Tall, dark and handsome? Needs to earn a certain amount of money? Comes from a good family? Loves dogs and the beach?
It is not uncommon for clients to enter my office with a mental checklist of their perfect mate. Many times, these lists are based on societal and familial messages, not cultivated from wise mind (our place of truth). Whether presently in a relationship or seeking one, it is so important to muddle through the layers of our core beliefs and childhood messaging in order to determine what our true relational wants and needs are. It is not until we are clear as to what our specific needs and wants are that we can truly begin to seek out our ideal mate or to ask for those things in a current relationship.
In DBT, we define relational needs as those things in a relationship that we cannot live without. Specifically, they are based on our value system, and are often deal breakers in relationships if these needs are not met. Relational needs tend to be things we are much less inclined to compromise on. Things that might be deal breakers for one may not be to others. I always encourage my clients to get really clear about what their specific needs are. Furthermore, I always encourage clients to not minimize, invalidate, and/or compare their relational needs to others.
For example, someone might say intimacy is a need in their relationship. But what exactly does that mean? Are they referring to physical intimacy, emotional intimacy, or both? How might they define an intimate relationship? Does intimacy look the same or different than how their significant other views things? Becoming crystal-clear on specific needs is critical before you can expect your significant other to fulfill them.
On the other hand, relational wants tend to be those things that enhance a relationship. We look at relational wants as the icing on the cake. Wants aren’t necessarily deal breakers in relationships and are often an area where couples are more willing to find a compromise. For example, if someone wants their significant other to play tennis, they may be willing to forgo that want if their significant other is not athletically inclined. However, imagine if you are someone who is extremely active and spends a large part of your time participating in outdoor sporting and adventure activities. This want now becomes a need, and could result in relationship conflicts if you are dating someone who hates the outdoors and is afraid to take risks. The take-home message is that one person’s wants may be another person’s needs and vice versa.
It is also not uncommon for our wants, in particular, to change through the course of our lifespan as desires shift with age, experience, and maturity. For example, if a couple joined early on in their relationship through outdoor sporting activities, this may no longer be a want for either party later in life. Conflict could arise if one member of the couple continues to place importance on a want that is no longer important to their partner. Because wants are not deal breakers, this could provide an opportunity for exploration into how else these wants could be met. On the other hand, because needs are more value-based, they tend to remain more static over the course of our lifespan and create greater relational problems with less room for compromise.
When people are unclear as to their needs and wants in relationships, they may find themselves agreeing to things that go against their value system, which later causes anger and resentment. I am a big believer that there needs to be an “I” before there is a “We”. A clear sense of self will allow one to enter into relationships with clarity, confidence, and an ability to use their voice to ask for what they need and want, and say no to things that are not aligned with wise-mind. Prior to beginning the Interpersonal Effectiveness Module, I offer my DBT class an exercise designed to help clients identify their relational needs and wants. Long after they have completed the module, clients often come back to this exercise, which serves as a guide and reminder to stay connected to their truths and intuition.