a couple laying in bed and holding their phones

How to Get Comfortable Asking for What You Need in a Relationship

By Erica Patino
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
March 21, 2024

When you’ve had a rough day, you may want nothing more than to have your partner fix dinner, rub your back, and ask how you’re doing. So, why are they just going about their usual routine?

You may think your partner should just know what to do in a situation without you saying a word, but expecting them to be a mind reader isn’t realistic. “The opposite side of the dynamic is for someone to assume that they can read their partner’s mind and to make false assumptions in doing so,” says Jason Powell, L.M.F.T., who practices in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Either scenario can lead to miscommunication, disappointment, hurt, and conflict.”

How to Ask Your Partner for What You Want

If you’ve become more and more frustrated because your partner never seems to just know exactly what to do or say to make you happy in the moment, here are some tips for making your needs known in ways that can help strengthen your relationship.

Pinpoint Your Frustrations

Many people simply want to feel respected and seen in a relationship. “The focus here needs to be more on the feeling and less about the action,” says Melissa Klass, L.M.F.T., who practices in Santa Monica, California. “If you can tap into how you feel, you might be able to get your need met, but if you focus on an action, you may not feel the way you thought you would, because it’s meeting the wrong need.”

“Underneath every frustration is an unmet need,” says Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, founder of the Marriage Restoration Project in Baltimore. Instead of hurling accusations at your partner, like “You never spend time with me,” think about what’s really upsetting you. It could be simply that you miss their company. Reframing the gripe as a request (“I love doing things together; can we spend a quiet night at home together?”) is a way to give voice to your needs without sounding argumentative. “It’s all about intentionality,” Slatkin says.

Be Solutions-Oriented

“People want to make their partners happy,” says Heather Tahler, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist based in Portland, Oregon. The problem is that they might not know exactly how. When asking for what you want, be specific. Instead of telling your partner you want them to help more around the house, Tahler suggests that if you “say, ‘Hey, when I’m really stressed and you do the dishes after I cook, it feels really awesome,’ your partner is more likely to follow up because they know exactly what to do for you.”

Talk About “I” Instead of “You”

Instead of tossing absolute language (“You never help with the kids”) around like lit dynamite, put the focus on what you want and what you’re feeling. “You can’t really argue with someone’s experience,” Slatkin says. You could rephrase this as, “I feel worn out from taking care of the kids, and I would love for you to pick them up from their soccer practice on Wednesdays.”

Make an Appointment

If something major comes up, it’s good to address it with your partner right away. But if it’s not as urgent, it can be good to schedule a time to talk so you can both come to the conversation prepared and calm. This might be before work in the morning or after the kids go to bed. “That takes out 50% of the potential reactivity and defensiveness,” Slatkin says.

At these scheduled check-ins, talk about what you’re experiencing, what’s working, and what feels disconnected. These can be quick discussions that lead to more in-depth conversations when warranted, Powell says. Your check-ins can be daily, weekly, or whatever frequency works for you both. The more regular your check-ins, the easier you'll find it to talk about touchy subjects.

Try the TEAM Approach

Tahler suggests trying the following approach for check-ins:

  • Touch: Hold your partner’s hand or touch affectionately in the way you and your partner enjoy.
  • Education: Share something that you learned about yourself or your relationship, such as, “I found that I feel happier when we go out for an afternoon walk.”
  • Appreciation: Talk about something your partner did that you appreciate, such as, “When you kissed my neck this morning, I really loved it.”
  • Metrics: Bring up something that’s bothering you, or something you need from your partner, like, “I would really appreciate it if you cooked dinner two nights next week.”

One partner can go through the whole TEAM approach before the other partner has their turn, or you can take turns going through T together, then E, and so on.

Consider Your Partner’s Needs

Don’t forget to ask your partner about their wants and needs. “Be specific in telling your partner why their needs matter to you,” Powell says. “Express that it’s important to show up for them because of the value you place on their happiness, and on them, as both an individual and partner.”

Talk to an Expert

If you grew up feeling like your wants and needs didn’t matter, as an adult it can be hard to dig in and connect to what it is you desire. Talking to a therapist can help. “If it’s something that’s a continuous struggle, it might be helpful to talk to someone and really sort out ‘What do I want? What am I looking for? What makes me irritable?’ and be able to have a clearer answer to those questions,” Tahler says.

Similarly, if communication with your partner is strained, you may both benefit from couples counseling. As Slatkin says, “You can learn tools that are going to help you empower yourself to share your feelings in a safe way, without blaming or shaming the other person.”

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