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Emotional Needs: How to Meet Unmet Needs in a Relationship.

Dec 27, 2023
unmet needs in a relationship

We've all heard that phrase "Unmet Emotional Needs", but what does it mean in a relationship, and how do we get those needs met?

When it comes to happy, healthy relationships,  a crucial aspect to understand is that we all have needs and that there are in fact, six basic fundamental needs that govern our interactions and emotional connections. Think of them as the fuel that drives quality time spent together and fosters a happy relationship. Drawing from insightful content from couples' relationship dynamics, we will explore how these needs — ranging from the quest for stability to the pursuit of growth and contribution — shape our bonds with others. This discussion is not just theoretical; it's immensely practical for anyone looking to improve their personal and professional relationships. By comparing these needs with Maslow's Hierarchy or pyramid of Needs, we can get a unique view of our psychological needs in a committed relationship. Whether you're struggling in a romantic relationship, seeking deeper connections with friends and family, or aiming to build stronger rapport with colleagues, this post provides valuable insights into the motivations and behaviors that drive our social lives.


Why Do Our Emotional Needs Matter

Just like when our physical needs are not met, we suffer; when our emotional needs in a relationship are not met, it can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction, loneliness, and resentment. We may start to feel unappreciated, unloved, or misunderstood, creating a sense of emotional distance between ourselves and our partner. Over time, this can erode the foundation of the relationship, leading to increased conflict, decreased intimacy, and potential breakdown of the connection. Unmet emotional needs can also impact our overall well-being, leading to increased stress, anxiety, and a decline in mental health. It is important to recognize the significance of emotional needs in a relationship, as they are essential for our emotional fulfillment, sense of security, and overall satisfaction by addressing and prioritizing our emotional needs and, when appropriate, meeting the needs of our partner, we can create a healthier and more fulfilling relationship.

How Do You Know What Your Emotional Needs Are?

In our exploration of human relationships, we often encounter the concept of six basic needs that are central to our interactions and connections with others. These needs — Certainty/Comfort, Uncertainty/Variety, Significance, Love/Connection, Growth, and Contribution — are not the brainchild of a single theorist but rather a synthesis of various psychological principles. They draw upon foundational ideas from established theories, such as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, while uniquely tailoring them to the intricate dynamics of interpersonal relationships that can create a deeper understanding of relationship dynamics. This conceptual framework highlights the emotional and psychological aspects that underpin human behavior, emphasizing the universal nature of these needs across different cultures and life experiences. Understanding these six needs offers a comprehensive lens through which we can examine and navigate the complexities of our current relationships, from romantic partnerships to familial bonds and friendships.

The Six Unmet Needs in a Romantic Relationships

  • Certainty/Comfort: 

This is the need for a predictable environment, a sense of safety, in which one feels secure and comfortable. It's about having stability in life, like a secure job, a safe home, and reliable relationships. For instance, someone might find certainty in having a regular routine, like going to the same job every day, or in the stability provided by a long-term relationship. The degree of certainty needed varies from person to person. Some might feel secure with minimal possessions, while others might need significant wealth to feel certain.

Other words we might use: comfort, security, safety, stability, feeling grounded, predictability, and protection.

  • Uncertainty/Variety: 

While certainty is about stability, uncertainty is about the need for change, challenges, and new experiences. This can range from simple things like trying a new food or hobby to more significant changes like moving to a new city or changing careers. For example, a person might satisfy their need for variety by engaging in different sports or hobbies or by seeking new experiences in their personal or professional life.

Other words we might use: 

Fear, instability, change, chaos, entertainment, suspense, exertion, surprise, conflict, and crisis.

  • Significance: 

This need is about feeling important, unique, and valued. People fulfill this need in various ways, such as excelling in a career, earning recognition from peers, or even through negative means like engaging in conflicts. For example, a person might feel significant by being the best in their profession, or a student might seek significance by being top of their class.

Other words we might use: 

Pride, importance, standards, achievement, performance, evaluation, discipline, competition, and rejection.

  • Love/Connection: 

This need is for emotional closeness and bonding with others. It can be satisfied through romantic relationships, deep friendships, family ties, or even connections within a community or group. For instance, a person might feel a sense of love and connection by spending quality time with family or by being part of a close-knit community or group.

Other words: 

Togetherness, unity, warmth, tenderness, passion, and desire.

---- These first four needs are essential for humans to survive, you can think of them as being the base layers of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. We all need to have these needs met on some fundamental level. Having these needs met protects against low self-esteem and is a good starting point for a successful relationship. However, the last two needs, growth and contribution, are needed for us to feel fulfilled rather than to survive. and not everyone finds ways to fulfill these. ----

  • Growth: 

This is the need for personal development and self-improvement. It can be intellectual, emotional, spiritual, or physical. For example, someone might satisfy their need for growth by learning a new skill, pursuing higher education, or engaging in spiritual practices.

Other words we might use: 

Development, learning, expansion, progress, enlightenment, improvement, and self-actualization

  • Contribution:

 This need is about giving back and making a difference in the lives of others or in the world at large. It can be fulfilled through volunteering, philanthropy, helping others, or any form of positive impact on the community. For instance, someone might volunteer at a local shelter or donate to a cause they care about, thus fulfilling their need to contribute.

Other words we might use:

Giving, helping, supporting, sharing, donating, volunteering, and impacting


How We Get These Needs Met in Relationships

In a healthy relationship, individuals have various strategies to meet these six basic emotional needs, we sometimes refer to these as relationship needs, although an important aspect of this work is to acknowledge that no one person is ever fully responsible for meeting all of their partner's needs. The way they go about fulfilling these needs either individually or from our partner (and both are important) can vary significantly, and this variance can significantly impact the dynamics of their relationships and relationship satisfaction. Find the worksheet to this blogpost here


In a relationship, we try and get this need for a sense of connection met by seeking stability and predictability. For some, this might mean having a partner who is always there for them, while for others, it could be more about financial security or a stable routine. For instance, one person might find certainty in a relationship that has clear and consistent communication, while another might find it through a partner who provides financial stability.


While certainty is about stability, variety is about change and new experiences. In relationships, this can mean seeking new activities to do together, engaging in spontaneous actions, or even having a dynamic where roles and responsibilities shift over time. For example, one partner might plan surprise dates to introduce variety, while another might seek open conversations that bring in new ideas and perspectives.


This need is about feeling valued and important in the relationship by our intimate partners. Some people might feel significant when they are the primary breadwinner, while others might feel significant when they are the primary caregiver or when they are constantly praised and acknowledged by their partner. A partner might seek significance by being the one who always solves problems in the relationship or by being the more dominant personality.


Everyone needs emotional connection or emotional or sexual intimacy, but the way they achieve it can differ. One person might feel loved through physical affection and get this need me when they are hugged or through non-sexual physical touch by a caring partner, while another might feel it through deep conversations or shared activities. Some might need constant verbal affirmations of love, while others might prefer acts of service to feel connected.This is why it's important to know our own love language, and the love languages of our partner. 


In a relationship, growth can be personal or as a couple. Some might find growth through joint activities that challenge them, like taking classes together or traveling. Others might focus on personal development, like pursuing individual hobbies or career advancements and sharing their learnings and growth with their partner. Other times, growth comes from honest communication, learning active listening skills, and good emotional connection.


Contribution in relationships can be compared to Maslow's later addition of Transcendence needs, where an individual focuses on a purpose beyond themselves, such as altruism and spirituality. In relationships, the need to contribute reflects the desire to support, give to, and enrich the life of the partner or the wider community, going beyond one's own needs.

The Unhealthy Ways We Can Get These Needs Met in Relationships

While understanding our basic human needs in relationships is essential, it's equally important to recognize how the pursuit of these needs can go awry and lead to relationship difficulties. When approached in unhealthy ways, our attempts to fulfill these needs can lead to toxic dynamics, undermining the very foundation of our relationships. It's not just about recognizing what we need but also about how we go about getting these needs met. Let's delve into some of the ways these needs are often met in unhealthy manners, leading to detrimental consequences for our relationships. Remember, the goal is to find balanced and constructive ways to satisfy these needs, ensuring a healthy and fulfilling relationship.  

  1. Certainty/Comfort: Some individuals might find a false sense of stability in controlling or dominating their partners, believing that this control brings predictability to the relationship. Others might resort to constant conflict or create drama, as these familiar patterns, though negative, provide a predictable and known response from their partner.

  2. Uncertainty/Variety: In pursuit of variety, a person might engage in risky behaviors, such as infidelity or constant flirting, to experience the thrill of the unknown. This creates a sense of excitement but can damage the trust and stability in the relationship.

  3. Significance: Seeking significance, one might belittle or demean their partner to feel more powerful or superior. This need can also be met through jealousy or possessiveness, where asserting control over a partner’s actions or decisions feeds a sense of importance.

  4. Love/Connection: In an unhealthy pursuit of love and connection, an individual may become overly clingy, dependent, or emotionally manipulative. They might play the victim or use guilt to solicit attention and reassurance from their partner.

  5. Growth: Someone might try to meet their need for growth by constantly pointing out their partner's flaws or trying to 'fix' them, under the guise of helping them improve. This often stems from a place of superiority rather than genuine support for the partner’s personal development.

  6. Contribution: This need might be met unhealthily through over-giving or sacrificing one's own needs constantly to please the partner. It can manifest as a martyr complex where the person neglects their well-being, believing that their excessive giving is necessary for the relationship's survival.


Our Two Primary Needs

Most of us tend to focus primarily on two out of the six basic human needs in relationships. These two predominant needs become our primary driving force and are experienced so intensely that we will do almost anything to satisfy them. Conversley, when these needs are not being fulfilled, any relationship can be in grave danger. Understanding a person's two most important needs allows you to discover their driving motivation and what gives meaning and satisfaction to their life, it also helps you understand what you need and want in a relationship.

If you download the worksheet, you'll see that this is one of the first questions it asks you. 

A person who prioritizes Certainty/Comfort as one of their primary needs might make very different choices in a relationship compared to someone who values Love/Connection or Significance. This prioritization affects how they behave in relationships, the kind of partner they seek, and how they react to different situations within a relationship.

What's important to note here is that if two people in a relationship aren't getting their needs met from each other, then they will get them met from external sources. This could be a family member, children, or an entirely different person - this is what causes most affairs.  When two people in a relationship don't get their needs met from each other, then the relationship is in peril as there's a lack of depth and emotional intimacy. and they might find themselves disconnected from each other, not fulfilling these crucial needs within the relationship.

The understanding of these primary needs is crucial because it can help individuals and couples make conscious efforts to satisfy not just their own, but also their partner's key needs. This, in turn, can lead to more harmonious, fulfilling, and long-lasting relationships.


An Example of Unmet Needs in a Relationship

Let's consider an example of an imaginary couple we shall call Ben and Jenn, who came to see me in my private practice because although they had been in a committed relationship for 9 years and had two children, they felt they had some underlying issues that were causing them to want to beak up. 

Through our work, we discovered how unmet needs were at the root of relationship conflicts and their reasoning for wanting to separate. 

The Presenting Problem: 

Jenn made the appointment, having reached her limit to Ben's seemingly over-the-top emotional responses to various issues. She had stopped working when she became pregnant 6 years ago to become a full-time mother and was frazzled from running around after two boys and a husband. She was concerned about the family's finances and had some guilt about not contributing to the family and had some fear of judgment about this decision. 

Ben appeared somewhat ambivalent about remaining in the marriage, he told me he wanted to feel engaged and connected to his wife and family but dreamt of being single again and starting over. He felt pressure to perform and to bring money in for the family, and was resentful at times when he came home and didn't feel he got attention from his wife.

  • Ben's Need for Significance and Certainty:

In the relationship, Ben didn't feel important or special at times (Significance) and was also quick to catch on that he didn't feel his need for Love or Connection was always met (Love/Connection). In response to this perceived deficit, he frequently threatens to leave Jenn. This threat becomes his way of asserting power and control within the relationship, which ironically meets his need for significance (Significance) and is an unhealthy way of getting that need met. Simultaneously, this control gives him a sense of predictability and safety in the relationship, oddly satisfying his need for certainty (Certainty), even though it's in a negative context.

  • Jenn's Focus on Certainty and Love/Connection:

Jenn's primary focus is on her need for certainty (Certainty), which she wasn't getting with Ben threatening to leave and because of her lack of clarity around the family's financial security. She felt that the stability of the entire home was on shaky foundations and it could all collapse if Ben got laid off or left.  Her need for love and connection (Love/Connection) was being met by her children but not her husband, which she saw could be an imbalance. The couple also saw that when she only got her needs for love and connection met by her children, it contributed to Ben feeling neglected and unimportant, which caused an unmet need around significance. 

  • The Power Play Around Certainty

The power dynamics introduced by Ben's threats to leave created an environment of uncertainty (for Jenn. This uncertainty, however, is not the positive variety or a need that she wanted to be fulfilled, it was a feeling that breeds fear and insecurity and made her turn to her kids for more stablilty and love. Ben's threats aim to make Jenn feel unstable and unsure, which paradoxically gives Ben a sense of power and importance.

  • Impact on Growth and Contribution:

In such a turbulent environment, both Ben and Jenn found it challenging to focus on personal growth (Growth) or contribute positively to each other’s lives (Contribution) - remember that these two needs are less about survival and more about fulfillment. With both of their energies consumed by the ongoing power struggle and emotional turmoil, it left little room for growth or the ability to contribute meaningfully to each other's happiness or well-being. This leaves a lot of room for dissatisfaction in a relationship. 

How Unmet Needs In A Relationship Are Often At The Root Of Relationship Conflicts.

The interplay of these needs in Ben and Jenn's relationship demonstrates how unmet needs can lead to negative behaviors and unhealthy relationship dynamics. Ben's use of threats to gain significance (Significance) and certainty (Certainty) creates uncertainty and a lack of love/connection (Love/Connection) for Jenn. Simultaneously, Jenn's focus on external sources of certainty (Certainty) and love/connection (Love/Connection) further alienates Ben.

This situation stifles their opportunities for personal growth (Growth) and their ability to contribute positively to each other’s lives (Contribution), leading to a cycle that is challenging to break without conscious effort and understanding.

The Plan

Understanding and addressing this unmet dance of emotional needs is crucial for building healthy, fulfilling relationships. In therapy when we're able to get clear on the pattern, we can start intervening at any point in the cycle and redirect attention to ways in which each partner can contribute some effort over time to fulfilling their partner's needs. 

In our pursuit of great relationships, couples can strive to meet their emotional needs in a positive, constructive way that fosters growth, connection, and contribution with effort over time. 

If we've not met before, I'm a Family Systems Therapist and Couples Therapist In Los Angeles, my private practice is in West Hollywood | Los Angeles, and do a lot of couples therapy in person or via online therapy with people looking for professional help with creating healthy romantic relationships. A lot of time, couples can identify that they are struggling with a lack of communication or emotional intimacy with their romantic partners, and with some hard work, we find healthy ways to become more connected. I seem to find myself making a lot of worksheets and handouts for my clients, which are now accessible to everyone on My People Patterns.


Find the worksheet here


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