"When we are surrounded by relationships that nurture us fully, our souls feel safe to grow, create and have the courage to express ourselves fully. Being in a state of nurturing is familiar to our souls; it is from this place that we first enter this world, and it is up to us to safeguard our spiritual selves to remain in a state of nurturing."
—Madisyn Taylor, co-founder and editor-in-chief of DailyOM
Nurturing your baby is an all-encompassing responsibility, so you may be wondering: how can I also nurture my relationship with my partner, let alone deepen it? Our behavior reflects our needs, and your newborn is very needy – dependent, in fact. As a result, you’d be excused for overlooking you and your partner’s needs during this early phase of parenting.
However, sooner or later, you and your partner are going to feel deprived – or even resentful – of each other and the baby if this gradual need depletion isn’t addressed. On the other hand, if you find ways to fulfill your needs both jointly and individually, you’ll feel satisfied, happy, and more able to give to each other and your baby. Who doesn’t want that?
With such an immense life change as a newborn, the trouble is that how you used to get your needs met seems almost like an impossibility. Before the baby arrived, maybe you never even thought about your needs; you had the freedom to just do what felt right.
However, simply identifying your needs can help you and your partner support each other. It can lead to new, mutually-satisfying ways of fulfilling your needs that benefit not only yourself, but also your relationship.
“But I don’t even know what my needs are!” a new parent called Angela recently told me. Angela grew up in a family where she always had to consider the needs of others and not her own. She was now exhausted and beginning to get angry at her husband. We explored a few ways to identify her needs, including looking at a couple of useful theories.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
The famous psychologist Abraham Maslow devised a “hierarchy of needs” to represent the nature of human needs. He studied exemplary people who had a zest for life, creative energy, a sense of humor, and higher and more frequent “peak” experiences. Believing that these people used their full potential, he called the sum of these characteristics “self-actualization.”
In Maslow’s model (pictured above), self-actualization is shown as the pinnacle of a triangle, the tip being level 5 and the base being level 1 (physical survival needs). Basic level 1 needs include our biological need for food, air, water, and sex. Did I mention the S-word? What happened to that need when you had a newborn? Sex is possibly not on the mother’s radar, but represents a strong wish for the father!
There are other levels in between:
- Level 5: Self-actualization needs
- Level 4: Success and achievement (self-esteem needs, productivity, and achievement)
- Level 3: Social relationship needs (we’re social beings and need relationships)
- Level 2: Security needs (feeling safe and free of fear, both psychologically and physically)
- Level 1: Physical survival needs (biological needs)
If your level 1 needs aren’t being met, Maslow suggests that it’s hard to focus on getting higher-level needs met. When people are deprived of need satisfaction at any level of the hierarchy, they become limited in their personal growth. If you have a newborn, you’re probably thinking: “I don’t care about personal growth, I just want to get my basic needs met!” But that’s exactly Maslow’s point!
Glasser’s Choice Theory
A second theory by psychiatrist William Glasser offers another way to identify your needs, which can also serve as a handy tool for parents. Glasser’s “choice theory” posits that all of our behavior is internally-motivated; in other words, it’s our best attempt to satisfy one or more of the five basic internal needs at any given time: love, identity, fun, freedom, and survival.
Choice theory can help us become aware of our own “quality world” and teach us to be sensitive to the quality world of others. According to Wikipedia, a quality world “represents a person’s total outlook and understanding of the world around them as it relates to people, possessions, beliefs” and more.
A fun way to explain this theory is through the analogy of a four-legged chair. The seat of the chair represents survival, while each leg stands for one of four needs: fun, love and belonging, freedom, and power (self-competence and identity).
The chair varies from person to person, as the thickness of each leg changes depending on an individual’s internal needs. In other words, your chair will look different from your partner’s and each of your children’s.
I know when my needs are not being met: when my chair gets wobbly! I get irritable and cranky with myself and the people I love the most. My chair becomes stable again when I tune in to which needs aren’t being met and take action to meet them.
Angela could see the benefits of this self-discovery; however, her feelings of anger were posing a challenge to her. I explained to her that her feelings are red flags that indicate when her needs aren’t being met or she’s not aligned with her values. Angela and I brainstormed some ideas to identify her feelings and needs:
- Tune in to your feelings regularly and identify what you are feeling. Begin by asking yourself at least three times a day “How am I really feeling?” Print out a list of emotion words to more easily pinpoint your feelings and develop your emotional literacy.
- Give yourself permission to feel, no matter how uncomfortable the feeling. Acknowledgment leads to action; suppression leads to explosion. Most of us were trained as children to suppress and be afraid of our feelings, so this will take some practice.
- Tune in to your physiology – your body’s tenseness or physical changes are also indicators of your feelings
- Tune in to your thoughts. They may be sabotaging your efforts to getting your needs met through negative self-talk: “I can’t do that. Everyone else’s needs are more important than mine. It’s selfish to think about my own needs.” Change these thoughts into more realistic ones.
- Ask yourself: “If I were 5 percent more aware of my body, what would that be like? If I were 5 percent more aware of my thoughts, what would I notice? If I were 5 percent more aware of my feelings, what would my day be like?” Aim to become a little more self-aware every day.
- We behave (or misbehave) in order to get our needs met, so ask yourself: “How am I behaving – what is my need?”
- If you’re angry, this is usually a secondary emotion – the tip of the iceberg. You need to uncover what lies below the surface and identify your primary emotions (e.g. hurt, fatigue, fear, etc.). This will give you a clearer idea of your unmet needs.
- Notice when you’re feeling joyful, relaxed, and happy; these positive feelings show that you’re getting your needs met.
- We sometimes have to look for new solutions to get our needs met. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, how we used to get our needs met may not suit our current family situation.
Putting It Into Practice
Angela found it useful to think of this as a simple three-step process:
- Tune in to your feelings and physiology, especially your primary feelings
- Identify your unmet needs
- Brainstorm ideas for getting your needs met by thinking of new and creative solutions
Clarifying your needs is essential before you work out solutions. For example, you may have a solution for getting to bed earlier, but it leads to an argument with your partner: “We will never have any time together if you go to bed earlier!” Your needs differ; yours is for more sleep (survival need), while your partner’s is for more alone time with you (love and belonging/relationship need).
Once you identify your needs, you can brainstorm a variety of new and creative solutions with your partner to suit your new family dynamic. It’s a win-win approach that means both of you are getting your needs met, leading to mutual respect rather than resentment. This approach to problem solving and listening is revealed alongside other time-tested communication methods in Parent Effectiveness Training, a book by psychologist Dr. Thomas Gordon.
When you focus on getting your needs, along with those of your spouse, baby, and your other children, the intent is one of wanting to help and move forward. The use of effective communication skills results in positive outcomes rather than resentment created by the “blame game.” You need to be able to voice your needs clearly as both a statement of fact and a request for help.
Going back to Angela’s example, she decided to say to her husband: “Since the baby was born, I’ve been feeling very tired and need more sleep. That’s why I’m finding it difficult to be social and loving. Can you help me work out some ways to get these needs met and have more time with you?” Angela’s husband was surprised by her new way of speaking about her needs, but willingly came up with some solutions because he could see the benefits for both of them.
It takes time to learn new ways of relating to others and getting your needs met, so be kind to each other. Consider it as an evolving approach to taking responsibility and effective control of your life.
Applying more effective communication skills and becoming more aware of your needs leads to greater enjoyment, deeper relationships, and the creation of a wonderful model of healthy family interaction for your baby.
Kathryn Tonges is a Beijing-based Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) expert and beijingkids board member. To get in touch with her, email email@example.com.
As a bonus, here are two self-help measures you can try:
Exercise 1: Identify Your Needs
Based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, think about your current needs and what’s important to you. Draw a triangle with five levels and fill in your unmet needs. You partner can draw a separate triangle, then you can compare notes. However, remember that this isn’t a license to start blaming each other.
Exercise 2: Send an I-Message
When you voice your needs, frame your words as an “I-message.” As opposed to using an accusatory “you-message” like “You should know that I need more help” or “You never help me,” an “I-message” places the other person in the position of helper rather than culprit. In Angela’s example, she said “I’ve been feeling very tired and need more sleep” rather than “you don’t do anything to help me get more sleep.”
- Gordon, Thomas. Parent Effectiveness Training. Three Rivers Press, New York, 2000
- Glasser, William. Choice Theory – A New Psychology of Personal Freedom. Harper Collins, New York, 1998
- Maslow, Abraham. Motivation and Personality. Longman Asia Ltd., Hong Kong, 1987 (third revised edition)
- Hold Me Tight (the blog of Dr. Sue Johnson, an award-winning professor of clinical psychology and director of the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally-Focused Therapy)
Photos (in order of appearance): LennyBaker (Flickr), Wikimedia Commons, Dee Adams (Flickr), jurvetson (Flickr), and Parker Michael Knight (Flickr)