The Psychology Of Relationships
Relational needs is a concept which helps us to describe what people want to get out of relating to each other.
It is as if someone had sat down and thought about which actions of another person make us feel loved.
Relational needs are about contact between people. They are not the basic needs of survival – like food, air or shelter: rather, they are the essential elements of our human relationships which make life worth living.
They are about a good quality of life and a sense of self-in-relationship.
Relational needs can also be described as the component parts of a universal desire for intimate relationships.
Different theorists have come up with different sets of relational needs, but they all overlap.
Some people see them as leftover needs from childhood, others see them as normal needs we all have throughout all of our lives right to the point we die. I agree with the latter view, seeing relational needs as something we never grow out of.
However, each individual tends to have some needs that are more important than others, maybe depending on what is left over for them from childhood (for example, they may still be looking for a quality of being in relationship they never got as a child).
Certainly some people become pregnant and have children in an unconscious attempt to find healing for their own childhood wounds.
The first set of relational needs I want to describe has been defined by the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut. He wrote about the child’s need for twinship, mirroring, and idealization.
In twinship he meant that we long to be with someone who we see as similar to ourselves, who shares our experiences, and who we can communicate with.
In mirroring he described our need to be with someone who delights in our presence, our actions, feelings, and our simply being alive, and who shows this delight to us in an active way – hence mirroring.
This is a wonderful process to watch between adults and babies when both look at each other with beaming smiles, delighting in each other’s company.
Finally, Kohut talked about idealization, which is our need to have someone in our lives who we think is bigger than us and who we can go to when things get difficult.
Someone who we can trust will “sort it out for us” or simply be there for us as backup. It may be more important for children to have someone to run to with things they can’t handle themselves, but even as adults it’s still really reassuring to have someone who will be there for us no matter what.
This someone may be a real person, a parent, a partner, a friend or a symbolic place, or it could be our own god.
This sense that there is someone we can go to, who can help us to deal with things by which we feel overwhelmed, creates security. It means we are not alone with life’s vicissitudes.
The second set of relational needs I want to describe are by Richard Erskine and Rebecca Trautmann, two integrative psychotherapists. They have expanded on Kohut’s categories and have come up with 7 relational needs.
We all have a need to feel safe in relationship with others and to feel free from threats of humiliation and shame. It also means that we have a sense that the other won’t attack, engulf or abandon us.
This need is for an unconditional acceptance of our feelings, fantasies and identity by another person.
It includes the need to have all our relational needs affirmed and accepted as natural. It gives us a sense of being normal and OK in our own way, and is experienced as an unconditional positive acceptance of who we are.
Carl Rogers, the founder of person-centred counselling, saw this as unconditional positive regard as one of three essential prerequisites of therapy.
3 Acceptance by a stable, dependable and protective other person
This is Kohut’s need for idealization: the need to have someone in our lives who we trust and who looks out for us. The degree to which an individual looks to someone and hopes that he or she is reliable, consistent, and dependable is directly proportional to their quest for a sense of internal security.
4 Confirmation of personal experience: in other words, a need to find someone who we feel is similar to us
This is Kohut’s need for twinship. It can be incredibly affirming to find someone who we feel shares our view of the world, or who has been through experiences similar to those we have had ourselves.
The opposite to our need for twinship is our need to feel separate and unique, to be true to ourselves and to be able to show who we really are.
Self-definition is the communication of one’s self-chosen identity through the expression of preferences, interests and ideas without humiliation or rejection.
6 The need to have an impact on other people
Impact refers to having an influence that affects the other in some desired way.
An individual’s sense of competency in a relationship emerges from agency and being able to influence others – attracting the other’s attention and interest, influencing what may be of interest to the other person, and effecting a change in the other’s emotions or behavior.
Being able to influence others means we don’t feel like we are just thin air or completely unimportant to others.
7 The need to give love
We also have an inbuilt need to give love, which can be expressed through quiet gratitude, thankfulness, giving affection, or doing something for the other person.
It is important that these “gifts” are accepted and welcomed, at least in spirit, even if they are not the right thing at the right time for the other person.
(Think of a two year old sharing their favourite chocolate cookie with you. Of course the two year old doesn’t know you might not like to eat half a chewed cookie that’s already been melting in his hand. It’s his intention that matters most.)
If you want to read more on how relational needs might be relevant to yourself and your relationship, read Relational needs and you.
Heinz Kohut (1971) The analysis of the self. New York: International Universities Press.
Richard G. Erskine, Rebecca L. Trautmann (1996) Methods of an Integrative Psychotherapy. Transactional Analysis Journal Vol 26, No 4, October