I speak a lot on social media about how my husband and I have had to learn each other’s core needs to maintain a healthy and happy marriage. For those who are new here, he and I separated two years ago and nearly divorced. Our choice to reconcile was easy because, through it all, we still loved each other. But that didn’t mean we wouldn’t have to work hard to build a better marriage this time.
Someone asked me the other day if I could explain what a core need is, and how it differs from other everyday needs when it comes to marriage. So, I’m going to break that down.
Core needs can best be described as our non-negotiables. They are the things that, at the most basic and fundamental level, we must have to feel happy and fulfilled. They go far beneath the surface, where most of our everyday needs live. Our everyday needs are things that we would prefer to have if we could, but that we could survive (perhaps even thrive) without.
Every person has core needs that are unique to them. For my husband and me, learning about each other’s individual core needs put us in a bit of a pickle. My husband Charlie has a core need of connection and belonging. At the deepest level, he cannot be happy if he doesn’t feel a deep and intimate connection with me. I want to note here that intimacy does not necessitate sex. While, of course, my husband and I both desire a strong and healthy sex life, his need for intimacy is emotional, mental, maybe even spiritual. He feels happiest when he and I are emotionally bonded and when he feels a deep connection with my spirit.
My core need, paradoxically, is for freedom and autonomy. I require lots of personal space and alone time to feel happy and fulfilled.
And, as you can probably see by now, these opposing needs brought a lot of strife into our marriage. Charlie was constantly reaching toward me for connection, and I was stretching away for freedom. The result was that Charlie felt abandoned, and I felt smothered. As we fought to get our core needs met, we created a vicious cycle where, on the one hand, Charlie was chasing me, feeling rejected, and then chasing more. And, on the other hand, I was feeling smothered, pulling further away, and then feeling even more smothered as he chased. It was a never-ending loop that was making us both miserable.
Since reconciling, and through a lot of therapy, we have learned how to operate within the constraints of our opposing core needs. What it has come down to, funnily enough, is both of us learning how to sacrifice our core needs for the sake of each other.
I know, that sounds like the opposite of the way to fix that kind of problem. But hear me out.
I think the best way out of a vicious, recurring cycle is to create a new cycle in its place (at least in situations like this one). In the past, we were both constantly striving to have our needs met and finding that we were only getting hurt and frustrated. To make matters worse, we were building resentment toward each other. Now, we try to constantly hold space for each other’s core needs, making each other’s core needs one of our top priorities.
Charlie has begun giving me my blessed alone time without making me feel guilty or like I need to rush through it to be with him. As a result of this guilt-free independence, I am happy. And now that I am happy, and my needs are being met, Charlie no longer has to chase. I seek him out now because I’ve gotten my “alone time” cup filled, and now I want to be with him.
In the same way, I make intentional choices about making time for Charlie in an intimate and connected way. We have special date nights together and a nightly bedtime routine where we put away our devices and have uninterrupted time for connection. As a result, Charlie feels happy and fulfilled. He no longer chases me because he doesn’t feel like he has to.
This is what learning about your and your partner’s core needs does for a relationship. It teaches you how to recognize and be mindful of each other’s needs and when one or both of your cups is getting empty. You learn how to preempt frustration and disappointment by being intentionally aware of each other’s core needs and whether they’re being met.
And, when both partners have their core needs met, you find that you don’t sweat the small stuff as much anymore. It turns out that chronically unhappy, unfulfilled people tend to be a lot more cranky about minor inconveniences and setbacks than happy and fulfilled people. Now that my husband and I get the fulfillment of those core needs, we just don’t fight as much about the inconsequential things.
We have peace and joy, connection and freedom. For the first time in many years, we have a marriage that works.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.