Negotiating change / Communicating needs 

There are three key steps to negotiating change or communicating needs with a partner. These two concepts are distinct, yet linked closely enough that the three steps provide a sufficient basis for each. These steps are also sequential, and for a very important reason. Step one and two must be completed thoroughly before moving on to step three. (This is far more important where a relationship is in crisis or sustained conflict, but is also a useful general principle). The reason is this. Any relationship that is approached from a purely transactional perspective, the age old ‘give-and-take’, can degenerate into far more taking than giving. This is not to say that relationships aren’t based on the mutual satisfaction of need. However, when the focus in holding that tension of give and take slips, the relationship is heading for troubled waters.

I like this summation of the mutual tasks that belong to people in relationship. Each person has the same two tasks: Firstly, to seek out the other’s needs and fulfill them to the best of their ability. Secondly, to seek out their own needs and communicate them to the best of their ability. The primary attitude is that of seeking out the needs of the other. If both parties are doing this then there will be a substantial emphasis on giving, which diminishes the desperation to regress to a ‘taker’ mentality. These three steps emphasize this process.

Step 1: Inviting change or meeting my partners needs

This first step is marked by focusing on changing myself. The statement, “The only person I can control is myself” is active here. Since I cannot control my partner into either meeting my needs or changing, the logical place to start is to develop what I bring to the relationship. This is the practice of the primary attitude of seeking out the other’s needs. This transformation can then pour over into the relationship. It is very counter-cultural, and not an easy message to receive.

There are three questions to be asked:

  • Ask your partner what they would like to see you change, or what needs you could better satisfy in them, to build up your relationship.
  • Ask trusted friends or family what areas you could change to build up your marriage. Outside perspective can be incredibly useful – but ensure it is from people that you trust. Remember, this input is to build you both up, not break one or both of you down.
  • Ask God: Take these to God in prayer and ask for His input.

Step 2: Speaking your partners love language

Dr Gary Chapman has developed a tool called ‘the five love languages’, which is very easy to understand and to use in cultivating better relationships. It is a masterful system built from his research into the chief ways in which people give and receive love. Using it allows a very practical understanding of how best to embody the phrase “I love you”. Everyone receives love in their own way, and so it is important to know our partner’s love language so as to most effectively meet their needs.

Here are the points to follow for this step:

  • Find out your partners love language
    1. You can ask them to complete the online assessment.
    2. Alternatively, you can ‘speak’ all five of the languages to them and see which they respond to.
  • Choose to speak their love language to them so as to build up loving connection between you both.

This is not intended to be manipulative, but a sincere decision to love your spouse whether they respond or not. Manipulation, when it becomes apparent, will be deeply damaging to a relationship.

Have a look at www.5lovelanguages.com for further information.

Step 3: Requesting change or communicating my needs

Step three is simply sharing your needs with your partner and asking them to meet them. It entails detailing your needs, as suggested above in the form of a love language. There are two general categories for the application of step three. The first is within the course of the daily function of a healthy relationship. The second is when a relationship is either in crisis or a period of sustained conflict.

In the course of a discussion taking place in a more healthily functioning relationship, I recommend the following. One partner begins at step one and investigates the other’s needs. At the end of step two this partner then commits to better meeting the understood needs. Remember to use the reflective listening technique to ensure optimal connection. Step three is essentially the reversing of roles and beginning again at step one.

When a relationship is in crisis or a period of sustained conflict it is vital to sufficiently cover step one and two before moving on to step three. Recognising that the relationship requires saving, either both or one partner needs to decide to invest in this three step process. One partner may have to persevere for an extended length of time, it depends on how damaged the relationship is, before being able to move on to step three. Moving on too early can be damaging to a relationship, because it can transmit the message of manipulation.

A few practical suggestions:

  • Set a good time and space to have the conversation
    • The person requesting change should choose a neutral, safe space and time in which to have the conversation.
      • Try to avoid areas and times which may either provoke conflict or create anxiety. For example:
        • A public space, like a restaurant
        • Before supper, people get cranky when they are hungry.
        • Not straight after getting home. Some people need space to unwind after a long day.
  • Ask your spouse whether they are willing to have a conversation about your needs
    • If yes, then ask them when would be a good time to discuss this
    • If not then go back to step 1 and 2.

Here is a great clip as example of this process. Note that the facilitator focuses primarily on what the husband can do to identify his wife’s needs; identify where he has not been fulfilling them; and plan how to better meet them.

Also note, that the end of the clip can sound as though this process is meant as a manipulation to get what the husband wants. Let me state clearly, relationship is not about manipulation – we do not love our partner so that they will love us. We love them for their sake. This is where the teachings of Jesus are an important foundation, that of loving others regardless of whether they change or respond. This requires more unpacking than is available here, but is worth noting.

Part 4 in this blog series is coming soon!

Watch this space.