Helping them change their marriage was like untangling a ball of yarn that had been played with by a mischievous cat for a very long time.”Napier & Whitaker — The Family Crucible
In 1943, American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, published a paper entitled, “A Theory of Human Motivation”. In it he described a hierarchy of five needs (Physiological, Safety, Social, Esteem, and Self Actualisation). His model necessitated individuals satisfy lower needs before attending to needs higher up. Over the years, Maslow’s hierarchy has created countless spin-off applications, especially in the business management and marketing realms.
Inspired by Maslow’s construct, but wanting another tool I could use in the counseling office to help married couples make sense of where they were presenting in their relationship, I developed “Robert’s (mostly tongue in cheek) Hierarchy of Marital Needs”.
Like Maslow’s model, mine has five tiers. And like Maslow’s, lower needs ought to be satisfied before fully pursuing those next up. That’s where the similarities end.
Unlike Maslow’s focus on the individual, my model applies exclusively to the interpersonal and gender-specific relationship between a husband and his wife within marriage. Warning: it does not apply to singles who are cohabitating.
I must also underline this model was fashioned for my own private purposes, and based upon my own experiences — never intending to put it “out there”. I am a practitioner, not a research scientist, so it may have limited application to other clinicians. Like any tool, it’s just one small piece of the puzzle and certainly not sufficient or prescriptive in and of itself.
For my married readers, however, this model might help to put a few things in perspective.
Here’s what it looks like, with brief notes to follow on each level. Marital satisfaction increases as each higher need is met. Works from the bottom up …
1 Trust & Commitment
The most foundational need(s). Spouses who trust each other, and who are individually trustworthy, are protective of their relationship, placing the long-term success of their marriage before all other human relationships and activities. When one’s base is secure, one can venture out, taking risks in other areas of life.
2 Physical Availability
Spouses make themselves present and available to each other, and are willing to invest time, energy and creativity to grow their relationship. Close companionship grow best in proximity. Physical distance and significant absences work against a marriage, even if they are economically-driven.
3 Sensitive Responsiveness
Spouses listen with sensitivity and respond with tenderness to each other’s words. Doing so increases safety, and strengthens the marital bond. This need is particularly important when conflict inevitably happens, or when needs, preferences or feelings are expressed by one spouse. Just as sensitive responsiveness increases emotional safety, a lack of it inhibits intimacy above it.
4 Emotional Connectedness
Spouses are open and vulnerable with each other about their primary feelings, knowing it is now safe to do so, in order to increase understanding and ultimately emotional connectedness. Satisfying this level of needs does more than any other to strengthen the marital bond.
5 Sexual Mutuality
The dénouement of marriage. Icing on the cake. Spouses are gentle, curious, sensitive and open with each other about their respective sexual desires and preferences, while adopting an others-focused mentality in the bedroom.
Parting Thoughts …
- At what level do you sense your marriage is currently?
- What level do you want to achieve, and how quickly? For some couples, it takes years and even decades to work through two or three levels, but it’s a worthwhile climb.
- If you currently feel “stuck” at one level, does this hierarchy help to make sense of what other work might need to be done?
- Our culture wrongly makes sexual mutuality (level 5) foundational, yet makes trust and commitment (level 1) optional, effectively turning this pyramid upside down. Is it any wonder our culture has no idea what a successful and God-honouring relationship even looks like?
- It’s common in marriage, especially for husbands, to be physically present but emotionally unavailable (level 4), yet (because of their unique biochemistry) men tend to have higher sexual desires (level 5). Can you see how these two needs create an ongoing relational tension when a wife yearns first for emotional connection?
- Regardless of what level a couple worked on previously, adultery and pornography sever trust. Like the game of “Snakes (Shutes in the U.S.) & Ladders”, these moral failings immediately send husbands and wives tumbling back down to square one. If they choose to pursue healing following sincere repentance by the perpetrator, initial steps must focus on restoring trust.
- This model assumes that both husband and wife are mentally and emotionally healthy, or at least moving towards genuine healing with the help of competent therapy.
- This model also assumes that the husband and wife are spiritually compatible — sharing the same faith, worldview and its resulting values.
I welcome your comments.
Blessings on your home,
© Robert Partington, 2022. No part of this website (peaceinthehome.com) may be reproduced in whole or in part without the express written permission of the author.