how do I tell my partner what I need?

It usually starts with a vague feeling that something isn’t right,  but we aren’t sure why we are unsettled, frustrated, irritable with our partner. A sense that we are becoming adversaries rather than friends, point-scoring rather than cooperating, sometimes solidifies into feelings of antagonism, hurt and frustration and leads to rows and accusations, both taking up defensive positions where the other is ‘wrong’.  As we start to argue more, we put up a defensive wall,  preparing our next reply – quite unable to listen to, or hear what our partner is saying.

This feeling seems to surface at two different times in our relationship – first,  after we have been living together for a couple of years, the desire to fall into bed with each other at every possible opportunity has subsided a little, and we are getting to grips with the realities of living with a man or woman who is quite different from us.  Our beloved’s ideas on virtually everything –  cleanliness, tidiness, the need to be organised or not, bedtime, sport-watching, parenting, friends, and above all the importance of communicating within a relationship turn out to be entirely different from ours.  What seemed charming and funny at first now irritates the hell out of us.  How do we tell our other half, without endless arguments, that we are not feeling okay?

This growing sense of being at odds with our partner also frequently develops when there is a big change in our couple life – a baby is born, we get promoted or one of us starts working shifts,  someone in the family is seriously ill, children leave home.  Any major life event alters the balance in our relationship, affects our individual needs and means that if we aren’t talking and listening properly to each other, there will be tension and problems.  When we are feeling under pressure, unsupported, or verbally attacked, we seem to shut down mentally. We blame our partner for not listening, not understanding, not helping, but the way in which we talk to them causes them to shut down too.

So here’s a few suggestions for restarting communication and getting you functioning as a couple again:

  • The way in which we say things can change everything about our relationship.
  • If we want to communicate that our needs as a person are no longer being met, it’s no good starting with ‘you are… you did, you were…..’
  • It works better if we say ‘I have been feeling…I am feeling…..I need…..’
  • If we shout or ask aggressively our partner can’t hear
  • When we say what we need gently, calmly, repeatedly, there is a better chance they can listen
  • We need to….’ has a much higher chance of a positive response that ‘You need to’
  • Getting what we need in a relationship is not about asking for less, it’s about developing the confidence to ask for more.  But it’s how we ask that has the most to do with success or failure in getting our needs met.

All of the above is easier said than done.  It takes time to change the way we ask for what we need, and it takes practice too.  Sometimes we need professional support to begin with, and it’s better to seek it before that point-scoring becomes personal; once we start to wound each other it becomes very hard to listen and much more difficult to care………




do you feel that you constantly need to please?

Almost every client I see is finding it hard to get a good balance between independence and intimacy in their relationships.  Some feel that they are a ‘walk-over ‘ with their partner, their mother or their teenage children, others find it hard to get close, and push others away, usually for fear of getting hurt.

Personal boundaries are the limits we set in our relations with others.  They may be too low, in which case, anyone can step over them,  or too high,  which prevents anyone getting near us. We may have entirely forgotten how to say ‘No’, and feel at the mercy of what everyone, husband or wife, friends, parents, in-laws, thinks we should do.  If you feel that you have to please everybody, then it’s probably time to think about your personal boundaries and whether by constantly worrying about what your nearest and dearest want, you are forgetting to look after your own needs.

Good personal boundaries are limits that you set so that you can relate to those you love, and to others, without feeling engulfed by their needs.  You make those around you aware that you need to have personal time and thinking space; that you have values and beliefs that are different from theirs;  your separateness reflects who you are, it includes all the things about you which make you lovable, and it makes you able to love others in return.

Good  boundaries mean not always agreeing to do things immediately, recognising that when you say ‘no’ you won’t always please your friend or partner, but that feeling able to disagree, to not ‘join in’, to change your mind, is essential for your sense of self and is part of what being a healthy adult means.  Those who are close to us may react with surprise and displeasure the first time we behave in an ‘out of character’ way, but they will soon get used to you being different and will learn to respect your boundaries.  If they don’t, then you can quietly suggest that it’s time they did!

Weak personal boundaries are often the result of needing to please a difficult parent as a child; we learn our habits and our reactions when we are young, but once we understand the roots of our behaviour, we can begin to respond to demands on us like an adult rather than as a dependent, powerless child.  Boundaries which are too strong, and push others away, also often begin in childhood and develop to protect us from getting hurt yet again.  We also sometimes build a big, high wall around ourselves when we get hurt in an adult relationship, and it can take time to rebuild trust in those we want to love.

A good counsellor can help you look at why you have difficulty setting personal limits, or why you distance yourself from those you love. Understanding where your need to keep everybody happy, or alternatively your fear of intimacy comes from, is the first step in developing a healthy, comfortable adult self, able to love and be close, but also to make independent decisions which protect your mental and physical health.  It’s much easier to have good boundaries with a friend, of course, than it is with a partner, and I’ll look at how to negotiate comfortable boundaries with a partner next time.