When we are upset over something with our partner, we tend to know very clearly what we don’t want. Understanding what we really desire without describing what we dislike can propel communication between partners in a more positive, mutual satisfying direction.
Negative needs often come across as criticism or complaints. This is a key component in Gottman Method Couples Therapy. Examples of negative needs include:
- “You never pay attention to me anymore!”
- “You are always working. Do you even like spending time together?”
- “You don’t have a clue about how to manage money.”
It is helpful to realize that it is natural for us to seek an explanation for our negative moods. No one really ponders why they feel good about something. Instead, we’ve learned to keep an eye out for why we feel so bad. We scan our surroundings and other people, looking for what is wrong. We pay extreme attention to other people’s errors or mistakes to account for our own annoyances or disappointments.
Another bad habit is that we tend to “stockpile” the mistakes and transgressions our partner has made. We usually do this as a secret way to avoid conflict, which actually backfires. As we create our list of how our parter has disappointed us, we have all the “evidence” we need to explain why we feel so bad.
The goal is to transform your objections (“Negative Needs”) into wishes, hopes, and needs (“Positive Needs”). Why do this? Because behind every complaint is a longing or unmet need. If you don’t address the real issue, you’ll never truly have your needs met. A positive need is the hope, wish, desire, and solution that can help you be listened to and increase the odds that your needs will be met.
We’re not used to thinking about what we need or what will remedy our situation. In fact, we often don’t even know what we need. To solve this, we tend to think negatively about what our partner should stop doing in order to ease our own irritation or disappointment. We need to take our complaint and change it into something that our partner can actually do that will make a difference and will give them an opportunity to “shine” for us. This is the critical defining feature of a positive need.
Now, in order to do this, you’ll have to first let go of any grudges or bitterness. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but there it is. The alternative is to risk having your statements to be used as camouflage for attacking or criticizing your partner.
Next, we need to transform our need from negative to positive. Here’s an example:
- Unhelpful, Negative Need: “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish”
- Poor attempt at stating a Positive Need: “I need you to stop being selfish and talking about yourself all the time.”
- Productive, Positive Need: “I’m feeling left out by our talk tonight. Would you please ask me about my day?”
Notice that the formula for a positive need often involves this phrase: “What I need from you is…” Now, let’s revisit our original three examples.
- Negative Need: “You never pay attention to me anymore!”
- Positive Need: “I am feeling a bit lonely. I would love it if we could spend some time together this week and watch a movie together.”
- Negative Need: “You are always working. Do you even like spending time together?”
- Positive Need: “I really want to spend some time with you this weekend. I’d like to do (…) together, do you think you could take some time off work?”
- Negative Need: “You don’t have a clue about how to manage money.”
- Positive Need: “I am feeling anxious about our savings. Can we sit down this weekend and talk about developing a budget?”
Keep in mind that this is only half the battle. Your partner needs to be able to respond positively in kind. It’s true that they might disappoint us. But if we don’t try, it is highly unlikely that things will ever change. And, your therapist will notice.
For example, during a couples’ counseling session, if a husband described how they stated a positive need to their wife and how she didn’t respond well to it, this is still very promising. Our session will be extremely productive as we can now work on how to respond to positive needs. This helps to complete the training needed for a fully healthy dialogue between both partners.
If the husband instead described how he stated a negative need (“… because I knew she would never listen!”), even after reviewing why this is unhelpful, it’s somewhat problematic. As a result, I am going to 1) inwardly groan, and 2) think something equivalent to, “Aw, nuts. I’d love to work on how you both could respond to each other’s needs. But you’ve just sabotaged things and now (sigh) we need to focus the session on how to state these needs in the first place again.” I’m exaggerating for emphasis, of course, but you get the drift.
Key Discussion Points:
- How are you communicating your frustrations, criticisms, and disappointments negatively?
- How are you communicating your hopes, wants, and needs positively?