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 friends. The 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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.