The One Non-Negotiable Thing About Every Relationship

Heather Gray explains how not understanding or respecting this is why relationships with lovers, friends, and family can fail.

The Good Men Project
May 23 · 5 min read
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Photo credit: iStockPhoto

By Heather Gray

I was in a coffee shop the other day and I overheard two women talking about their respective relationships. One was exasperated and losing patience. She couldn’t understand why her boyfriend needed to hear her say that she loved him so much. She didn’t get why he needed so much attention and recognition and she was tired of him being so “needy.” Her friend replied with a remark about how the grass is always greener on the other side because her guy never seems to miss her. He’s perfectly fine throwing an entire Sunday they could spend together away by watching football with his fantasy football friends.

Admittedly, I don’t know anything more than that about either of those specific relationships but here’s what I do know about all relationships that these women may have been missing or ignoring:

  • Every person in every relationship comes with a set of needs.

What are we talking about when we talk about “needs”?

Part of the problem is that people lump their needs and wants together and they aren’t clear with the people in their lives about which is which.

Needs are defined by the things each individual requires in order to feel functional, secure, and happy within relationships with other people.

Wants are the things we’d like to have but that can be up for debate or open for compromise.

Anyone who knows me-my family, my friends, and husband know that I need time alone in order to function. If I don’t get at least a few hours every week by myself, everything starts to suffer a little bit. I become tense, agitated, and start to resent obligations and responsibilities I have with other people.

I feel connected to people so long as I text or call them from time to time. I have a friend who doesn’t feel connected unless she physically sees me periodically. She needs that in person interaction with her people whenever possible. When she’s separated from her loved ones by distance, she’s always hurting at least a little bit and needs to make the extra time and financial investment in seeing them more often than I might need to.

Some people have needs centered around attention. They need to be reassured, comforted, and praised, more often than others. Without regular and consistent recognition, they feel invisible and start to question the strength of the relationship. Other people have needs that are more centered around being independent. They may need more time alone; time for hobbies or passions, or time with other people they care about-friends or family.

For others, their needs may center on their physical environment. They can’t function in an unorganized space. Their sense of order is disrupted. For some people, financial security is important. Their preference for saving money or keeping steadfast to a budget may lead them to declining opportunities and activities with friends and family.

Where Partners, Friends, and Family Get it Wrong

Not every need causes a problem or tension. My husband and I both tend to need to spend Sundays at home in order to feel functional going into the next week. I like to use Sundays for chore days and I enjoy cooking a nice Sunday dinner. He likes to decompress, watch TV, and eat my food! Neither of us is particularly bothered that the other doesn’t want to do much of anything because our needs are aligned and that time together is kept pretty sacred.

It can be hard for our friends, though. They can end up feeling like they never see us, that we never want to do anything, etc. We say no a lot to plans and sometimes it can feel like we’re always disappointing somebody. However, we’re clear with our people. This is who we are.

Yes, sometimes we can bend and understand that being rigid is unrealistic but we can’t expect to have two full weekends in a row and not feel a little undone going into the third week. If we ignore our needs for two weeks, we’re going to feel the effects of that compromise.

Plenty of friends have tried to argue with me about this, have told me that I need to get out, that I shouldn’t do chores, that the world won’t end if I do the laundry on Monday, and have tried to get me to change my mind and this is where tension begins.

You cannot argue with someone about their needs.

  • Our needs are inarguable and telling someone they shouldn’t need something is disrespectful and pointless.

Needs are non-negotiable but the way they can get met is where the compromise can be found.

Sometimes we’ll have to compromise something, ourselves, in order for a need to be met. Sometimes we’ll have to sacrifice something for someone else so their need can be met.

I said earlier that I need a chunk of alone time in order to function. My husband has been seriously ill since March and has been out of work since the beginning of May. He’s been home…a lot.

It was taxing on me at first and I could feel myself become agitated and unravel feeling like I never had a moment to myself. I started getting up early on the weekend mornings to write and have coffee in the quiet and stillness. Of course I’d prefer to sleep in but that’s just a want, not a need. I needed the alone time so I got up while he was still sleeping.

What happens when someone has too many needs?

There’s no point in arguing that. It’s your job to be clear about your unwillingness or inability to meet those needs and to move on. Perhaps if someone finds themselves constantly left or you find yourself constantly leaving, one or both of you will do the work to look at that and see what may be going on.

The Thing About Needs:

We don’t have to understand why someone needs something. We just have to respect that they do. If we want to be in a relationship with them, we have to respect their needs and be willing to meet them to the best of our ability.

Likewise, we can’t try to ignore or compromise our own needs just to keep people in our lives and then be surprised when we’re unhappy or feeling like we can’t function.

That’s how relationships work, thrive, and prosper — when people are willing to respect one another’s needs and work together toward finding a solution that makes everyone happy and able to function.

This story was previously published on The Good Men Project.

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We're having a conversation about the changing roles of men in the 21st century. Main site is Email us

Hello, Love

Love changes us. Love makes us human.

The Good Men Project

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We're having a conversation about the changing roles of men in the 21st century. Main site is Email us

Hello, Love

Love changes us. Love makes us human.

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