Three hidden needs that control our relationships

July 29, 2014

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From our friends to our lovers, there are always imbalances in a relationship. William Schutz has a theory about why. He breaks it down into three things that determine how you pick your social networks, how well you click with people and whether or not things fall apart.

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This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.


In 1966, William Schutz observed that people seemed to be driven by three major things in the formation of their relationships and social circles. According to Schutz, these not only dictate how important forming relationships are, but also the kind of relationships we form. Most importantly, they affect how the relationship pans out. What are they? Well:

  • The need for Belonging
  • The need for Affection
  • The need for Control

The need for Belonging

The need for belonging refers to a deep-seated human drive to be associated with other people. It's quite important to us to have some kind of community around us. In fact, loneliness is emerging as one of the single greatest threats to human health, both mentally and physically.

According to Schutz, to fulfil this need, we require a certain amount of connections. These connections must also be of a certain quality. We will be driven to connect until those connections and their quality fulfil us with a satisfactory sense of a social network. This drive for numbers comes from an unconscious realisation that no single connection can necessarily relied on in isolation. We must have some sort of group in case an important connection closes for whatever reason: a fight; a move; a death. Many people have experienced the loneliness felt after a close friend or partner has moved out of your life. At these times, it isn;t uncommon for a realisation to emerge that in the intervening time, one has let a lot of other connections slide. This is particularly true of men in monogamous relationships, who often fail to diversify their connections outside of their relationships. Our drive for connections stems from an unsconscious acknowledgement of this likelihood.

There is no doubt that a sense of belonging is crucial. When someone feels like they belong, they think faster and better, are happier and are physiologically healthier. A lack of a sense of inclusion is closely related to depression and if one consistently fails to connect, then it is not uncommon to see them withdraw entirely from social life, believing they are socially inept. This then leads to more social failures and it becomes something of a vicious cycle.

Thus, the need for belonging injects itself into our relational interactions, guiding us to reach out more or less depending on the number and quality of our connections. Speaking of quality, let's move on to...

The need for Affection

Schutz refers to the need for quality connections as the need for Affection. He intimates that we have a desire to be liked and have a sense of psychological closeness, and it is through quality relationships that this need for close bonds is fulfilled. Quality relationships are those characterised by warmth and are expressed with generally non-verbal cues; touching, orienting one’s body towards the other, standing close, and so on.

These sorts of cues fill our need for affection and are extremely important for relationships. These cues help people to become more confident about other relationships and make them build healthier relationships in the future. If one lacks relationships that provide these cues, they may end up creating dysfunctional relationships in the future; consider the stereotypical ‘clingy person’. Or perhaps they may start to develop a fear of affection which will eventually stop them from forming affectionate relationships; the ‘cold’ people. As we've talked about in other articles, this can happen as early as infancy. Once this process begins, it can be difficult to change patterns of behaviour.

Physical affection and warmth are also super important for our physical health.

So far, so sensible. But it is the third drive that Schutz describes which is most attention-grabbing.

The need for Control

Schutz noticed that in addition to certain number and quality of relationships, all people desire to have some kind of influence over our relationships. This might be in the form of relationship creation (i.e. how close we allow people to get), or in the form of controlling the development of formed relationships (i.e. how quickly we accelerate things).

If we lack this sense of control, we experience a sense of being taken for granted which can lead to feelings of hurt and humiliation. It can appear to us to be a violation of our relationship expectations, how we expect to be treated by our friends and partners. As such, this need for control can be very problematic for us when we’re trying to make and maintain relationships. Wanting too much control can make us undesirable to be in a relationship with but not having enough will make us unhappy. It can often be hard to find the balance.

Understanding the things we do to gain control in relationships can help us find that balance and maintain stable and happy relationships and Schutz and his colleagues categorised them nicely into two groups.

Control behaviours one: dominance behaviours

To show our dominance, we tend to do things that make us appear bigger. We’ll sprawl in our seats, take up more space, use big hand gestures and the like. We’ll wear clothing and accessories that make us seem bigger; stripes, boots, hats and high heels. We also tend to try to dominate conversations. We’ll talk longer and more elaborately (sometimes unnecessarily), we’ll interrupt or speak loudly. This is all because these things help us take control of the conversation; generally people don’t want to fight this sort of thing and will allow it to happen. Interestingly, the higher status people are, the more they display these characteristics. It's not yet clear as to whether their dominance behaviours were the key to their status, or a result of it.

Control behaviours two: relational Behaviours

Relational behaviours are typically more underhanded than dominance behaviours. This is because we more often engage in these if we feel we are not in control or are losing control. We might hide how good we are at something, so later we can show it off unexpectedly. We might ‘over-help’: taking over a task from someone when they just wanted some pointers. Funnily enough, in cases like this, the person trying to control the situation will often resent this; they’ll feel victimised even though they were the one who exerted their control.

Another relational control behaviour is unnecessary granting permission, in which one party declares they are going to do something and the other grants permission (even though it was unwarranted). The classic example would be someone informing their partner they won't be home for dinner, and the partner responding by granting permission even though it was never up for discussion. This gives the illusion that the only reason the first party can do the activity is because the other permitted it: forcing ownership of the situation from one to the other.

Relational behaviours are more often used by women, than men, as women can often approach relationships with the idea that they automatically have less control; a result of very unfortunate socialisation by our culture. That said, these are common in men too. Man-splaining is a protoypical example, although there is a question as to whether in the case of men the underlying drive is more dominance-based.

Tying it all together

Not all people need the same amount of belonging, affection and control. For example, men often need more control, whilst women often prefer more affection. These needs also differ throughout our lives. Teenagers and older generations feel the need for more belonging and more control than our younger and middle years. In teenagers, this comes from their dual concerns of adolescent status jockeying and individualising from authority figures: two common developmental preoccupations.

For the elderly it is because the older we get, the smaller our network. Also, the elderly are experiencing a similar need for individuation. They feel independent but are increasingly reliant on the help of others.

In contrast, in our middle age, we generally seek more affection; we’ve typically worked out how to get our control and form relationships, so affection is all that remains.

Of course these things also change within relationships and very much affect the quality of our connections. If people have the same level of needs, it works out wonderfully. If there are opposing levels of needs then things can become distressing. If these needs continue to be at a mismatch, it can end the relationship. If the relationship ends due to a lack of met needs, it could lead to an even worse relational decision; seeking another relationship too quickly to fill the gap. This is often characteristic of our 'rebounds', and is a common reason rebounds are unsuccessful. Rebounding is a frequent outcome of unmet inclusion and affection needs. Without these, we may try to pull people into our lives that may not offer us much value otherwise. If our inclusion and affection needs are met, we tend to be more picky about who we include in our social circles.

That said, a mismatch may be necessary. A person with a low need for control paired with a person with a higher one can be most satisfactory to both. Unless, over time the balance shifts, in which case it might constitute a relationship violation, with less ideal outcomes.

In sum, these three relational needs—belonging, affection, and control—have a powerful influence over the ways we interact with others. The tug of these needs determines the outcomes of our friendships and our lovers. Neglect them at your peril.

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