“She doesn’t understand me!”
“I feel like I have no choice but to bite my lips”.
“Whatever I say, he gets immediately defensive.”
Often, when we feel misunderstood, not heard and judged, we experience a sense of wrongness that stems from our unmet needs at that moment. Only rarely we are aware of the cause of our feelings though, so we attribute the experienced emotions at that moment to our partner’s actions who we believe clearly did something wrong. Even if we were aware of our own needs it is very hard to put words to them and even more difficult to express them in a way that feels authentic to us. Once our needs are somehow expressed, a further challenge presents itself: How are my expressed needs perceived by my partner? Are they perceived as a demand, defensive attack or a genuine request?
There are numerous potential obstacles that we need to overcome before our needs can be identified and expressed in a way that feels safe and good to us.
I don’t quite know what my own needs are. It is very hard to feel a sense of contentment within ourselves if we do not know what our needs are. When we are unaware of our needs the possibility for them to be stepped on, threatened or unheard is very high. Without identifying our own needs, we cannot own them, hence we cannot take responsibility for them. We then often feel frustration, anger, sadness, intrusion and rebellion towards our partners instead who struggle to understand and support us in meeting our needs simply because they don't know them.
How can I overcome this obstacle?
By dedicating more time to our feelings and bodily felt senses we can learn more about ourselves. Next time you feel not heard and experience a sense of anger, frustration or sadness raising within you in a conversation or argument with your partner, try to go inward and listen to what your feeling is actually saying. Maybe it’s saying something like ‘I feel lonely when you do that and my need for closeness is not met’ or ‘My need for safety is not met when you scream at me’. Listen closely and become more aware of what you actually need.
I struggle finding authentic words to express my own needs. It’s very hard and often feels embarrassing to express what we truly need. For instance, imagine saying the following to your partner: ‘I feel frustrated because you said you would come home early but you didn’t’. Now, this does not express your need but simply informs your partner about your frustration about an unspoken need that has not been met.
How can I overcome this obstacle?
Let’s be more precise. In order to be better understood by your partner, it would maybe be helpful to say something like: ‘I feel frustrated because my need for companionship was not met and I was hoping to spend some time with you.’ In order to communicate our needs transparently it is essential that we know and feel what our needs are.
I feel scared to be judged, belittled and not heard. Often, we don’t say what we need because we fear a certain reaction from our partners that we wouldn’t necessarily describe as empathic, understanding, caring or unconditional. In contrast, we predict a defensive, harsh or disinterested response from our partners. Consequently, we rather bite our lips, swallow our nagging emotions and don’t say anything.
How can I overcome this obstacle?
In order to feel safe to express ourselves it is paramount that we first understand the difference between demand and request. Psychologist Marshall Rosenberg(1) once said that it is essential that we communicate ‘requests’ and not ‘demands’. He described a request as ‘our gift to the other’ because we give the other the opportunity to contribute our well-being with no consequences. A demand on the other hand is something that we believe comes with punishment, rejection, shame or guilt in case we don’t do what is wanted of us. When we hear a demand rather than a request our capacity to respond empathically then often diminishes drastically.
Therefore, in order to create an environment that is empathic and understanding we can do three things. First, we know our own needs. Second, we own our needs by expressing them. Third, we express requests and not demands. Only in doing so we can become more open, understanding and empathic towards our partners without feeling frustrated, angry and threatened for our needs to be stepped on – simply because we now own them.
Does that make any sense? Let me give you a last example.
Let’s say Karen expresses the following to Tom:
“I would like you to join me to the party tonight.”
Now, is this a request or a demand? Well, we don’t know yet. This depends on our intention and how we are going to react to what Tom is going to need and say.
Let’s say Tom says the following:
“Ah, I really feel like I need some alone time tonight.”
Now, if Karen’s words were meant as a demand she will probably react a bit like this:
“Sure, you always do what you need to do. You just don’t love me as much as I love you.”
Karen clearly does not empathise at all with what Tom needs but expects him to empathise with hers. Karen’s words can be understood as a request only if she owns her needs in a way that give enough space to the other person’s needs to co-exist with no deficiency. Such a reaction could look like this:
“Oh, it sounds as if you had a really tough day and need some quiet time. I understand that our needs seem to be quite different today as I would really enjoy some company this evening and you seem to need the opposite. I’ve been feeling quite isolated and my need for company is not been met for quite a while.”
By owning our needs without taking away from our partner’s needs we facilitate an environment that allows our partners to be more transparent and to feel safe to authentically be themselves. At the same time, when we express a request and not a demand, we might be surprised of how empathic and understanding our partners will start to interact with rather than react against our expressed needs.
After reading this you might feel a bit overwhelmed and think that this feels like quite a bit of active work. You know what? – You are right. It is! Knowing our needs and communicating them transparently to the outside world is nothing that we naturally are inclined to do, simply because we have never learnt to do so. For instance, just think of the years of school time – do you remember a single time when you would have been asked about your needs rather than your cognitive learning skills? Sadly, I don’t.
This leaves us with one important thing: Trying!
It is hard to unlearn old habits and to explore new ways forward within a relationship. Trying to find out more about yourself, your values and needs is exciting. Trying to express yourself and your discoveries to you partner in a way that is empathic and unconditional is even more exciting.
I am aware thought that despite all encouragement, trying is hard and it can feel deeply scary. Now, the promising thing is that it is worth it to take our needs and the needs of our partners more seriously. Why? -Because what we get as a reward is our freedom to explore life in a more authentic and caring relationship with our partner.
...AND WHAT IS YOUR EXPERIENCE?
Where do you see yourself in this? Does some of this sound like you and your partner? Or have you maybe experienced this with a close friend or colleague? What do you find helpful and why? We look forward to hearing from you in the comment section.
1) Marshall Rosenberg (2003). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, Encintias CA: Puddle Dancer Press.