Time and time again, in my work with couples, I find myself sitting in session hearing one partner telling the other what they don’t want. Inevitably the listening partner, naturally, becomes defensive and they either: shut down or react. If they react, they usually escalate the exchange by bringing up prior perceived offensives (a typical defensive strategy). Example: “Oh yeah? Well you……” The power struggle dance has begun and the couple has just blown past the underlying need, leaving it unaddressed. But no worries, it WILL resurface at another time, maybe disguised a bit differently, and it will likely lead to a repeat of the blame game. When this happens, the couple ends up missing an opportunity to dialogue about a partner’s need and work together to find a resolution that suits the couple. They miss the opportunity to grow within conflict. For often, conflict is growth trying to happen.
Over all, people are pretty skilled at voicing what they don’t want. Telling people what you do want, on the other hand, is often tricky. It can be uncomfortable to make yourself vulnerable to another.
Opening up to someone has inherent risks: there is a fear that our needs will be dismissed, we will be laughed at, or we will be judged. People naturally want to avoid this. In a roundabout way, the logic is: If I tell you what I don’t want, then you should be able to infer what I do want and my needs should be met without me directly stating them. This logic only leads to disappointment, resentment, and even anger; all of which feed emotional distance and can begin to erode a relationship.
Here are some negative need statements I have helped couples reframe into positive need statements.
Examples of negative need statements –
- I don’t want to come home and deal with (x,y,z) as soon as I walk in the door.
- I don’t like coming home to fighting and screaming.
- I don’t want you to spend the entire party talking to other people and not me.
- I don’t want you to jump in and undermine what I just told the kids.
- I don’t want to hear that you’re sorry and that it won’t happen again.
Negative need reframed into a positive need –
- When I come home at the end of the day, I need some quiet time, some time to myself, before hearing about issues that have come up that we/I need to address. I need 20 minutes to transition from work to home.
- It’s important to me to be able to come home from work and step into a house that is/feels (happy, clam, relaxed, welcoming, etc.). I spend my whole work day in a fast-paced, hectic, and often loud environment, and when I come home I crave the opposite of that. I need the opposite of my day when I’m home.
- When we are at the party tonight, I would love it if you would circle back around and check in with me. Can you please make an effort to socialize with me some throughout the party?
- I need you to have my back when I lay down the rules with the kids. When you walk in and something is going on, I need you to help me with consistency. I need the two of us to be on the same page about things so we aren’t sending mixed messages to the kids.
- I need reassurance from you that you won’t do that again. I need to know that you understand how you hurt me. I need to know that my pain is also your pain.
The point is to articulate what you want, what you need, and what you prefer and to not come at your partner with what you don’t want. By saying what we don’t want, our partner is going to hear “This is what you are doing wrong. This is what you aren’t doing right.” They will likely take your negative need as a personal criticism, and when people feel criticized they will defend themselves.
By saying, “When I come home at the end of the day, I’m looking forward to peace and quiet. I’m looking forward to relaxing in the family room and to hearing about everyone’s day over dinner,” that lets your partner know what you want, what you need, what you crave, what you look forward to, what you hope for, and what you expect. And with that knowledge, your partner can help make that a reality for you.
Remember: A negative need is a statement about what you don’t want. A positive need is a statement about what you do want. Focus your energy on what you do want and work towards that, not against it.
If you don’t convey what you need, how do you expect to get it?
Make a conscious effort to state a positive need in place of a negative need and see how your conversations change.
So, try it today. Identify a common negative need that you say and turn it into a positive need. If you have a hard time coming up with one, ask your partner for feedback about your negative needs. Make it a couples exercise where you each work through a negative need and make it a positive one. Help and encourage each other through the process. Trust me, I know it isn’t easy. My clients know it isn’t easy.
When you catch yourself in the middle of a negative need just stop and try again. With practice you will begin to communicate to your partner what you do need and you’ll be giving them something to work with.