Communicating Needs in Lasting Relationships

Lasting RelationshipsEvery now and then I seem to decide that turning on the television and surfing channels would be a good way to relax.  Inevitably, though, I quickly realize what a huge mistake that was. I linger too long on one channel, get mindlessly absorbed, and then see something I can’t forget.  This happened recently when I came across a rerun of a show called The Marriage Ref. Here is the genius concept: They film a couple having an argument and then a panel of minor celebrities makes fun of the couple.  The unfunny host then decides who won the argument, and the couple wins a vacation package.

I hope already you can see why I didn’t like this show.  For one, it was terrible.  Second, I am interested in helping couples stay together, and no piece of research has ever found that filming an argument and submitting it for others to view and laugh at helps couples stay together.  Nor has it ever been helpful to decide who won or lost an argument.

The only saving grace for this show is that it did give me some fodder for my blogging appetite. I bet this isn’t the reaction the show’s producers were after but that was ten minutes of my life I can’t get back.

Rather than use the show as the impetus for a general post on communicating and arguing I want to focus on a specific argument a couple on the show was having and the underlying problems that caused it. The argument occurred because the husband wanted to put a stripper pole in the bedroom.  And, go figure, the wife was against the idea.   And not surprisingly the panel and host decided the wife was right.

I certainly can see why the wife would be against having a stripper pole.  She is likely to feel a little disrespected and maybe even humiliated by being asked to perform for a man who is supposed to be her equal in the relationship.  So, I, too, would have agreed that having a stripper pole was not a great idea.  But what everyone missed was that the husband was trying to communicate.  He might not have been doing it very well, but he was trying.

I think it’s fair to say that many men don’t do a very good job at communicating their needs and desires. About fifteen years ago books and articles were promoting the idea that men and women communicated in entirely different ways, as if they were from different planets.  More recent research suggests that there are more similarities than differences in the communication skills of men and women, but some specific differences do exist.

One difference is that, on average, men tend to be less expressive than women.  That is, compared to women, men are less likely to talk about their feelings, needs, and desires.  But these men still have to communicate somehow.  And in our example, the husband suggested having a stripper pole and had given his wife about 50 thongs. He was trying, in his own ineffective way, to communicate his desires to his wife. It’s not that he wants his wife to feel embarrassed or disrespected; he wants some “spice” and adventure in the bedroom—maybe something she would enjoy as well. So why was it so difficult for this man to get his point across?

One model of communication, developed by well-known researcher John Gottman and his colleagues, gives us a sense of how hard it is for even good communicators to get their messages across.  Gottman suggests that somehow we have to identify our intentions (which are completely private), translate them into words and actions, and “send” them to the receiver of our message. The receiver then has to decode the words and actions (in his/her own, perhaps equally ineffective, way) to make meaning of them (this interpretation is also individual and private).  In between our intentions and our receiver’s decoding are our individual styles of sending and receiving messages and all the interference that comes with differing styles. It reminds me of the children’s game of telephone; you might think that a game of telephone between only two people would be easy.  But when each message is filtered through our own unique styles, abilities, insecurities, expectations, needs, and worries, it is like we are playing telephone with six or ten or maybe twenty people.

What words could the guy on television use to more clearly express his desires? I am not sure but the sentence might begin with “I want…,”which he might be uneasy with because it sounds selfish.  But expressing our needs and desires need not be selfish.  In fact, it is important for partners to be able to share their desires and also comment on each other’s desires.  The sharing of desires must be a dialogue.  And the decision to put a stripper pole in the bedroom was not the result of a dialogue. So, maybe this is the crux of the issue:  He decided what he wanted and his wife had no input—it was not the result of shared decision making.  Maybe what he should have said was something like, “Honey, I would like it if we could be a little more adventurous in our lovemaking.”  Then she has an opportunity to share her feelings and together they can explore the possibilities.  In this way, it becomes about them as a couple rather than him as an individual.

Once he says what he wants and she responds with what she wants, there is progress.  They are sharing ideas.  They may find that their individual desires overlap greatly.  Or they may not, in which case they will need to engage in a little give and take to figure out what each can give so that they can both feel satisfied.

There are two things to say about the process of communicating our needs and desires: It is essential and it often gets bungled.  Partners in lasting relationships must look past the bumbling efforts to see the underlying point.  Sometimes saying you want a stripper pole doesn’t really mean you want a stripper pole at all.

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit