From Criticism to Connection: The Power of Expressing Vulnerable Needs in Relationships
A common goal in couples therapy is to enhance communication.
Problems in communication look different for each couple and can be perceived differently by both partners in the relationship. For instance, one may not feel heard and may interpret that their feelings or perspectives aren’t important to their partner. The other partner may feel misunderstood, and no matter what they say or do, feel as if they can never do things right. Regardless of the pattern that is contributing to challenges in communication, both partners often end up feeling discouraged and emotionally disconnected from one another.
What we often overlook when communicating to our partner is effectively expressing our needs and desires. We may think that our partner is not listening or is choosing to dishonour our values, when in fact, they may not understand what truly is important to us or what we are asking of them. In some instances, we may not even be aware of our own feelings and what we need. Tuning into our emotions will provide clues about an unmet need, and once we become clear as to what that need is, we can then communicate it to our partner.
Drs. Julie and John Gottman (2014), both experts and researchers in couples therapy, developed a simple and effective way we can start a discussion with our partner. By expressing our needs in a positive way, we are more likely to communicate our point without criticism and blame. As a result, our partner is more likely to engage in a constructive conversation without a defensive guard.
The Model is:
“I feel about and I need .”
The following examples show different ways a feeling and a need can be expressed to our partner. In both examples, I start with a negative statement and then show how it might be turned around.
“Why haven’t you started dinner yet? I’m always the one making dinner, and I’m tired of it.” This can be rephrased by saying, “I feel overwhelmed about having to get dinner on the table on time, and I need your help with making dinner tonight.”
Instead of saying, “I’m mad that you didn’t pay attention to me at the party,” it may make more sense to say, “I felt lonely (or insecure) when you didn’t pay attention to me at the party, and I need reassurance from you that I’m desired.”
In both examples, the first statement included elements of criticism towards one’s partner in terms of what they were not doing, that is, not making dinner or not giving attention. The second statements are coming from a more vulnerable place – expressing one’s feelings and letting their partner know what is needed from them, such as the need for help and the need for love.
This type of communication is easier for our partner to accept compared to criticizing statements, which can leave them feeling attacked. A softened and expressive way of communicating clearly states what it is that we need. Our partner will not only have a greater understanding of that specific need, but they will also have the opportunity to validate our feelings. The goal is for each partner to express their feelings and needs, understand and meet these for each other, and ultimately enhance emotional closeness and intimacy.
Gottman, J., & Schwartz Gottman, J. (2014). Gottman Method Couples Therapy.