Unmet Needs

A lot of the questions I encounter on Quora involve relationship advice, often from married couples or people who have been in a relationship for a number of years.

It seems to me that one of the primary sources of relationship discord is a mismatch between what a person receives from their partner, and what they think they ought to receive instead. This sentiment expresses itself variously. Sometimes the issue is sex, sometimes it’s housework, sometimes it feeling special or feeling loved. “He never _________.” “She never _________.”

It’s a surreal mental exercise to compare such complaints to any couple’s wedding photos. Pay close attention to the way the couple looks at each other in their wedding photos (especially the candid shots). You’ll be amazed by how much tenderness there is between them, how much mutual concern, how much love. If you have children or have spent much time around those who do, the facial expressions will seem very familiar to you, because they’re nearly identical to the way people look at their children. Seldom will you see such pure love expressed between two people as you will in their wedding photos.

This got me thinking: What happens in a relationship that two people so utterly dedicated to caring for each other (in both senses of the term) would end up feeling as though their partners no longer care enough to _________ [whatever]?

Surely, in some cases, children play a major role here. It’s a lot of work to look after somebody’s needs. When children arrive, their needs become the first priority within the family. It’s natural that some of our own needs fall by the wayside as we prioritize the needs of our children. It’s also natural to be caught off-guard by which of our own needs our partner has decided to de-prioritize. Our partners were so good at looking after that need, whatever it was, that we accustomed ourselves to the notion that it was a need that wouldn’t ever be taken for granted again. One day, a baby arrived, and it was. Or so it feels to us, anyway.

Even if you don’t have children, though, life events progress such that the meeting of some of our partner’s needs takes a back seat to the meeting of some other pressing concern: our career, our housework, our outside obligations, and so on.

When we’re in the earlier phases of a relationship, one of the great strengths of our situation is our willingness to meet the other person’s needs to the greatest extent possible. When things in a relationship start to get frustrating, it seems a lot of us are missing an unmet need that was previously met. It seems relatively straightforward to suggest that the path forward here is to double-down on meeting your partner’s needs. Remember how much fun it was to care for them like that, to live as though your partner was the most important thing in the world?

Maybe he or she still is.

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