Relationships: Needs, Wants and Expectations

Relationships are generally complex due to the ubiquitous issue of difference. People come from different backgrounds, have different assumptions, and in essence, see the world differently.

In opposite sex relationships such differences are compounded by the biologically inherited and socially predisposed differences between men and women. This article will discuss two of these ubiquitous relationship challenges: women’s vs. men’s needs and wants, and individual myths and expectations in a relationship.

Needs and Wants

In 1972 Carl Rogers surveyed the changing marriage scene of his day and said:

“It is becoming increasingly clear that a man-woman relationship will have permanence only to the degree to which it satisfies the emotional, psychological, intellectual and physical needs of the partners”.

He went on to quote the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard , saying “The greatest danger, that of losing one’s own self, may pass off quietly as if it were nothing; every other loss, that of an arm, a leg, five dollars, etc., is sure to be noticed” (in Rogers, 1972).

Accounts of divorce do often read very clearly as accounts of people who somehow lost themselves in the marriage. Today we have come to accept that marriage is a commitment of two unique individuals to a partnership, where they must reach satisfaction on their own terms and where individual happiness and fulfillment are not to be compromised.

But for many, a committed relationship and a prolonged period of living with someone are new experiences, and for these people their wants and needs may not be clear even to themselves.

Dr Willard F. Harley is a marriage counsellor and author in the United States who has studied the needs of men and women for many years. He has summarised those needs and placed them in the general perceived order of importance of his clients as follows:

Women’s Needs vs  Men’s Needs

Affection vs Sexual fulfilment

Conversation vs Recreational companionship

Honesty and openness vs Attractive spouse

Financial support vs Domestic support

Family commitment vs Admiration

Of course, he concedes that these needs are not the same for everyone, and there are many people who will nominate something on the list of their opposite gender. However, his experience with thousands of people tells him that these do tend to be the deepest needs for men and for women, as stated.

Furthermore he says that when these needs are not met, extramarital affairs, dismay, unhappiness and divorce are the common outcomes. Harley also tells us that people tend to give what they themselves need (Harley, 1994).

We know that disparity in sexual needs and fulfilment is a major source of trouble in marriages (Tysoe, 1992; Argyle and Henderson, 1990). The fact that men and women experience a different sexual pattern in terms of arousal, plateau, climax and recovery is something that may need to be covered. A common issue raised in couples counselling is that men often feel drowsy or detached after sex while women feel a strong need for continued affection.

Sex is one area where an established session routine of seeing the couple separately at times can be very handy, as it may be that one or both of the clients will want to say something about themselves that they feel in some way shy or inhibited about.

There is a well documented difference in the need for affection experienced by women and the strong need for sex in men, and the conflict that these needs can generate in a relationship (Harley, 1994; Tysoe, 1992). Men should realise that an atmosphere of affection can put women in the mood for sex, but the absence of affection combined with regular demands for sex will very quickly drive the two apart. As Harley puts it, affection is the environment, while sex is an event.

Harley also introduces the idea of a Love Bank. The essence of this is that if people have more positive associations in being with each other than they have negative associations, they will tend to feel that they want to be with each other more.

This is similar to the approach of American social psychologist Caryl Rusbult who proposes that relationship satisfaction is based on the rewards versus the penalties that people are getting from one another (Rusbult, 1983). Both ideas have merit and both rely largely on couples providing pleasure and satisfaction to each other by meeting each others needs.

Myths and Expectations

Separate to the issue of needs and wants, people may be expressing unrealistic notions about married life. Strong correlations have been found between certain unrealistic notions that are believed or maintained by married people and their levels of marital dissatisfaction (Tysoe, 1994). Areas that have found specifically to correlate with marital dissatisfaction are:

  • Disagreement is destructive. This is the idea that a married couple should not disagree and if they do they should not express their disagreements.
  • People should ‘know’ what their partner needs and wants and they should not need to ask.
  • People cannot change; we are the way we are.
  • Sexual performance levels must be spectacularly high, if not perfect.

There are other areas of expectation that can cause trouble and disappointment in marriages, largely because they are areas of great assumption and few couples take the time to sit down and talk them through. They tend to be expectations about the home, about money, about work, about health and food, family and children, community and friends and about spiritual life (Piver, 2004).

Another area to consider is in regard to motivations for marriage. De Angelis (1992) talks about seven reasons for getting married that may need to be seriously reconsidered.

Pressure from family and friends or due to societal norms. This could include the idea that one must be married by a certain age or be considered ‘over the hill’. Fear of being alone later in life will sometimes be part of this feeling of pressure. Family can also be a source of pressure, such as parents giving their offspring the idea that they must give them grandchildren.

Loneliness and desperation. People may want to fill the emptiness of their life with someone. This can include trying to fill an emotional void, covering up old emotional wounds, or filling a spiritual void of lack of meaning and purpose in life.

Sexual hunger. People often joke that getting married is a way of having sex ‘on tap’ all the time. For some the urge to have a regular sexual partner may be so strong that they will convince themselves that they have feelings for someone that will last for the rest of their lives.

Distraction from life. Some people may have a history of going from one relationship to another. Their relationships may take up a lot of time in their life and may actually get in the way of them sorting out essential issues in their life.

To avoid growing up or becoming independent. The world can seem to be a tough place and people may turn to the idea of depending on someone else for their survival, rather than trying to make it on their own. The warning signs here might be where there is a big age difference between the two or a gap in their levels of financial or personal success and resources.

Guilt. Quite simply this is the marriage that occurs because one person could not bring himself or herself to tell the other that the relationship was not what they wanted. Over time, family and friends also become part of the picture and it can take a lot of courage to be able to go against the flow and decide that the relationship should not be made permanent after all.

Demartini (2007) and De Angelis (1992) in their consultancy work with couples have noted a number of other beliefs held by couples that could be considered to be dysfunctional:

  • A new relationship will provide happiness, with little or no effort needed.
  • Completeness is possible and only possible with one’s soul mate.
  • This relationship will last forever.
  • Marriage will bring to an end the troubles that may have existed thus far.
  • Self abnegation and self sacrifice are necessary parts of a relationship.

Finally, there are a number of other dysfunctional beliefs that can undermine the harmony of relationships. One is that children will ‘complete’ a marriage. This may be true for some, but according to a number of studies the reality for many is that marital satisfaction declines markedly when children arrive (Tysoe, 1994).

The idea that opposites attract is often discarded early in people’s lives. The truth behind the notion is probably that people are seeking, when they look for a life partner, to find someone who complements their own personality by making up for certain deficiencies (Wilson & Nias, 1976).

On a more physiological level, this seems to even relate to people sensing that complementary genetic strengths could be created should they reproduce with that person (Crenshaw, 1996) , but over time this may explain why many marriages flounder so soon after a couple complete the childrearing phase of their relationship.

In those cases where a relationship starts to wane after the arrival and raising of children, and given the tendency of passionate motivations to decline over time, a healthy and clear concept of love and the changes in love in a lifetime may help a relationship along considerably.


  • Argyle, M. & Henderson, M. (1990) The Anatomy of Relationships, Penguin, Great Britain.
  • Crenshaw, T.L., (1996) The Alchemy of Love and Lust, Putnams, New York.
  • De Angelis, B. (1992) Are You The One For Me? Harper Collins, USA.
  • Demartini, J.E. (2007) The Heart of Love, Hay House, Australia.
  • Harley, W.F., (1994) His Needs Her Needs, Revell, USA.
  • Piver, (2004) The Hard Questions, Penguin, Australia.
  • Rogers, C. (1972) Becoming Partners: Marriage and Its Alternatives, Dell, New York.
  • Rusbult, C. E. (1983) A longitudinal test of the investment model: the development and deterioration of satisfaction and commitment in heterosexual involvements, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 101-117.
  • Tysoe, M., (1992) Love Isn’t Quite Enough , Harper Collins, Great Britain.
  • Wilson, G.W., and Nias, D. (1976) The Psychology of Sexual Attraction, Open Books, London.