Managing Relationships – Bringing awareness to our Relational needs

Managing Relationships – Bringing awareness to our Relational needs

Ragini Rao

Psychotherapist, Trainer & Life Coach; Heal your Life Workshop Leader


As human beings, most of us strive to establish meaningful relationships, right from childhood and through adult life. We also strive to be attached to the other person and yet enjoy our autonomy.

The foundation of Relational Needs

Experiencing a warm, loving relationship with another is not only soothing, but also essential for individuals to live a fulfilled life. Our sense of self, right from the day we are born, is strengthened by a nurturing mother/ caretaker. It gets enhanced by the affection and care shown by the rest of the family and other adults in the child’s environment.

When the basic relational needs of love, affection and safety are adequately met, a child grows up trusting self, others and the world. She/he is likely to form healthy and balanced relationships later in life too.

One also learns, early in life, to balance between being attached and being independent.

Psychologists have repeatedly emphasised the importance of relationships, both in the early stages as well as in adulthood, as being the source of what gives meaning and validation to self.

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“Prolonged physical bonding in the early years and throughout life, is most significant in the creation of a visceral core, from which all experiences of self and the other emerge.” – John Bowlby

However, when these basic relational needs are not met, the child lacks trust, not only in people around her/him but also in oneself, to develop stable relationships. Lack of a strong role model as a child further adds to the problem.

Two typical Relationship scenarios

Let’s consider the examples below-

1.Ria believed that taking independent decisions at home meant disrespecting her husband. She had grown up seeing her mother ask her father about everything she did or wanted to do.

As a child, she was rarely encouraged to think on her own or make decisions. She was constantly told what to do or not do. So when she got married, she repeated the same behaviour with her husband.

2.Mohan grew up in a family where the parents did not get along well with each other; and had very little time for the children. While he and his sibling were well fed and provided for, the emotional connection was missing. Explicit expression of love and affection did not exist.

 As an adult he had no awareness of what he had missed. He assumed that, this was the way of life, till he started having problems with his wife in his marriage.  

 In both these scenarios, the expectations they had from their partners, stemmed from their own experiences in their family of origin.

Dependency and Disconnect – ways in which unmet Relational needs manifest

 Typically, individuals, based on their own experiences in life, tend to relate to others in two unhealthy ways

1. The first, where there is extreme dependency in the relationship. One is totally dependent on the other for most aspects of their life, discounting their own ability to think, feel and act independently. The boundaries are not clear and the other person may feel enmeshed and burdened in the relationship.

There is lack of open communication and sharing. Such relationships are also termed as co-dependent. The other person, who is allowing the dependency, may initially feel very needed and important. However through time he/she may start feeling stifled in the relationship.

The relationship is symbiotic and not meeting each others’ needs in an open manner. Basically, whatever was not met during childhood, tends to manifest in the present.

2.The second unhealthy relationship is one where the individual believes that being independent is so important, to the extent of actually being disconnected with the partner. There is lack of involvement and the boundaries are very rigid.

In this kind of relationship, the other person is greatly impacted. He or she may feel lost and not wanted or loved. While there may be no apparent conflict, the relationship surely is not healthy and may not last long. This is what happened to Mohan and his wife.

In today’s world the increasing rate of break ups and divorces is a good indicator of the fact that, when relationships don’t seem to be working, there is little effort being put in identifying one’s own contribution to the failure of the relationship. The tendency is to just give up and end the relationship.

Chances are that, if the awareness about one’s own shortcomings is not adequately clear, subsequent relationships would also be affected.

Therefore, it is important to bring awareness to one’s own needs and to the roots of such needs.

5 significant Relational Needs

We all have many relational needs, both as children and as adults. These are often unconscious, arising from some deficiencies during childhood.

There are five very significant ones (adapted from the 8 relational needs described by Richard Erskine) that are described below-

1.Need for security

This is the need to feel physically and emotionally safe with another person. When children are abused at a young age, the insecurity sets in at the body level. As adults, when they come in contact with another person, specially the marriage partner, the old experiences surface and come in the way of relating in a healthy way.

2.Need for acceptance by a stable and dependable other

As children, the need to look up and rely on parents, teachers and other significant elders is natural and given. Again this need may continue into adulthood depending on whether it was met adequately or not as a child.

3.Validation of one’s emotional experience

When young children express their feelings, whatever it maybe- sadness, anger or fear, if parents respond to them with the acknowledgement of their experience and validate their feelings, the child’s need is satisfied. However, when it is not satisfied, the child may learn defensive behaviours to take care of it. This is why, very often, adults may be feeling in a certain way but will hesitate to express it openly fearing rejection. And that then becomes the way of life.

4.To be recognised for ‘who I am’Validating one’s identity

Children and adults want to be recognised for their uniqueness. When they receive the recognition properly, it helps them to blossom and be/do their best. However, when they are not recognised, the individual could become withdrawn, lack self-confidence and suffer from low self-esteem.

5.The need to feel important in a relationship

Again, this need is very significant in little children. They love it when parents focus on them and give them lots of love and attention. However when they don’t receive it, they start getting it in ways that maybe be unhealthy.

We often see children who appear manipulative, and wonder about it. The underlying need in such children, is attention seeking and to get it in anyway possible. This may get carried over into an adult behaviour, because the need continues to be unfulfilled.

It is therefore important for all of us, to identify those needs that have not been fulfilled for us; and, to see how the needs are spilling over into our relationships as adults.

While we can all process this on our own, it would be useful to seek professional help to process and reflect on the above needs. It is important to figure out how these can be met in our adult lives.

Healthy and long lasting Relationships – You can do it

A healthy relationship is one where the other person is an equal in terms of respect, value and dignity, whatever the relationship; be it parent and child or with a spouse, or with a friend, colleague or sibling. One needs to be able to draw clear boundaries and yet be available for the other person when needed.

There is authenticity, intimacy and trust in such a relationship. We could term such relationships inter-dependent. One is able to then balance between being involved and attached; and yet having the Autonomy, the space for themselves.

Here’s hoping this helps each one of us reflect and bring about change; in order to make the most of every relationship.


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Kailash BarthwalRavikumar M K Recent comment authors
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Ravikumar M K
Ravikumar M K

Humans being a social animal & has emotional dependence which needs a healthy nurturing without which society can’t be healthy..
So good parenting is a critical need for society.

Kailash Barthwal
Kailash Barthwal

Very helpful for professionals to look at overall life happiness along with success in their own particular field…

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