Balancing the Needs of Self and Others
Barbara Bowen, LCSW
As I see individuals and couples in my practice who are trying to improve
relationships, I often observe that they are having difficulties in balancing their personal needs
with the needs of the other person in the relationship. Caring about the other person's needs at
the expense of caring for our own puts the relationship out of balance, and caring for our own
needs without consideration for the other person's puts it out of balance as well. Relationships
function best when couples find a way to include both their needs and desires.
The consideration of personal needs in relationships can be seen as a continuum, where at one end
it is "all about us" and our own needs and desires, to the other end, where it is "all about the
other person" and their needs and desires. Operating at either end of the continuum on a
consistent basis leads to relationship dysfunction. Relationships can withstand the focus on one
person's needs over the other's for limited periods of time, but a relationship that consistently
values one person's needs over the other can be stuck in dysfunctional relationship and personal
patterns that lead to one or both people feeling dissatisfied. In most cases, we feel better about
the relationship and ourselves if we can find a healthy balance between self and others.
An important value of therapy is in providing the opportunity and support to assist clients in
expanding their thinking and behavior beyond their current levels of functioning. This often
includes examining options not previously considered and seeing problems in a different framework
than originally thought. Developing a healthy relationship often involves changing one's
conceptual framework from a mentality that thinks in terms of "either/or" to one that thinks in
terms of "both". Making a relationship work consistently well for both people requires that both
people's needs be continually considered so that negotiation can take place that leads to
solutions that both people in the relationship can live with. All too often, it appears that
frustration and hurt feelings, along with an "either/or" thought pattern, stops people from
working through the difficulty of negotiation to a point that reaches conclusion. Frustration with
communication and outcomes often leads to acceptance of dissatisfaction in or premature giving up
on a relationship.
In addition to providing the benefits of partnership, relationships can also be seen as a vehicle
for personal growth. People whose primary focus is on being "nice" to or "considerate" of the
other person often struggle with difficulty knowing and expressing their own needs and desires,
and in maintaining a sense of personal value. Folks who have clung to the belief that happiness
depends on getting their personal needs met can fall prey to a pattern of continually pursuing
personal accomplishments, experiences or possessions, but may complain of a nagging feeling of
dissatisfaction. In addition to leading to relationship satisfaction, learning the art of speaking
up for one's self with consideration and respect for the other person can expand each person's
repertory of behavior and increase his or her feeling of self confidence and satisfaction.
Relationships often challenge us to look at behavior patterns that we can otherwise ignore. If we
take ourselves and the other person seriously, however, we may find benefits that expand beyond
what we had previously imagined.