The 5 Things We’re All Fighting for in Marriage

Marriage and Conflict

Photo Credit: Leo Grubler (Creative Commons)

My son was two years old when he became terrified of bees. We were at a neighborhood playground when he discovered a hornets’ nest.

The hard way.

Aidan put his hand down on a joint in the metal piping and disturbed the hive nestled within. He ended up with his first bee sting on the tip of his nose—he howled and the tears flowed and he looked like an out-of-season Rudolph.

In the seven years since that day, we’ve been careful to model calm and courage around bees on every possible occasion. When a bee finds its way inside the home, we find a glass from the kitchen, trap it beneath, and then release it again into the wild. But no matter how many times we model fearlessness for him, his fear remains.

What a Bee Sting Can Teach Us About Marriage

When I was a young marital-therapist-in-training, I expected all of the couples in my office to tell me their parents had horrible, high-conflict marriages. I expected tales of viciousness and combat. I expected the partners to be replicating patterns of dysfunction that they had observed.

I was wrong.

Many of the couples I see in therapy report their parents had excellent marriages. They come to therapy confused, wondering why they can’t simply replicate the example set by their parents. As a beginning therapist, I was confused, too.

Until I realized, we’re all like kids stung by a bee.

Many of us have observed parental examples of a functional marriage. But the relationship we observe between our parents is simply not as powerful as the relationship we experience with our parents. If one of them is constantly stinging us like a bee, it won’t matter how many times we watch them harmoniously handle the sting of their own relationship. 

For instance, many partners in a crumbling marriage will report their parents were best friendsThe problem is, their parents were such close companions that the kids felt like outsiders, as if they had no place to belong. And now they have carried that emotional wound into the marriage and they are seeking desperately a place to call home.

Our emotions trump our observations ten times out of ten.

Which means the great question of marriage is not: how can I act—or not act—like my parents did in their marriage? The great question is this: what emotional needs did my parents leave me with as a child, and how am I trying to get those needs met in my marriage today?

The Five Core Relationship Needs

According to my dissertation research,* we all enter into marriage with at least one of five core emotional needs. Of the two hundred spouses in my dissertation study, every single one expressed a basic need in at least one of these five areas:

  1. Connectedness. The desire to feel emotionally connected, engaged, and intimate with our partner. The form of the desired connection may differ across partners. That is, one partner may prefer a quiet cup off coffee with no words spoken, while another partner prefers an intense debate about politics and faith, or holding hands while watching a television show, or intimate expressions of both verbal and physical affection. But regardless of the method, the desire is for our partner to join us and to connect.
  2. Priority. The desire to feel like our partner has made us their top priority.  Oftentimes, fights about the kids, jobs, in-laws, friends, and leisure interests boil down to a desperate plea for this one experience: “Please stop putting everything else first and prioritize me for a change.”
  3. Affirmation. The desire to be accepted and validated for who we are right now, not for what we do or who our partner wants us to become. Many of us are walking through life starving for this kind of affirmation, and we want our partners to be the most trustworthy dispenser of encouragement and acceptance.
  4. Equality. The desire to have equal influence and control in our relationship. Our dignity and worth are affirmed when we are given equal share in decision-making, family planning, and life trajectory. This need often underlies seemingly trivial, yet vicious, quibbles about which route to take to a destination, spending choices, the dinner menu, or what the kids should wear on a cold day.
  5. Freedom. The desire to retain an independent identity within the marriage. In many wedding ceremonies, when the unity candle is lit, the two individual candles are left to burn on, symbolizing that two are becoming one, yet remaining two. For many partners, there exists a deep need to feel as if they remain a sovereign individual. It does not represent lack of commitment to the marriage necessarily. In fact, the freedom to remain oneself can actually deepens one’s ability to be connected.

Ask the Great Question

Until we can be honest with ourselves and with our partners—confessing our unspoken wounds and the relational needs they gave birth to—our marital conflict will seem bottomless and we will shake our heads wondering why nothing ever gets resolved. Or worse, we will exist in a perfect marriage with pristine communication and wonder why we still feel such a deep aching loneliness.

What are your unspoken needs? And how can you bring them into the light? Perhaps it’s time for you to ask the great question of marriage. And maybe, just maybe, it will transform your marriage into something unquestionably great.

Questions: Do you identify with one of the five needs above? Has expressing it in your marriage had a positive impact? Share your story in the comments section at the bottom of this post.


Dear Reader, My new eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is now available. There are two ways to get a copy. First, new blog subscribers will receive a free PDF copy. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your subscription confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Second, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook. As always, thank you for reading; it really is a gift. Sincerely, Kelly

Preview: This Friday’s post will be entitled, “The Surprising Secret to Finding Your True Self”

DisclaimerThis post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association website.

*The dissertation included a review of three decades of literature and observation of one-hundred couples engaging in a total of two hundred marital conflict interactions. It’s important to note, I passed my dissertation defense with flying colors (woo-hoo!), but the study was never published (ugh!), so it has not been subject to stringent peer review.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Jennifer Newell

    Well first let me say I have never thought of my marriage in terms of stings from my
    childhood affecting my marriage in this way. Then I read this and got to the list of 5; I was looking for the option of all of the above. Seriously though, I would say each of these areas matter to me, but not all of them to the same degree. The other thing I
    would mention is as example, I don’t need to be a priority all of the time but when things get a little bit crazy around our house, I guess that is when I need to know I will take precedence. I guess the same is true with connectedness; yes it is something I want more of in my marriage but that does not mean I want to be together 24/7 either. I guess the trick to this is to have a way to let your spouse know when you need this and when you don’t. I find this very thought-provoking and I will need more time to digest this. It really stops you dead in your tracks; examining what your motivations could be for the expectations you brought into your marriage.

    I guess if I were to pick one that I identify most with it would be priority. I know sometimes when we are discussing the kids, I will tell my husband, you are supposed to be on my side. He usually says I am on your side; I am trying to save you from yourself. He has the ability to show more Grace and give us all more benefits of the doubt than we deserve. I think when you are in tune with each other you start to understand when one of you says; hey you want to go out on a date this weekend?
    You can determine if that means make me a priority and spend time with me, or hey we have nothing on the calendar and maybe we can do something. In one case, you want to be the first choice in the other it is not a big deal if you stay home with the kids. In my case, I usually phrase it differently. I will call up my husband and tell him I think I need to go on a date this weekend. Something as little as the way you say it can be the indication that you want to be the priority. This only works if you have talked about how you will let the other person know what you are thinking. For us having had many discussions around needs and wants just using the need verses want is an indication to him that I am saying I need some time alone with him. I think it is like a dance, you can learn the steps but you have practice many times before you work in unison and dance beautifully together. It is not to say you won’t still step on each other’s toes. However, when you get the steps right it can be such a magnificently wonderful dance.

    I forwarded this to my husband, when I got home we had a good time talking about this while we cooked dinner. We even talked to our kids to ask them their thoughts on
    this. The funniest part was when my husband on the first try was able to put them in priority order for me. Thanks for giving me something to share with my husband and providing a way for us to talk about this. He really enjoyed this and said you were easy to read and looks forward to the next post on Friday.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I think it’s fantastic that he could put yours in order! What an incredible validation that he sees you and knows you. And you’re not alone in having more than one–the vast majority of spouses in the study had more than one. Thanks as always for sharing, Jennifer.

  • The Bride

    All of them for me! And I can see that the reason I’ve been having a hard time in my marriage is that I feel that I am not getting any of them at least to the extend that I did at the start of my marriage.

    The last one resonated with in in particular. I just did a post on money in marraige (http://thebluebride.wordpress.com/2013/01/13/money-matters/) and then reading your post, the last point made me think that maybe my husband and I just people who value that kind of autonomy and therefore we need the financial autonomy too. If you ever do a post on money and marriage, I’d be very interested.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Hello! I’ll look forward to reading your post! Although this isn’t always the case, in my clinical practice, it seems that the power and control issues associated with the Equality need are often at the root of disputes about money. It makes me think it might be worth doing a separate post on each one of the needs!

      • Jennifer Newell

        Now you are talking…I will look forward to the separate post on each of these…or your next ebook?

  • Shiz Crazyfeet Wachira

    i cant believe you would like a post like this just just yesterday i was thinking how i want and need to feel more connected with my husband..this is we are very close but i always want more and like jeniffer not neccesarily being together all the time..wondered if should pray about it and for a second wondered why that need is sooo deep in my life…

    • Jennifer Newell

      Shiz I am all for praying about everything it never hurts. But wanting to be connected to someone isn’t a bad thing. Since you do spend time with your husband already perhaps you need to look at the ways you connect. I know for me that sometimes a 10 minute conversation on the phone with my husband during lunch I will feel more connected then trying to have a conversation in the evening with the kids in the mix. Not all of the experience are equal. If you can figure out which mean more to you then you can focus on those. Just my 2 cents.

  • Cherrie Dudash

    I’m not married, but my bf and I are talking about it and what I’m finding so great is that we are discussing these issues BEFORE we take our vows. I subscribe to Dr. Flanagan’s blog and inevitably I will say, “Did you see Dr. Kelly’s blog today?” Then we discuss whatever the issue of the day had been. This is a great ‘test’ to see if we’re always on the same page relationship-wise. So far we’re doing really well.
    I just want to thank you Dr. Flanagan for the insight into what it really takes to have and keep a marriage on solid ground.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You are quite welcome, Cherrie! Such a blessing to hear that the blog is bearing fruit for you. My best to you and your boyfriend.

      • Cherrie Dudash

        Thank you!

        • drkellyflanagan

          You’re welcome, Cherrie!

  • Kortney

    I was surprised by the list of 5 and your comment that people connected to at least one; I would think all people would be looking for all 5 as they seem to go hand in hand.

    I find it really difficult to put the 5 in order for myself or my husband; but I think my number one would be priority and my husbands number one would be connectedness. I think each of us would say that once we have our number one met, the other 4 relationship needs kind of fall into place behind.

    It’s interesting to look at your relationship from the outside in in relation to these 5 items.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Great point, Kortney. I guess I should have clarified that the sample was a total of 30 minutes of discussion between the spouses, and each spouse MENTIONED at least one of these needs. That doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t have more. And like you said, we assumed the need that got mentioned the most was the primary need. Glad this gives a new perspective!

  • gunce

    I’m still recovering from the tectonic shift I experienced after reading this: ‘the relationship we observe between our parents is simply not as powerful as the relationship we experience with our parents. Of course! The problem with partners is, it takes two to tango. If one does not want to, the other can’t, either. Expressing my needs has gotten me nowhere in my marriage, and it has helped me to figure out that I do have needs.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Gunce, so glad to hear the post helped you discover your needs in relationship. I hope you find the kind of support you need to grow your marriage.