The Relationship Needs Circle: A Way to Understand and Improve Bad Relationship Behavior

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Does your spouse consistently nag, disengage, avoid, micromanage, or do something of that nature? If so, I suspect you have tried several things to get them to stop. But have you ever stopped to consider why they keep doing it? The main point of this article is to help you become more aware of why people do some of the things they do and to learn to respond more compassionately to these behaviors. This article is a bit longer than usual, so if you are short on time we've abbreviated the description of the Relationship Needs Circle in a video here. You can always come back for more if you need to.

Since I started teaching and doing therapy, I've received feedback that the Relationship Needs Circle is one of the most useful insights for students and clients. This framework has changed the way I look at annoying behavior in my children, my spouse, my friends, strangers, and myself. Although I may present them in a way you haven’t seen before, the ideas I will share are not new and have foundations in both theory and research. Along with this article, I’ve also created a video that describes the Relationship Needs Circle in a meaningful way. I hope the visuals will make these ideas easy to understand. Before I jump right into the Relationship Needs Circle, let me provide a little context.

Bad Behavior in Relationships is Annoying But Normal
In every marriage, there will be times when bad behavior surfaces. Unfortunately, bad relationship behavior is a staple in many marriages, which is why I classify it as a common cold of marriage. At some point in the marriage, typically early on, bad relationship behavior begins to surface and often becomes the source of a lot of conflict. These behaviors often contribute to a decline in our loving feelings (check out our article about what to do if you fall out of love). Bad relationship behavior is different from other annoying behaviors; such as not doing the dishes or putting on the toilet paper roll the wrong way. While any annoying behavior can cause a little headache in a marriage (ask my wife about my bad dish habit), bad relationship behaviors are much more damaging. 

Unhelpful Things We Do in Marriage
What are some common relationship behaviors that can damage your marriage? Here is a list to get you started:
  • Yelling
  • Criticisms
  • Nagging, badgering, or nit-picking
  • Being disagreeable
  • Passive-aggressiveness, such as giving the silent treatment
  • Withholding love or physical affection 
  • Avoidance in its many forms, such as being emotionally disengaged or intentionally distracted 
  • Micromanaging and other efforts to control people
  • Lying
  • Defensiveness
    Now it is normal to fall into these behaviors on occasion, hopefully infrequently. However, just because something is normal, doesn’t mean it is helpful. In fact, if any of these behaviors become persistent in your marriage, it can escalate your marriage from a common cold to something more serious. And if that’s not enough, these behaviors are really annoying. So naturally, we do our best to help our partner change.

    What you are doing to “help” your partner change is not working. It’s making things worse.
    What is the natural response to getting your partner to stop nagging or avoiding conversations with you? For many people, it is to employ another bad behavior on our Top 10 list above. She nags, so he checks out. He checks out, so she keeps nagging. She lies, so he badgers her for the truth; but because he badgers her for the truth, she keeps lying! Sounds helpful, doesn’t it? Some couples will follow patterns like this for years, all the while their marital friendship and loving feelings are suffering.  For now, we aren’t going to tackle the foolishness of trying to change your partner (we discuss that in another article); instead, we are going to focus on the why behind bad relationship behavior and how we can overcome it.

    The Why Behind Bad Behavior
    Most often, bad relationship behavior springs from deep and unmet needs. This is not to say that bad relationship behavior is excusable. It’s not. But the reality is that unmet needs make it more difficult to make good choices. Whether we realize it or not, we all strive to have these needs met. It's part of human nature. Here is a list of emotional needs that, if unmet, are likely to motivate poor relationship choices: 
    • Security
    • Love and connection
    • Autonomy (the ability to choose for yourself and not be controlled)
    • Respect
    • Belonging
    • Competence 
    • Progress
    • Acceptance 
    The Relationship Needs Circle
    When these needs go unmet, they increase certain emotions. Initially, they trigger what we call primary emotions, such as fear, shame, hurt, disappointment, and loneliness.  These emotions are deep and often go unrecognized.  They are more vulnerable emotions that are more difficult to talk about. We tend to either be unaware of these emotions or ignore them altogether. One reason we ignore these deeper emotions is that they trigger more reactive emotions that are much easier to identify. These are called secondary emotions. The most common secondary emotions that I have seen in family relationships are anger and anxiety. These emotions lead directly to the bad relationship behaviors we mentioned above. The Relationship Needs Circle can help us visualize this process. Here is a little video to help explain the Relationship Needs Circle:

    Here is the Relationship Need Circle in a single image:

    A Disclaimer on Needs
    The Relationship Needs Circle should be used to better understand bad behavior and become more compassionate, NOT as a means to justify our poor choices. Nothing justifies our bad relationship behavior. We can choose to act in accordance with our best selves, with who we really want to be. We don’t have to cave into the primary and secondary emotions that come because needs are not met.  In the therapy world, we call this capacity to act for ourselves differentiation. Someone who is well-differentiated can stay rational and keep a level head in the face of very intense emotions. This is really hard work, but it is something we should all strive for. If you struggle managing your emotions when you are confronted with conflict or unmet needs (which is most of us), I encourage you to start by clearly defining (as in writing down in detail) who you would like to be in those circumstances. This will give our minds something to hold on to when our emotions threaten to take us away.

    In addition, we have a responsibility to strive to meet our own needs. This doesn’t mean that we can’t rely on others and work together to have our needs met, but whenever you work with imperfect people you are bound to be let down. As a religious person, I believe that we can have all of our significant needs met (at least in part) through a deep and abiding relationship with God. (Side note: I also believe God uses other people to help meet our needs.) Through our relationship with God, we can become more comfortable in our own skin, feel more accepted and secure, and get a sense that we are progressing in life. However, whether you believe in God or not, we need to develop realistic expectations for what other people can do for us.  Sure, we can and should learn to appropriately rely upon others, but we should never develop an attitude of entitlement. This will only hurt our relationships.  

    5 Steps To Help Eliminate Bad Behavior
    In reality, it’s not likely that we will eliminate all bad relationship behavior. We are humans and will continue to make all sorts of mistakes. However, there are specific things we can do to actually help our partner overcome their bad relationship habits, rather than feeding them with our own bad behavior.

    First, remember that you cannot change other people; you can only influence them. This is a painful truth to learn, but the sooner we learn it, the better off we will be. When we try to change others, we lose our ability to have a positive influence on them.

    Second, respond to the need, don't react to the bad behavior. When bad relationship behavior bothers you, consider the Relationship Needs Circle and imagine what might be going on underneath the surface. Then respond to the need, not the behavior. When your wife nags, don't react to the nagging. What is motivating her anxiety? When your husband withdraws, don't react to the withdrawal. What is motivating his anger (or anxiety)? This doesn’t mean that we will always ignore the behavior; we may need to discuss it at some point. However, you’ll find better success resolving your concerns when you focus on what is motivating the behavior, rather than the behavior itself.

    Third, identify the things you should stop doing, apologize for doing those things, and strive to be better. Ask yourself this question: “Are there small and simple things that I do that make it harder for my partner to feel secure, accepted, loved, respected, or competent? Are there things I do to try and control my spouse?” Once you’ve identified some specific things, say you are sorry for doing those things and commit to changing those bad habits.

    Fourth, identify something small and simple that, if done over time, would increase feelings of security, acceptance, love, respect, autonomy, and progression. The best way to determine what would be most helpful is to ask. I would encourage you to ask your partner what you can do to send a message of acceptance (or security, love, etc.). For those who pray, and perhaps even for those who don’t, I encourage you to ask God what you can do to help meet the needs of your spouse. I have found this to be particularly helpful. But just in case you are stuck, let me give you some examples that may be helpful:
    • Set aside time each day just to listen to your partner, without judgement or fixing
    • Initiate non-sexual physical touch at least once a day   
    • Say “I love you” in a meaningful way every day (to keep this meaningful, it can be helpful to mention specific things you love about him or her)   
    • Put your smartphone away for at least a couple hours each day
    • Hide simple love notes for your spouse around the house
    • Choose to serve your spouse daily in a small way, such as rubbing their feet, taking over the kid duties for the evening, or doing something around the house that your spouse typically does
    • Once a day, ask your spouse what would be the most meaningful thing you could do for them that day

    These are just examples, but they may at least get you started. It will be most powerful to come up with something more tailored to your relationship.

    Lastly, remember that needs are not met in a day, so be patient and persistent. Although security, respect, acceptance, progress, and love can be lost very quickly, meeting needs take consistent effort over time. Bad relationship behavior is not eliminated in a day, even if both of you are trying to eliminate it.  It takes a commitment to do the small and simple things, day in and day out.  If we commit to doing something to send the message of acceptance (or security, love, etc.), but give up after only a few short weeks or months, we are not likely to experience the fruits of your labor. We reap what we sow. Only those who are committed for the long haul reap the rewards that can be had in marriage.

    Remember: before you react to bad behavior, ask yourself what is going on underneath. Otherwise, you are likely to make things worse even if you think you are being helpful.

    Do you know someone who could benefit from understanding the Relationship Needs Circle? Take a moment to share this with them via social media!

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    1. I think this is a great article. If any one wants more information on meeting their spouses needs, I recommend the book "His Needs, Her Needs" by Willard F. Harley.

      1. We are so glad you found this article helpful! Thank you for sharing the book recommendation with us and our readers (:

    2. I love this article. Being a good spouse does take a lot of work and intentional thinking. Thanks for sharing the insights found here!

      1. Thank you for reading, Suzanne! The best things truly do take intentionality and investment. Thanks again for reading!

    3. Who is the author of this article?

      1. Agree with the question - who is the author ? Please.

      2. It has Dr. Cole Ratcliffes' picture at the bottom so I assume it was written by Dr. Ratcliffe.

      3. Unknown and Kevin, Unknown is correct. Dr. Cole Ratcliffe is the author of this article. Thanks for your question and your feedback! We will look into changing our formatting to make the author as well as published date more readily found.

    4. Adding to this it is an excellent article and I am sharing it with many others on a personal level, but would like to add the author to this. I am currently saying it is from BYUido

      1. Kevin, thank you for your feedback and insights here! We are so grateful to know that you found value here and are considering sharing that with others. Dr. Cole Ratcliffe is the author of this article. I'm going to look into changing the formatting to make that information more accessible in the future.

    5. I love this article because it has really encouraged me to continue rendering my fatherly assistance to my wife in those house chores I thought never count. This is an eye opener

    6. I love this article, at this moment this article touched my heart to know how to improve the relationship I have with my adolescent son. Thanks so much. You are an angel, you are the person that the God has put in my path to bless the lives of others and my own.


    We are excited to hear your insights or questions!