Scientists have identified seven inherent needs that exist in our brains. How much or how little each of these needs is stimulated by ourselves and our partners can have a significant impact on the satisfaction and happiness in marriages or love relationships.
The neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp first described these needs as systems in our brains coordinating our emotional, behavioral, and physical responses related to our survival needs, such as sleep, procreation, protection, and more. In a marriage, partners differ on how much they need each area stimulated. Understanding your own needs, and those of your partner or spouse, can help you find roles together that will help you both feel more satisfied in your relationship, and in your lives.
What are these needs that stem from inherent personality traits, and how do they work? Each need originates from nerve-based circuits in the brain that connect electrochemical signals, meaning nerve cells transmit messages to each other until specific parts of your body receive the information needed to perform the behavior to get your need met.
How important are these needs? They are connected directly to your brain’s sense of survival, responsible for functions including reproduction, sleep, attaching to others, and obtaining power. You and your partner have your own comfort zone within each need that affects your own personality, and at different times in your life you may feel under-stimulated or overstimulated. The symptoms you experience when a need is out of balance may include feeling anxious, sad, angry, or shame.
Your task to help stay in a balanced zone in your relationship is to first define which needs are higher priorities, and then to learn more about your partner’s needs to see where you have similarities and differences. How you manage each other’s needs affects both your short and long-term marital satisfaction. When a need is consistently out of balance, you or your partner may feel persistent negative emotions, and may start to feel distant from each other. You may not realize that the level of distress in your love relationship may be coming from not getting your basic needs met, traits that stay relatively consistent throughout your life. You can help your relationship by learning more about these needs, and helping each other to maintain a balance in your lives, individually and as a couple.
Researchers have found that we are all pre-wired with these needs, regardless of our environment, as part of our evolutionary development. Specifically, the needs that affect you and your partner are:
1. Commander-in-Chief: responsible for coordinating functions of dominance, control, and power, especially when perceiving a threat or that you are being treated unfairly. When this need is optimized, you feel confident about the challenges in your life, and you ask for what you need. When your need is overstimulated, you may be full of anger or rage, acting aggressively; when under-stimulated, you may feel powerless and become overly passive.
2. Explorer: responsible for learning and the need for novelty and adventure in your life, you may feel most satisfied when traveling to a new destination, feeling a high sense of excitement and pleasure at discovering new things. When overstimulated, you may continue to pursue adventures, despite the consequences of being exhausted or depleted; when under-stimulated, you may feel a sense of boredom or restlessness that comes out as irritability or deflation.
3. Sensualist: responsible for sexual gratification and reproduction, producing sexual functions, erotic dreams and fantasies, sexual attraction and excitement, along with flirting, kissing, and more. In balance, the sensualist side of you feels energized and pleasurable; when overstimulated, your sexual side may lead to destructive behaviors, such as coercing others sexually, or taking sexual risks with strangers or through affairs; when under-stimulated, you may withdraw or avoid sexual contact with your partner, leading to loss and sadness.
4. Energy Czar: responsible for rest and care to maintain health. If you’re working too much without enough rest, the “energy czar” sends signals to your body to stop and rest. This need also ties in with physical aspects of food, water, and other physical needs related to your physical comfort and survival. When balanced, the energy czar helps you feel physically comfortable, allowing for optimal emotional well-being; when overstimulated, you may feel fatigued or anxious, or you may gain weight; when under-stimulated, you may experience significant health problems related to deficiencies in sleep, nutrition, exercise, and hydration, to name a few.
5. Jester: responsible for recreation, play, and diversions, this need includes entertainment, fantasies, jokes, and having fun. The jester helps you relax, and feel renewed, and is especially important in childhood. When in balance, your jester helps you feel both joy and content; when overstimulated, you may feel “wound up;” when under-stimulated, you may feel reserved, “dull,” lethargic, and sad.
6. Sentry: responsible for danger in your environment, the sentry is activated through anxiety and hypervigilance. When your sentry is well-balanced, you avoid danger, taking adequate precautions such as wearing a bike helmet or locking the door to your car; when overstimulated, the sentry floods your body with fear even when danger is not present, such as with phobias of flying or driving, or through anxiety disorders such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Social Phobia; when under-stimulated, you may not be vigilant enough, such as thrill-seekers who seem to continually “cheat death,” until they don’t.
7. Nest-Builder: responsible for nurturing and bonding behaviors, typical of parent-child relationships and romantic love relationships, your nest-builder pushes you to make new friends, join groups, and hold your child when he or she is sad. When your nest-builder is well-balanced, you feel comfort and support in your life, and feel like you belong. This is your attachment circuit activated when you experience loss as well, including death, separations, or the loss of a friend. When your nest-builder is overstimulated, you struggle with maintaining your identity and subjugate your needs to others, hoping to get approval; even small separations can make you feel quiet anxious, and how you react to your fears can impact your marriage or love relationship. When under-stimulated, your nest-builder may influence you to feel lonely and isolated, bring up anxiety and sadness. Over time, if your nest-builder is consistently under-stimulated, you most likely experience bouts of depression and higher anxiety.
In marriage therapy, I help couples to identify the range of needs each partner has, helping them understand why certain activities or events may feel so important to both partners in different ways. Each partner pinpoints which needs feel well-balanced, overstimulated, and under- stimulated. As a therapeutic team, we then help each partner improve their connection through becoming more thoughtful of what matters to both themselves, and to each other, and develop a plan to help both partners get their needs met in a balanced way. Partners can see and understand how effectively managing each partner’s needs helps lead to more satisfaction over the long-haul in a marriage or love relationship.