Relationships are about love, communication, and compromise. But how do you know when to compromise and what you can’t budge on?
Sometimes the things we think we need aren’t as important as some of the things we’ve put on the back burner.
When couples are not able to prioritize their needs, they get frustrated. It’s common for them to feel like they’re always arguing over the same thing.
Knowing how to separate your needs, wants, and desires is a skill that can help you build resilience in your relationships.
But it can be difficult to identify your needs and wants in a relationship because they tend to tie into one another. Let’s define these terms.
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A need is something you absolutely have to have in order to have a happy and fulfilling relationship. These are your deal breakers. Needs tend to reflect your values, like communication, trust, or justice.
A want is something that you would like in a relationship, and you’d notice if you didn’t have it. However, these are things that are not essential.
Desires are things that you would like, but you honestly wouldn’t notice if it wasn’t present.
Think of the three groups as a cake. What you need is the cake itself, your wants are the icing, and your desires are all the decorations and sprinkles.
If it’s a beautiful cake but tastes awful, that’s not going to be a great time. And while a naked cake might not be much to look at, if it’s sweet, moist, and delicious, you’re probably much happier.
Generally speaking, I tell people to explore their values in order to identify their needs. But this can be difficult because values are abstract. That means that they aren’t something a person can see, hear, or ask specifically.
Wants, in contrast to needs, tend to be more concrete. We want our partners to call or text us a certain number of times. We want them to communicate with us in a certain way. We want them to be able to cook or play music or enjoy the same kind of movies we do.
A good way to separate wants and needs is to ask yourself why something is important to you. Why do you want your partner to bring you flowers? If it’s because it makes you feel like he sees and appreciates you, you probably need to feel loved and connected. But if he could give you the same feeling by planning a special date, then you want flowers but don’t need them.
Respect is the most important value to me. I need to feel respected in my relationship, and I need my partner to expect respect from me. But the way I define respect is treating people the way they want to be treated.
So what does that even look like?
My partner can show me respect by asking my opinion and listening to me, even when he disagrees. He can wash the dishes when I cook dinner. He can call me out when I’m wrong and give me space to be mad about being called out. He can tell me when he feels like I’m not listening to his needs.
All of those actions are concrete. When he does them, I can observe them with my five senses. To me, they mean respect. To someone else, some of these might feel disrespectful, critical, or unfair.
It can be difficult to separate wants from needs, especially when it comes to romantic relationships. What we want feels very important. And sometimes, we compromise what we need because we think it’s not as important as love.
Your boundaries are a reflection of your needs and values. They are a way for you to prioritize positive experiences with people who love you. When you concede your values, you stand in the way of your own happiness.
Dating is about finding a partner who will connect with every part of you. If he can’t connect with you when you’re holding your boundaries, he’s not really dating you. Instead, you’re putting forward a version of yourself that has different values and needs.
That’s a recipe for disaster.
Keep your boundaries!
There are some things that are positively correlated with lasting, fulfilling relationships. Studies have shown that meeting these needs improves overall relationship satisfaction.
Take some time in each of the following sections to identify what needs you have in each category.
You have expectations about the basic requirements of your relationship. Most of the time, they’re not unrealistic expectations. But what you consider to be the bare minimum for a relationship might not be the same for your partner.
Monogamy, for example, is a common relationship agreement. But studies show that non-monogamous partnerships can be just as fulfilling as a monogamous relationship1. What do you need? What constitutes cheating? What is okay in platonic relationships with friends and exes?
Other non-negotiables that impact overall happiness are spiritual and religious involvement, family planning, political beliefs, career goals, and what is private even from each other.
These are a few subjects counselors and marriage and family therapists touch on in premarital counseling. Couples who are on the same page in these areas tend to be open to working on other factors needed to make relationships work2.
The Sound Relationship House describes factors required for foundationally secure relationships. There are seven “floors” describing ways couples understand, support, and connect with each other. But what allows clients to engage with those floors are the pillars of trust and commitment3.
Trust is a mutual understanding that you have each other’s backs. Couples who trust each other don’t feel insecure in the face of uncertainty. They believe they each have the other’s best interests at heart.
Commitment to one another means that each partner wants to be connected to the other. Even if they don’t necessarily see eye to eye, they choose to make sure they are going in the same direction in their lives.
Finances touch every part of our lives, including our relationships. Money issues and financial infidelity are one of the most common reasons people report when they are getting divorced4.
Couples who are able to talk about and set shared financial goals are happier overall than couples who don’t5. This includes shared goals, like buying a home, and individual spending habits, like how you use your fun money.
These shared goals can make you feel like you can rely on one another, even in today’s difficult economy. One of you might provide financial support to the other as they go to school, for example, because you trust that it will be a benefit to both of you in the long term.
There’s no single healthy financial management strategy for couples. Financial therapy can help you to figure out what is best for you.
It doesn’t matter how great your language skills are, it’s unreasonable to expect that you will always know what’s going on in your partner’s head. Because of this, you’ll sometimes get mixed signals about what’s important and what isn’t.
There’s a lot of unnecessary pressure on people to know everything. Doing your best to be a perfect partner is more about having an open mind than already knowing what your partner is going to say. (In fact, the more you think you know what your partner is thinking, the more you risk misunderstanding.)
Couples who are willing to hear each other out tend to feel more connected. In actively trying to understand each other, a couple reinforces their commitment and investment in the relationship2. The key is to focus not only on the problem at hand, but on how the problem impacts our personal values.
Sex can be a large part of a relationship. Some people want to have sex every day. Others find that they have enough sexual intimacy if they have sex once a month. And others are not interested in sex at all.
Studies show that sexual and emotional intimacy is directly connected to happiness in a relationship6. As people age, marital satisfaction tends to decline, but feeling intimately connected in the bedroom has been shown to mute those effects7.
Frequency and physical attraction are not the only indications of sexual connection in a relationship. Satisfaction in the bedroom is just as reliant on non-sexual showsof love and connection, if not more8. Actions like bathing together and giving each other massages can improve feelings of intimacy.
A relationship is made up of two independent people. Whether or not their partner is confident or has low self-worth, a person’s self-esteem impacts how happy they are in the relationship9.
When one person enters a relationship expecting the other to see them as lacking, it puts unnecessary pressure on both parties. For one person, there is internal pressure to change or conform. For the other, there is pressure to constantly reassure their partner of their commitment.
Self-validation is essential in order to share your life with people without forming unhealthy attachments. Validating yourself means accepting yourself, even the embarrassing things. When you’re able to do this, you are more able to recognize that your partner loves every part of you.
Your wants and desires are very important in a relationship. While the things you want are not necessarily non-negotiable, they also reflect your values. Attending to your wants in a relationship improves connection.
When considering your wants, reflect on your values and how getting what you want makes you feel. Sometimes, something you want can be a deal breaker to another person. But if you know how you want to feel, you can find another way to have that satisfaction.
Desires often have little to do with our values. They’re generally more about comfort and fun. If you can meet your desires, that’s great! But you can sometimes get the same thrill from something more practical.
Here are some common wants and desires, and a little bit about why they’re not needs.
There’s a reason so many romance novels are about being whisked away by an impossibly rich man. Who doesn’t want more money in this economy? It would be great to have enough funds to buy entirely new furniture, get the fastest computer, or never have to cook again.
Excess cash might feel like a need, but it’s a want. Studies show that past a certain point, money no longer increases happiness10. By the point that you have that much money, you are able to do the things that are important to you.
In 2010, the threshold was around $75k. With inflation and the current economic climate, that number is a bit higher, and we’re all feeling the crunch. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a bit more financial stability in your relationship.
A lot of couples come to me feeling hopeless because they don’t always understand each other right away. One feels like the other should be able to predict their desires, and the other is just tired of explaining themselves. Things were a lot easier at the beginning of the relationship when they felt like almost one person.
Knowing what your partner is thinking at all times is an unrealistic desire.
You might want to have as little conflict in your relationship as possible, but healthy couples get into arguments, too11. As long as both of you are being respectful and affirming your trust and commitment, you can get through it.
It can be nice when you’re able to enjoy spending time with your partner doing something you both like to do. You might feel like you want to do everything with your partner. But it’s not necessary.
Being able to separate your unique self from your partner is linked to improved mental and emotional health12. When you and your partner are doing different things, you have new experiences to share with each other. It helps to reaffirm your connections with one another.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to enjoy shared interests. But outside of romantic activities, it’s good to have things to do on your own.
It’s not unusual to want your partner to know what you want in bed from the get-go. It’s a common desire to be able to have the best sex of your life every time you enter the bedroom. After all, wouldn’t your soul mate be ready to give you exactly what you need, when you need it?
A lot of people think that sexual compatibility is required to build intimacy. But sexual incompatibility is an opportunity to learn more about yourself and your partner. You might feel a bit self-conscious, but if you are willing to talk it out and explore each other, you’ll be more than okay.
When you’re swiping through apps, you’re looking for someone you’re physically attracted to. That’s what the swipe feature was made for! That initial spark of interest makes the first messages and dates exciting.
A lot of people assume that body type correlates to a certain lifestyle. We assume someone muscular is active, eats healthy, and cares for their body. Someone with a bigger body is often assumed to be generally unhealthy. But weight does not equal health. And body type does not equal compatibility.
Trust and commitment are more important than your partner’s body type when you start dating. As you age, your bodies will change, but your common interests will stay the same. Life partners will see each other’s bodies at its best and at its worst. And they’ll love each other anyway.
Now that you know your needs and wants in a relationship, you can start working on meeting them with each other. Before you jump in, though, it’s important to make sure you learn about each other before you act.
Once you’ve answered a few of the questions below, you can make a plan together to meet each other’s needs and wants.
Take some time to learn about your partner. Depending on the length of your relationship, you might feel like you know them inside and out. But every person sees the world through their own unique perspective. As you and your partner grow together, internal changes are inevitable.
Ask your partner about his top values, and why he picked those ones. Share how you define your values, and see if they’re different from their definition. Observe how they approach their hobbies and friends. What do you notice?
If you feel like your relationship has changed, think back to when you first got together. The honeymoon phase is a time of great connection. You learned a lot about yourselves and each other during that time.
What attracted you to each other? What was important to you back then? How is that different from what you care about now? What shared values did you develop together in those early months?
Don’t smother each other as you try to meet your needs and theirs. It’s tempting to hover. Don’t. Instead, give yourselves some space to really think about your needs and desires in a relationship. Then, you can come together with a clear mind.
Where did your needs come from? Are they related to each other? Is there a want that feels like a need? Why is it so important to you?
I encourage clients to make an Unconditional Positive Regard statement when working on their relationships. The statement is “I’m never going to hurt you on purpose, and I trust you will never hurt me on purpose. We’re on the same team. I love you.”
You and your partner are not always going to be on the same page. In exploring your needs and wants in relationships, you might hurt each other’s feelings by accident. If you trust each other and your commitment to the relationship, you’ll be able to heal together.
What needs aren’t you meeting? What do you both wish the other would do differently? Is there an area in your life where you don’t feel loved?
Sometimes unpleasant feelings, past traumas, or attachment issues can interfere with meeting each other’s needs. That’s natural. When you’re in a relationship, it can be hard to see things from a different perspective.
A lot of couples benefit from couple counseling or coaching. A trusted mentor, spiritual leader, or a trained relationship professional can provide structure to the process of change.
Needs are things that you can’t compromise on. They reflect your values and are required for your happiness. Wants are things that would probably make you happy, but you don’t have to have them for a satisfying relationship.
Everyone’s individual needs are different, but a healthy relationship is generally formed from shared goals, trust, and commitment. Emotional and physical intimacy are also important to help reinforce your connection with your partner.
Learning to meet each other’s needs and wants in relationships is mostly about asking each other questions and taking the time to really listen. You can’t meet each other’s desires without learning more about each other.
There are differences between needs and wants in a relationship. Knowing how to separate and prioritize them can help you create a lasting partnership without unrealistic expectations.