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Understanding your partner's relationship needs

Our journey to understanding the underlying needs in couple relationships started with psychiatrist John Bowlby (1907-1990). He was a Freudian thinker, believing mental health or the lack of it, is derived in early childhood. Bowlby developed his theory of attachment after observing children orphaned or left in hospitals for long periods during World War 2.

He concluded that we are hard-wired for attachment. This was in contrast to prevailing theories that put strong-willed independent thinking on a pedestal. If you want to see dependence in action, watch children playing in a park. See how quickly they re-tie apron strings when a stranger appears. Relationship needs in adulthood follow a similar dynamic. We couple, because we need someone to support us through life, and the changing face of couple relationships as we age.

The greatest need of all is a secure base

While falling in love, having sex, growing closer, social sharing, financial support and so on all have their place, Bowlby would say our greatest need in a relationship is a sense of security. Relationships provide a secure base in which to explore the world. When we experience a sense of security in our couple relationship it not only provides support through the troubled times that emerge through life transitions such loosing a parent or a job, or when we fall ill and go to hospital but the day-to-day interactions in which we feel a sense of connection to our significant other brings a sweet sense of peace. Romantic love is an attachment bond.

Relationship needs through the safe haven lens

Just like those small children in a park who rush to mum or carer when danger threatens, so also should partners be safe havens for each other. They ought to remember to:

  • Debrief each other’s day at the close of day together
  • Listen when either of them is filled with sorrow
  • Provide practical help if they are feeling tired
  • Be attentive when accident or illness strikes
  • Comfort the other when they are in pain or sad
  • Help them lovingly through times of confusion
  • Show genuine interest regardless of their emotion

Heart-searching questions to ask

Fundamentally our partner needs to know that we are accessible, responsive and emotionally available. In this way, our fundamental needs in a relationship are things to share, not to ignore, and can become a powerful welder of an even stronger bond. To understand yourself a little better reflect on the following questions:

How good am I at offering my partner a safe haven in troubled times? What are the practical things I do now? What other support ought I to start providing?

Then turn the question round the other way and ask yourself, ‘How good is my partner at offering me a safe haven in troubled times? What are the practical things they do now? What other relationship needs do I long for them to fulfil?

These are tough questions never easy to answer. If your responses disturb, you may want to consider relationship counselling to unravel the deep emotions you may be feeling. Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy could be the first foothold to a more satisfying relationship.



Dr. Sue Johnson (2013). Love Sense: the revolutionary new science of romantic relationships, Little, Brown and Company, New York.

Veronica Kallos-Lilly and Jennifer Fitzgerald (2015). An Emotionally Focused Workbook for Couples: The two of us.

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