Rethinking Relationships: Embracing Human Needs Psychology for Fulfilling Partnerships

May 15, 2024 |Gideon Hanekom

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Reimagining Relationships: Moving Beyond Attachment Theory to Meet Human Needs

Attachment theory, originally developed by John Bowlby in the mid-20th century, has long been a cornerstone in understanding the dynamics of human relationships.

This theory posits that the bonds formed between infants and their primary caregivers play a crucial role in shaping emotional and social development.

Bowlby’s work, influenced by evolutionary theory and ethology, emphasized the biological preprogramming of attachment behaviours to enhance survival by keeping infants close to their caregivers for protection and care.

According to Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, infants go through distinct stages of attachment, starting from the pre-attachment stage to forming multiple attachments with different caregivers.

Ainsworth’s “strange situation” study further identified primary attachment styles, including secure attachment, avoidant attachment, ambivalent (resistant) attachment, and disorganized attachment.

These styles reflect the varying ways in which infants interact with their caregivers and the impact of these interactions on their emotional development.

While attachment theory has provided valuable insights into the early formation of human bonds and its implications for later relationships, another school of thought, however, and a growing perspective emphasize the importance of focusing on meeting human needs in relationships rather than solely relying on attachment styles as determinants of behaviour and emotional well-being.

Personally, I tend to lean this way as well.

Shifting the Focus: Forget Attachment Theory

For many years, attachment theory has been central to understanding how early experiences influence individuals’ attachment styles and subsequently impact their adult relationships.

However, there is a growing body of research and therapeutic approaches [1],[2] that advocate for a shift in focus from attachment styles to addressing fundamental human needs within relationships.

While attachment theory provides valuable insights into the dynamics of early relationships, it may not fully capture the complexity of adult relationships and the diverse range of factors that contribute to their success or challenges.

Human Needs Psychology

By shifting the focus from attachment styles to meeting human needs, individuals and couples can cultivate a more holistic and empowering approach to nurturing healthy and fulfilling relationships.

Embracing Human Needs Psychology

Basic human needs psychology, as framed by theories like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, offers a foundational understanding of what individuals require to feel fulfilled, secure, and emotionally balanced.

This understanding is crucial within the context of romantic relationships, as meeting these needs fosters a deeper connection, satisfaction, and mutual support between partners.

When we consider human needs within the framework of romantic relationships, several core needs and emotional requirements come to the forefront:

Core Needs in Relationships

1. Physiological and Safety Needs: These encompass basic survival requirements such as food, water, shelter, and a sense of security. In a romantic relationship, this translates to providing a stable and safe environment where both partners feel secure and protected.

2. Love and Belonging: Emotional intimacy, affection, companionship, and a sense of belonging are crucial components of fulfilling relationships. Partners need to feel loved and appreciated through verbal affirmations, physical affection, and shared activities, fostering a strong emotional bond and reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation.

3. Esteem Needs: Mutual respect, appreciation, and validation of each other’s efforts and contributions are vital for maintaining a healthy relationship. When partners feel valued and respected, it boosts their self-esteem and promotes a positive self-image, ultimately strengthening the bond between them.

4. Self-Actualization: Supporting each other’s personal growth and aspirations allows partners to achieve their full potential. This involves encouraging each other’s goals, fostering independence, and maintaining a balance between togetherness and individuality.

Emotional Needs in Couples

Couples often also have specific emotional needs that, when met, contribute to greater relationship satisfaction.

These can include (but are not limited to) needs such as:

  • Admiration and Appreciation: Recognizing and complimenting each other’s strengths and achievements.
  • Affection: Regular expressions of love and physical touch.
  • Intimate Conversation: Meaningful discussions that build emotional closeness.
  • Domestic Support: Sharing household responsibilities and supporting each other in daily tasks.
  • Family Commitment: Prioritizing family time and shared parenting responsibilities.

Meeting these emotional needs almost always requires open communication, empathy, and understanding within the relationship.

Additionally, being attuned to each other’s needs through open communication can prevent misunderstandings and conflicts, ultimately fostering a harmonious and fulfilling partnership.

Reframing Relationship Dynamics

While attachment theory has provided valuable insights into the early formation of human bonds and its implications for later relationships, it is essential to recognize that individuals and couples are influenced by a multitude of factors beyond their early attachment experiences.

By embracing the principles of human needs psychology, individuals can shift their focus towards actively meeting each other’s emotional and psychological needs within their romantic relationships.

human needs psychology

One can argue that understanding and addressing each partner’s unique needs is essential for maintaining a healthy and happy partnership that goes beyond the notion of being stuck with a certain way of attachment, even though that also evolves.

When these needs are unmet, they can lead to dissatisfaction, resentment, and potential relationship breakdowns.

But, by prioritizing the fulfilment of core needs and emotional requirements, couples can cultivate a relationship grounded in mutual support, understanding, and a deep emotional connection.

Ultimately, by reimagining relationship dynamics and emphasizing the importance of meeting human needs, individuals and couples can foster relationships that are characterized by emotional fulfilment, resilience, and a profound sense of connection.

It’s important to note that while attachment theory offers valuable insights, it should not overshadow the significance of addressing human needs within relationships.

By integrating the principles of human needs psychology into our understanding of romantic relationships, we can create a more inclusive and comprehensive framework for nurturing enduring and fulfilling partnerships.

Fostering Mutual Understanding and Support

I believe the key to pursuing healthy and fulfilling relationships lies in moving beyond the limitations of attachment theory and focusing on the holistic understanding and fulfilment of human needs.

By shifting the emphasis from attachment styles to addressing the core and emotional needs of both partners, couples can cultivate a more empowering and resilient foundation for their relationship.

One of the primary challenges in many relationships is the tendency to fixate on attachment styles and their perceived limitations.

Individuals may become preoccupied with their own or their partner’s attachment patterns, believing that these styles are immutable and define the potential for a successful relationship.

However, this narrow perspective can inadvertently create self-fulfilling prophecies and hinder the growth and development of the partnership.

Uncovering the Power of Mutual Understanding

However, when couples move away from the attachment theory framework and instead prioritize mutual understanding and support, they unlock a realm of possibilities for their relationship.

By focusing on identifying and addressing each other’s fundamental needs, partners can foster a deeper connection, enhance emotional intimacy, and cultivate a shared sense of purpose and fulfilment.

Fundamentally, this approach recognizes that every individual has a unique set of needs that must be acknowledged and addressed.

That includes not only the core needs for safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization but also the more nuanced emotional needs that are specific to the individuals involved.

And by actively exploring, listening to, and validating each other’s needs, partners can create an environment of empathy, compassion, and mutual support.

That, in turn, allows them to work collaboratively to find solutions and strategies that cater to the well-being of both individuals, rather than solely relying on predetermined attachment patterns, which, by the way, aren’t fixed anyway.

I would argue that attachment styles and patterns cannot be fixed strictly psychologically because individuals continue to evolve and form unique attachments throughout their lives, influenced by new relationships and experiences.

Human Needs Psychology

This ongoing process reflects the dynamic nature of human development, where each relationship contributes to the continual shaping and reshaping of attachment behaviours.

Nurturing Emotional Intimacy

Now, one key benefit of shifting the focus from attachment theory to meeting human needs in relationships is the cultivation of deeper emotional intimacy.

When partners prioritize understanding and fulfilling each other’s emotional needs, they tend to create a strong foundation of trust, vulnerability, and emotional connection, which underpins all healthy, happy, and intimate relationships.

But this can manifest in various ways, such as regular expressions of affection, active engagement in meaningful conversations, and the creation of shared experiences that foster a sense of closeness and belonging.

We have covered much of this in previous posts on this site.

However, by prioritizing emotional needs specifically, partners can establish a level of emotional attunement that transcends the limitations of attachment styles and allows for a more fulfilling relationship.

Embracing Flexibility and Growth

Another advantage of this approach is the inherent flexibility and potential for growth within the relationship.

As alluded to earlier, unlike attachment theory, which can sometimes be perceived as deterministic, the human needs-based framework acknowledges the dynamic and evolving nature of relationships.

As individuals and their circumstances change over time, their needs may also evolve.

By maintaining an open and adaptable mindset, partners can continuously re-evaluate and adjust their strategies for meeting each other’s needs.

This allows for a more fluid and responsive approach to relationship building, where both individuals feel empowered to communicate, compromise, and adapt as needed.

Furthermore, this perspective encourages personal growth and the pursuit of self-actualization, both individually and as a couple.

When partners support each other’s aspirations and personal development, they foster an environment that nurtures the fulfilment of human potential, leading to greater overall satisfaction and a sense of shared purpose.

Dr Gottman holds this as one of the pivotal layers of his Sound Relationship House Model, which makes this something to really pay attention to.

Navigating Challenges with Empathy and Resilience

Now, while the human needs-based approach to relationships offers a more empowering and flexible framework, it is also essential to acknowledge that relationships are inherently complex and may face challenges along the way.

That is a fact of life.

Even the easiest relationships are sometimes hard.

However, by maintaining a focus on understanding and meeting each other’s needs, couples can navigate these challenges with greater empathy, resilience, and a shared commitment to the relationship’s success.

So, when things like conflicts or misunderstandings arise, the human needs-based perspective encourages partners to explore the underlying needs that may be at the root of the issue.

By approaching these situations with a spirit of curiosity and a willingness to understand each other’s perspectives rather than criticism or defensiveness, couples can find constructive solutions that address both individuals’ core needs.

That also fosters a greater sense of resilience within the relationship.

Fundamentally, when partners feel that their fundamental needs are being met, they are better equipped to weather the storms of life and adapt to changing circumstances.

As a married man of over 18 years, I can tell you that that is just how it is.

One can draw strength from the emotional intimacy and mutual support you have cultivated, allowing you to overcome obstacles and emerge stronger as a couple.

Embracing a Holistic Approach to Relationships

In conclusion, I believe the shift from attachment theory to a focus on meeting human needs in relationships offers a more empowering and holistic perspective on building fulfilling partnerships.

By prioritizing the understanding and fulfilment of core needs, such as physiological, safety, love, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization, as well as emotional needs, like admiration, affection, and intimate connection, couples can foster a deeper level of mutual understanding, emotional intimacy, and resilience.

This approach also acknowledges the dynamic and evolving nature of relationships, encouraging partners to continuously re-evaluate and adapt their strategies to meet each other’s changing needs.

Consequently, by embracing this perspective, individuals and couples can cultivate relationships that are built on a sound foundation of empathy, compromise, and a shared commitment to each other’s well-being and personal growth.

Ultimately, in my view, the human needs-based approach to relationships empowers individuals to take an active role in shaping their partnerships, moving beyond the constraints of attachment theory and embracing a more holistic and empowering way of building lasting, fulfilling relationships.

About the author

Gideon Hanekom

Gideon Hanekom is the creator of TheRelationshipGuy.com, a popular relationship blog that ranks among the top 50 relationship blogs in 2024. The website helps couples to create happier, healthier, and more intimate relationships. Gideon is a trained professional counsellor and holds post-graduate degrees in Theology and Psychology. His articles have also been featured on respected platforms such as Marriage.com and The Good Men Project.

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