us the emotional support we need to be happy.

In this article, I’m going to dig down into some of the most important emotional needs you might have and what you can do if those emotional needs aren’t being met in your relationship.

What Do We Mean by Emotional Needs?

As the language of psychology and therapy is becoming more mainstream, more and more of us are talking about our “needs” in relationships. But what exactly do we mean?

Emotional needs aren’t absolute requirements, like oxygen or water. We won’t literally die without them. Instead, they’re the things we need in our relationship or our life in order to feel happy and fulfilled. They’re the essential ingredients we need if we’re going to thrive.

The Core Emotional Needs in a Relationship

There are some core emotional needs that most of us have in our relationships. Different needs will come to the fore at different points in our lives, but most of us will experience these examples of emotional needs at some time.

1. Affection

Affection is an important need in our relationships. We need to feel as though the people we love feel affection towards us and want to make us feel special and loved.

There are lots of different forms of affection in our relationships. We might crave physical affection in the form of hugs or hand holding. There’s also sexual affection, saying loving things, and carrying out simple gestures to show that they were thinking of us.

Affection in our relationships is one of the ways that we build closeness and trust.2

2. Acceptance

Another essential emotional need is the need for acceptance from the people we love. Acceptance is made up of two different aspects. 

To feel genuinely accepted for who we are, we need to know that the people around us see our genuine selves and that they value us for who we are.

If we hide our true selves from our partners, we take away the possibility of feeling genuinely accepted by them.3 We need to open up and feel vulnerable by showing our innermost thoughts and feelings before we can know whether the people we love accept us.

Once we open up in this way, our need for acceptance can increase dramatically. We’ve shown our partners who we are and we need them to accept that person. If they try to pressure us to change or try to pretend that some aspects of our personality don’t exist, we feel rejected and hurt.

3. Safety

safety

Safety isn’t just something we need in a relationship. It’s a fundamental human need. We all try to do what we can to feel safe and secure.4

Safety and security can mean different things in different situations. Safety in your relationships means feeling able to rely on your partner to be there when you need them and also trusting them to treat you with love, respect, and kindness.

Remember that safety isn’t just about avoiding physical harm. A relationship doesn’t need to be physically abusive to leave you feeling that your need for safety isn’t being met. If your partner belittles you or constantly criticizes you, you’re not going to feel emotionally or psychologically safe.

In a healthy relationship, your partner makes you feel emotionally safe. You feel able to turn to them when you feel sad or afraid and they make you feel supported and safe.

4. Autonomy

Even when we’re in a close, loving relationship, we still have a need to have our own identity and autonomy. We need to know that we can make our own decisions and have our own personal preferences and priorities.

If this need for autonomy isn’t being met, you’ll probably feel as though your identity as an individual is being lost. You might feel as though people only know you as your partner’s “other half.” You might even start to feel as though you don’t entirely know who you really are anymore.

There are lots of ways that you can fulfill your need for autonomy and identity in your relationship. Usually, this means spending time away from your partner. You might want to be completely alone for self-reflection or you could take up hobbies and interests by yourself.

Spending time apart from your partner might not be enough to meet this need, however. Remember that it isn’t just about being physically apart. This is a psychological and emotional need. It can be more important that you make your own decisions and that your partner supports you in that.

If you find it difficult to make decisions without asking your partner first or even struggle to know how you feel about something without their input, you might need to have more autonomy in your relationship.

5. Validation

Validation is the sense that we are valuable and important in our own right. When we feel validated, we understand that our thoughts and feelings are real and meaningful and we’re ready to accept ourselves for who we are.

Self-validation is an essential skill to learn, as it lets us feel validated without having to rely on others. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also be able to turn to our partners for validation when we need it as well.

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Validation within a relationship can look subtly different from the validation we need in other parts of our lives. Often, we’re looking for our partner to tell us that our thoughts and feelings are important to them, rather than just a general acceptance that they’re meaningful.

We want to know that our partner genuinely cares about how we feel. This helps us to feel that we’re equal partners in our relationships and that we’re listened to and valued.

6. Trust

We all know that relationships thrive on mutual trust. If we’re going to feel safe and open up to our partners, we need to feel that we can trust them. It’s also important to know that we’re trusted.

Trust is what allows us to relax in relationships. When we’re around people we don’t trust, we’re constantly on alert, looking out for situations where we might need to protect ourselves and being defensive. This is exhausting, and it’s not a healthy way to feel in a relationship.

So how can we get our emotional need for trust met? The first and most obvious requirement is that our partners need to deserve our trust. If you’re dating someone who lets you down or betrays your trust, you’re going to feel unsettled and anxious. Dating someone who is there for you allows you to feel trusting.

Our partners also need to value being trustworthy. If we know that someone prides themselves on their honesty and integrity, it’s easier to trust them. If they don’t seem especially worried about being caught being dishonest or untrustworthy, it’s natural to be reluctant to trust them.

As I mentioned, it’s also important to us that we know our partners trust us. This means that we need to do all of the things that we want our partners to do to earn our trust. Doing what you say you will and keeping your word are key to building trust in a relationship.

It can be especially hurtful if your partner doesn’t trust you, even though you’ve given them no reason to feel that way.5 For example, they might not trust you to have male friends even though you’d never consider cheating.

Knowing that there is mutual trust between you and your partner lets you feel secure in your ability to face problems together as a couple.

7. Connection

connection

A great relationship has a strong feeling of connection between you and your partner. I’ve already talked about the ways that you need autonomy, but a relationship means balancing that need with the need for connection and being together.

Of course, feeling a strong emotional connection to your partner isn’t just about spending time together. It’s about feeling that you come together as a unit and that you’re creating a shared life between you.

Lots of couples can start to feel emotionally distant from each other after a long relationship. They might start to feel more like housemates than life partners. This is usually due to a loss of that sense of connection.

Building (or rebuilding) your connection to your partner is often more about how you approach your time together rather than the specifics of what you do. Almost any activity can be an opportunity for emotional bonding and connection if you start from that mindset.

For example, you can binge-watch a show with your partner and feel entirely unconnected. You’re sitting at either end of the sofa in silence and you feel as though you might as well be there alone. That’s not meeting your emotional need for connection.

Alternatively, you can start from the perspective that you want this show to be something you share. You might pause between episodes to share your thoughts and to discuss different characters or scenes. You could look to your partner during an especially funny or tense scene to share your reactions.

Even something as simple as sharing the housework can feel like an opportunity to connect with your partner if you feel like it’s something you’re doing together and you’re talking and communicating throughout.

8. Prioritization

Lots of us have mixed feelings about wanting to feel as though we’re a priority in our partner’s life. Intellectually, we understand that we can’t always be their top priority, but we still want to feel as though we’re important to someone we love.

Films and other forms of popular culture often create the impression that we should always put our romantic partners above everyone else in our lives.6 That’s a romantic notion, but it’s rarely possible or even healthy.

In a healthy relationship, both people will be taking care of their own needs first and then focusing on their partner’s needs, along with their other responsibilities. It’s important to feel as though we can prioritize our own needs without being accused of being selfish.

Remember that we’re talking about needs here. Taking care of your own needs first isn’t selfish. It’s healthy and builds trust in your relationship. Putting your preferences or desires before your partner’s needs actually is selfish.

There also needs to be a balance between being a priority in your partner’s life and recognizing their autonomy and the fact that they might have other commitments. Wanting to be prioritized over their children may not be possible or reasonable. Not being prioritized over their drinking buddies or a distant cousin might be far less understandable.

9. Space

Most of us need at least some space in our relationships. As with the other emotional needs in this list, there are different kinds of space. You might need your own physical space, such as a room where you can close the door and be alone.

You might also need emotional space. This might mean that you don’t want to be expected to share all of your thoughts and feelings with your partner. If you have an avoidant attachment style, you might need this emotional space to process difficult emotions.

There’s also the need for psychological space. Often, this is about feeling as though it’s ok to keep some aspects of your life private. This kind of space can be particularly contentious. Some people believe that it’s wrong to keep any secrets or privacy in a relationship, whilst others only want to share things that impact their partner.

There’s no right or wrong amount of space to want in a relationship. Everyone will be different. The most important thing is that your personal need for space in your relationship is being met.

Unmet Emotional Needs in a Relationship

If you have unmet emotional needs in your relationship, it can be helpful to understand where that’s coming from and what’s going on. Let’s look at some of the main reasons that you might have unmet emotional needs.

Remember that this goes both ways. If your partner says that they have unmet needs in your relationship, try to understand why you haven’t been meeting them and what the barriers are.

1. Your needs aren’t recognized

The first possibility is that your partner simply doesn’t see or understand your emotional needs. They might be absolutely dedicated to meeting your needs. They just don’t know what they are. This is painful for both of you because you’re feeling unsettled and unhappy and they feel confused and powerless to help.

But why might they not recognize your needs? There are lots of reasons why someone might not recognize or understand your emotional needs.

It’s generally harder to identify emotional needs that you don’t share. For example, if you have an anxious attachment style, you probably have a high need for validation. If your partner has an avoidant attachment style, they might have very little need for validation but a huge need for autonomy.7

You might struggle to see each other’s needs because it never occurred to you that someone would value that so highly.

Our partners also aren’t mind-readers. You might see your emotional need for validation as completely obvious and universal, so you don’t actually tell them specifically what you need. Trying to communicate your needs can be scary and difficult, but it’s essential if your partner is going to step up over your unmet needs.

If your partner grew up in an especially restrictive or unemotional family, they might also not be used to the idea that you actually can turn to someone else to help you meet your emotional needs. If they’re used to being expected to be incredibly independent, they might not see a role for themselves in meeting your needs.

2. They don’t know how to meet your needs

they don't know how to meet your needs

The next point at which your partner might fail to meet your emotional needs is if they can see what you need, but don’t know how to give it to you. Again, they want to help. They just lack the skills or the ability.

This can be particularly frustrating to deal with. You know that there’s no malice in your partner. They just seem confused and floundering. If you’re lacking in self-worth, this can (inadvertently) reinforce your impression that you don’t deserve care, love, and support.

You might need to be really explicit about practical things that they can do to meet your emotional needs. For example, you could explain that you need more affection than you’re currently getting and open a conversation about the Five Love Languages

If you suspect that your partner is struggling with how to meet your emotional needs, it’s often helpful to come up with practical steps that can help you feel as though your needs are met. I understand that this can sometimes feel like it’s defeating the point, but try to think of it as part of a learning process.

For example, if you don’t feel that your partner understands you (a key requirement to fulfill your need for acceptance), you might need to ask them to ask you more questions and to try to be more curious about who you are and what matters to you.

This might feel fake at first, as they’re only asking questions because you asked them to. Remember that this is about helping them to understand you better and building a habit of curiosity and care.

3. They might not want to meet your emotional needs

This is one of the most painful reasons that your emotional needs might not be being met in your relationship. Again, there are different reasons why your partner might not want to help meet your emotional needs.

Some people simply don’t recognize that partners have a role in meeting each other’s emotional needs in a relationship. They might be ultra-independent and see each person as responsible for their own needs.

They’re not entirely wrong in that, but this does take it to an unhealthy extreme. We are all responsible for making sure that our own needs are met, but we usually do that by building relationships (platonic and romantic) with people who are able and willing to meet them.

Expecting others to fulfill all of their own emotional needs without their partner making an effort can be a sign of emotional repression and someone who is trying to push their own emotions and needs away.

Not wanting to meet your partner’s emotional needs can also sometimes be a sign of abuse. Abusers don’t want their partners to feel safe, secure, and happy. They want them off-balance and insecure because that makes it easier to manipulate them.

If your partner recognizes your needs and knows how they could meet them, but chooses not to because they don’t want to, I would consider that a red flag.

4. They’re struggling themselves

Someone not wanting to meet their partner’s emotional needs is clearly not a sign of a healthy relationship, but sometimes you want to support them but you’re just carrying too much of your own emotional baggage.

It can be very difficult to meet your partner’s needs when you’re feeling overwhelmed, insecure, or struggling to cope with something yourself.

If your partner normally tries to meet your emotional needs in your relationship but they’re temporarily unavailable to you in the way that you need, you might need to acknowledge that they’re not going to be able to support you right now. This is a good time to build up the rest of your support network.

How Can You Tell Whether Your Emotional Needs Are Being Met?

For some people, it’s very easy to know whether their emotional needs are being met or not. If their needs are being met, they feel confident, safe, and loved. If those needs are not being met, they feel insecure, unsettled, and unimportant.

If that sounds like you, that’s great. You’re in a fantastic position to know what you want, which is the first (and often the hardest) step in fixing any problems in your relationship. In my experience, you’ll probably also find it relatively easy to identify which needs are missing and how they might be met.

Unfortunately, not everyone has a healthy experience of having their emotional needs met in a relationship to compare with. If you’ve never had a great relationship where all of your emotional needs are met, or if you’ve been in an abusive relationship, you might feel as though you’ll never feel safe and settled in a relationship. 

In this case, you might worry that your needs are unreasonable or even impossible to meet. If you also have low self-esteem or self-worth, you might tell yourself that it’s ok for other people to have those needs but find reasons why you don’t deserve to have your needs met.

For example, you might think that you’ll never have a relationship with someone who treats you as a priority because there’s always going to be someone more important than you are. Or you might assume that no one will accept you because there’s something fundamentally unlovable about you.

There’s no quick fix to help you overcome a lifetime of not having your emotional needs met, and there’s no easy way for you to start to understand when your needs should be met in your relationship. 

I recommend focusing on your own self-awareness as your first step. Try to understand your own needs, and really work on being compassionate and kind to yourself in the process. Journaling and mindfulness can be invaluable tools here.

How Can You and Your Partner Meet Each Other's Emotional Needs?

how can you and your partner meet each other's emotional needs

1. Understand your own needs

Make sure that both of you have the time and space you need to do some real self-reflection. Try to focus on understanding what your most important emotional needs are in a relationship, and how you know when they’re being met.

2. Take responsibility for your needs

Remind yourself that your partner is only one of the people you can turn to when you have emotional needs. Make sure that you’re looking for as many ways to get your needs met as possible, rather than seeing this as something your partner “should” be doing for you.

3. Be curious about your partner’s needs

In a great relationship, both people are actively trying to understand their partner’s needs. Be curious about how your partner feels about your relationship. Lots of people don’t like to tell their partner that they’re not feeling happy or fulfilled, but it can be much easier for them to open up if you ask questions.

4. Practice loving, honest communication

The more you talk about your needs in a loving and collaborative way, the more likely it is that you’re going to understand what you both need from your relationship. When you’re explaining things that are missing from your relationship, try to use I-statements so your partner doesn’t feel blamed.

Talk about the ways in which your needs are being met, as well as the areas where they’re not. Reiterate your love and affection for each other.

5. See yourselves as a team

Try to remember that you both benefit when your emotional needs are met. Work together to find solutions and make sure that both of your needs are seen as equally important

Having a collaborative mindset, rather than a confrontational one, makes conversations about your relationship far less emotionally difficult. Working together to resolve problems can help to reinforce your relationship.

FAQs

How do I get my partner to meet my emotional needs?

You can’t make your partner meet your emotional needs because you can’t ever control someone else’s behavior. Instead, try to focus on making sure that your needs are met. Explain what you need, why it’s important to you, and how they can help. Practice setting firm boundaries and clear expectations.

Do I need to leave a partner who doesn’t meet my emotional needs?

One of the most common reasons that a partner doesn’t meet your emotional needs is that they don’t realize that you’re unhappy. Before leaving your partner, try to be really honest about your emotional needs and how they can help to meet them for you.

How can I communicate my emotional needs?

The best way to communicate your emotional needs is to be as open and upfront as you can. Work on your self-awareness to help you identify the needs that aren’t being met in your relationship. Once you can name them, use I-statements to explain them to your partner.

Conclusion

We all have emotional needs in a relationship, and it’s important to be open about what they are and how your partner can help to meet them. 

Let us know your most important needs in the comments below, and don’t forget to share this article with someone who will find it useful.

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  4. ‌Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0054346
  5. ‌Rodriguez, L. M., DiBello, A. M., Øverup, C. S., & Neighbors, C. (2015). The Price of Distrust: Trust, Anxious Attachment, Jealousy, and Partner Abuse. Partner Abuse, 6(3), 298–319. https://doi.org/10.1891/1946-6560.6.3.298
  6. ‌Chrys Ingraham. (2016). White weddings : romancing heterosexuality in popular culture. Routledge.
  7. ‌Morgan, H. J., & Shaver, P. R. (1999). Attachment Processes and Commitment to Romantic Relationships. Handbook of Interpersonal Commitment and Relationship Stability, 109–124. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4615-4773-0_6
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