Sensitivities & The Needs Underneath
For Sal and Sammy the latest argument started in a seemingly benign way. Sal was returning from an afternoon with family. Sammy sees Sal come in and asks, "How was your afternoon?"
Sammy responds, "It was great. I wish you could have been there."
A dark cloud begins to form around Sal's head. Sal imagines that once again he is being criticized for not being enough and not doing it right. Once again he is getting in trouble for taking time to himself. He looks at Sammy as silent words of anger and defensiveness stack up in his mind.
Sammy sees the look on Sal's face and just for a moment feels heartbroken that the celebration he was hoping to experience isn't there. Sammy feels exhaustion and desperation rise up and explodes into an anger storm, "Now what are you reactive about?! Can't we have the smallest bit of friendliness in our relationship?! …"
After a few angry exchanges the two part ways. Each retreats to their respective comfort spots in the house.
Sal and Sammy are getting near the end of what their relationship can hold. While the trigger is always different, the underlying dynamic is the same again and again. They each have a particular need that wants extra attention in the relationship. For Sammy the need for attunement, to be seen and heard in a consistent and loving way, is on empty. For Sal the need for acceptance is unmet.
In most relationships, there is a particular need for each person that wants extra attention. This often gets called "a sensitivity". For example, Sal probably says that Sammy is sensitive to being ignored. And Sammy probably says that Sal is sensitive to criticism.
Historically, the needs underneath these sensitivities are the ones that most often went unmet in childhood. Sometimes they are associated with a traumatic or wounding experience. Because of these difficult experiences, defenses are formed around these particular needs making it even more difficult to meet them.
For example, to defend around the pain of the unmet need for attunement Sammy unconsciously wears a face of competence and self-assurance. From the outside it's hard to imagine Sammy has any needs at all. To defend around the pain of the unmet need for acceptance, Sal oscillates between going with the flow in a charming sort of way and being distant and analytical. It's hard to even get to the real Sal in order to show acceptance.
If Sammy and Sal were able to keep these needs in mind for each other in the above exchange, either could do something different to prevent the exhausting argument that followed.
Here's out it might play out differently if Sammy were keeping each their needs in mind:
Sammy is happily making his way home after the family outing and notices a twinge of sadness wishing that Sal had been there to complete a sense of family. Sammy realizes he wants Sal to connect with this poignant place of joy and sadness and remembers that this is where he and Sal so often disconnect. Despite a background sense of hopelessness, Sammy decides to make an extra effort when he sees Sal.
Sal: "How was your afternoon?"
Sammy: "It was great. Do you have a few minutes to hear about it?"
Sal: "Sure." (Sal says this as he continues doing something at his desk in the other room).
Sammy: "Great. I'd love to connect. Can we sit on the front porch?"
Sal: (Sal continues working at his desk)…
Sammy: (Sammy walks into the room with Sal) "It seems like you are busy. Would you like to talk later?"
Sal: (Sal looks up startled). "No, now is fine let's go to the porch."
Sammy: "The park was great we…. (shares highlights). I am glad you took the afternoon to do what you needed (attempting to meet a need for acceptance). I am also wondering if you can hear that I missed having you there? It's not a criticism, but just as an expression of how much I enjoy having you with us.
Here's out it might play out differently if Sal were keeping each of their needs in mind.
Sal hears Sammy getting home. Sal remembers that transitions are key times to meet needs for connection and attunement. Even though it's difficult to stop what he is doing, Sal puts his things down and opens the front door for Sammy with a smile and says, "How was your afternoon?"
"It was great. I wish you could have been there," Sammy responds.
Sal feels reactivity rising. He recognizes the feelings and sensations. This happens every time he thinks he is hearing criticism. He knows he can't prevent the look on his face, so he quickly names it, "Darn, I am getting reactive. Let me see if I can work through it and just hear you." Sal decides not to believe the story he creating about Sammy. It feels like moving a mountain, but he tries just to hear Sammy, "So, you had a great time and you wish I were there. Saying you wish I had been there, is, I am guessing, you're way of saying you enjoy having my companionship, is that it?"
Sammy looks up relieved to be heard and to experience Sal's effort to hear him. "Yes, that's it. I just love having you along. It's not meant to be a criticism. You are just so much fun to have on family outings."
Sal relaxes a little. Even though reactivity is still coursing through his body, he continues to make an effort to connect, rather than act from reactivity. He invites Sammy into connection, "Do you want to sit on the front porch and tell me about your afternoon?" Sal offers his hand.
These aren't easy practices. They require consistent mindfulness and effort for perhaps a couple of years. The beauty of it is that these practices pay off. They become new positive habits that lead to a sense of effortlessness and fulfillment in your relationship.
Take time now to reflect on your own and your partner's "sensitivities". Name the needs underneath these sensitivities. How do you intentionally going about meeting those needs for yourself and for your partner?