Psychology majors everywhere are familiar with Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”, which has been around since the 1940’s and one of the first things I studied as a psych major in college.
Though this model has been used for decades to explain the developmental trajectory of individuals, few have moved beyond this application and that’s what I aim to do here because it provides just as much insight into marriage and other relationships!
Read on to better understand not only what you might be missing in your marriage (and how to address this) but how to better understand your partner’s confusing signals and meet their needs in new and impactful ways.
Starting from the bottom of the pyramid, Maslow’s model suggests that people have the opportunity over the course of their lifetimes to grow into ever-expanding areas of fulfillment and contribution.
Because each of the five levels in the model is a prerequisite for the next, we only reach our full potential (in theory) by ascending the model completely and reaching the final state of “self-actualization”.
So where do we begin and what does this have to do with marriage?
In physical terms, physiological needs represent our basic requirements for survival, including food, water, warmth, rest, and shelter. If you have struggled to feed your children or keep a roof over your heads, you will relate to the fact that you can’t even begin to address other priorities until these fundamental aspects of life are taken care of completely.
For example, if you’re facing eviction or already living on the street, meeting your partner’s needs for emotional safety, respect, and belonging will be challenging. And vice versa.
Couples go into survival mode when circumstances like these arise, and rightly so. Here, as in each and every stage, the goal is to:
- work together to overcome these trials by identifying a list of options;
- reach out for support from external resources (e.g., friends, family, churches); and
- take practical steps to attain a solid living situation.
Without the ability to transcend this first level and move to the next, many couples will be torn apart or decide voluntarily that life is too hard to live it together. This is often the case when one party is more emotionally or mentally healthy and sees their partner as dragging them down into a state of constant crisis and instability. The healthy partner must eventually choose between cutting their partner loose or remaining in turmoil with no end in sight.
Once our physiological needs are met, we begin to crave comfort and consistency. In relational terms, this translates to a sense of safety and security and allows us to:
- Trust our partners
- Be vulnerable in the relationship
- Become emotionally attached
- Be financially dependent on our partners (or simply combine our finances)
- Experience a sense of permanency, even in midst of stress or challenges
If you believe your spouse doesn’t feel fully safe with you for some reason—for example, if they shut down when conflict arises—make it a point to remain aware of the ways you typically respond to their attempts to be transparent or open with you, however minor.
You can also ask your partner directly how they feel about sharing intimate or sensitive things with you and if there is something you do that prevents them from being themselves in the context of your relationship. Just be prepared to hear something difficult and do whatever you need to do to refrain from further damaging their trust by becoming angry, critical, or defensive.
If you are the one who doesn’t feel safe in your relationship, ask yourself why and if your reluctance is based on fact or feeling. For example, if your lack of trust is related to a previous relationship, extreme fears about your current partner may be unreasonable. However, if your spouse was recently unfaithful, your concerns are well-founded and it may simply take time and working with professionals like us to regain your confidence and affair-proof your marriage.
(Much of our work with couples occurs at this stage! Contact us if you’d like to learn more about how we accelerate this process and move couples through each stage of the model.)
If you are the one who needs to come out of your shell, start with sharing something small and work your way up to larger, more significant revelations if things go well. Notice how reliable and dependable your partner is and be intentional about following through on your own promises to them.
If you and your partner have already moved well beyond this stage, nurture and enjoy your partnership by reminding each other of your commitment and how you will be there through thick and thin, “for better or worse.”
NOTE: If you are suffering a lack of safety or security due to physical, emotional, or psychological abuse in your relationship, it’s urgent that you take steps to keep yourself safe. Reach out to a friend, doctor, pastor, or The National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Ascending the last two stages is when the magic starts to happen – – because this stage is where you begin to feel deeply connected to your partner and experience the assurance that you are fully and completely loved and accepted.
This state introduces the possibility of intimacy in your relationship and provides a sense that you belong to one another. Song of Solomon 6:3 says it this way: “I belong to my beloved and he belongs to me.”
In this stage, you “claim” each other socially and your friends and family recognize you as a unit. You spend much of your free time together, celebrate one another’s special days, and take co-selfies.
Keep these things in mind about love and belonging:
Remember that you are the only one who can give this special sense of love and belonging to your spouse, and if you don’t do it, rest assured that someone else will be happy to. No one loves perfectly, but not meeting your spouse’s needs for love and belonging undoubtedly puts your relationship at risk.
If your partner is complaining about random things, look beyond what you are hearing and ask if the real problem isn’t a lack of love and belonging in your relationship.
Make sure you are expressing love in the way they best “hear” or receive it. Taking a quick assessment at https://www.5lovelanguages.com will help you discover your own “love language” and that of your partner.
Conveying love and belonging means that you must fully accept your partner – – even if there are things you don’t like or agree with! (This does not apply to controlling, damaging, threatening, or abusive behavior). It means acknowledging that they may be very different from you but that you still admire them and will coexist peaceably with your differences.
This is not a “one and done” thing: you must continually express love and appreciation to your spouse and recognize their love and appreciation for you! As the rules of physics remind us: “A body in motion stays in motion”, so keep the good vibes going.
If you find yourself or your spouse struggling with safety and security in your marriage, check out Trust at Work: What (NOT) to Do When Your Husband Works for a Supermodel, where I confess some of my own insecurities and how I worked through them. In this case, these insecurities were about me as an individual and not about Mike and I as a couple but they manifested in our relationship in various ways until I dealt with them.
Because the Love and Belonging stage is wonderful and feels like a warm blanket on a snowy day, many couples stay here and never move to the next one, the Esteem stage. But remember that we’ve landed only in the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy and have two more stages to go. We will address these last two stages—Esteem and Self-Actualization—in our next blog post, so stay tuned!
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