the difference between a relational want or need

Often times we confuse what we require and what we desire in relationships. We make a list of all the important traits we want in a partner, with very little concept of what we really need in our relationships. Our lists often include items about physical appearance, the level of income or career, and may end with a general statement like “they make me feel happy.” I hate to break it to you, but you are the one that is responsible for insuring that you are happy and your needs get met. It is up to you to understand what you need in a relationship versus what you want, and it is your responsibility to effectively communicate those things. Lets take a look at what constitutes a need.

Webster’s defines a need as “something that a person must have: something that is needed in order to live, or succeed, or be happy.” A need is something that is essential and very important to live a healthy and satisfied life. For years psychology has been trying to determine what these essential needs really are. Some of you might be familiar with Maslow’s attempt to distinguish the order and importance of needs in his popular hierarchy as seen below.


While there has been little research to substantiate Maslow’s claims that needs move in a hierarchical order, it is still helpful to give context to what a need really looks like. Defining needs can be a somewhat controversial topic, especially when we are trying to address psychological or emotional needs, as there seems to be a lot of grey area between needs and wants. Needs are different from wants in that their deficiency results in a negative outcome.

Webster’s defines a want as a desire or a wish for something. A want is something we might like to have rather than a requirement for healthy living. For example, I might want a man who drives an Audi R8. However, the car that my partner drives has very little impact on the emotional and psychological support they invest in the relationship. Most of you are probably agreeing with me thinking, “Obviously, you can’t chose a man based on the car he drives!” You are right. But often times the differences between our needs and are wants are not as pronounced as this example. They walk a fine line and I dare say they even change from couple to couple.

I suspect that part of the reason that we confuse the two so easily is because our culture teaches us to be impulsive and listens to our urges. We are taught that “You Only Live Once” (YOLO), that you should “Just Do It” and to “enjoy the moment”… just to name a few. Advertising, marketing and music are constantly trying to reveal areas where we are deficient so that we believe that we need their product. Our relationships are not immune to these messages. We constantly feel like we need to be having more sex, be flawless looking for our partners, and are left with an aching feeling that we will never be enough.

We have all of these muddled beliefs and expectations about what we need. These needs are largely shaped by the media and relationships we have observed, whether in real life or on the television screen. Beyond that, we are also taught to just listen to our feelings, thoughts and impulses, which are often misleading. Impulses guide us in the moment, which may not always be helpful when trying to build a long-term committed relationship.

Here are some critical thinking questions that can help you reality check whether your desire or impulse is a need or a want. You can stop and ask yourself:

  • Is this something that I need in my relationship in order to be satisfied?
  • Is this something that I can live without?
  • If I don’t get this thing what will be the result?
  • Is this a requirement for a healthy relationship?
  • Am I being impulsive?
  • Am I comparing my relationship to other’s relationships?
  • Have I seen this modeled in a real life relationship?
  • What tells me or shows me that I need this in my relationship?

Additionally, here are the links to some helpful worksheets I found online that will assist you in discovering what your true relationship needs really are.

Lastly, do some reading to understand both yours and your partner’s attachment styles. You tend to be either more anxious or more avoidant in relationships, and each have a unique set of needs that are essential for the relationship to thrive. Do some soul searching to see what needs are absolutely essential to your relationship satisfaction, and what things are just icing on the cake.

I would love for you to comment and share with me some of your non-negotiable needs in your relationship. If you enjoyed this post, subscribe to stay up to date on weekly articles and share with your friends so that they too can begin to identify their relationship needs.

Wishing you love and connection,