The Vicious Cycle of Unmet Needs

Hand reaching up out of the ocean in desperation

When our one-year-old developmental needs are met, we become two-year-olds. We cannot become psychologically eight until our seven-year-old needs are met. In other words, maturation is a linear process. So when certain needs go unsatisfied, we get stuck, developmentally speaking.

As we age, we learn adulty behavior — to have jobs, kids, responsibilities, and such. But when we are reminded of our chronically unmet emotional needs (triggered), we can have an emotional flashback, regressing to the state of an abandoned child who is totally devastated that, For some ungodly reason, people are STILL not attending to my fucking needs!!!

Unfortunately, operating from this place of overwhelm, fear, and desperation makes it even more difficult to get what you need. I.e., having unmet needs makes it even harder to get your needs met! This negative feedback loop fuels a tremendous amount of victimhood, despair, and hopelessness.

To further illustrate, let’s imagine you see a five-year-old having a complete meltdown at the grocery store because mommy won’t buy the cake-flavored cookie cereal. Your natural impulse may be compassion, love, understanding, and care — maybe wishing you could comfort the child, etc. However, if you see a forty-five-year-old man throwing that same tantrum, you might think, “What the hell is wrong with this psychopath? I gotta get outta here before he opens fire.”

The innate desire to comfort or nurture the child often isn’t there for fellow adults. I’ve been guilty of this myself when I’ve said things like, “He’s a grown-ass man, he better get it together.” The truth is, however, that chronological age has very little to do with emotional maturity or being “grown.”

And thus, it’s common for people to be repulsed by other adults with unmet emotional needs. Especially people who themselves are living with unmet needs.

Unmet Needs in Romantic Relationships

People date at their own emotional level. You don’t have to agree with this, believe it, or understand it any more than you do gravity. The shit is just true, whether you like it or not.

We find partners with the same amount of shame, trauma, dysfunction, emotional baggage, or unmet needs as us. Every time. Sure, we may look different on the outside (alcoholic/codependent or anxious/avoidant relationships for example), but we stay within our emotional tax bracket. I assure you.

In the early days of a romantic relationship, when your worthiness and lovability are seemingly in question, what most people do is meet the hell out of their partner’s needs! They shower them with love, attention, affection, appreciation, validation — all the things that make you feel warm and fuzzy inside — thereby convincing their partner (and themselves) that they are spousey-material, capable of long-term, healthy intimacy.

But if you were living with chronically unmet emotional needs prior to this relationship…

  1. Ya probably found a partner with the same problem, and
  2. You’re both gonna be holding those same empty cups when all that cute honeymoon shit wears off.

And when you settle back into a life of unmet needs, you’ll re-enter survival mode and necessarily become increasingly more selfish and self-centered, constitutionally incapable of compassionate giving to your partner.

Because you cannot give from an empty cup.

This is a very common predicament that leads to perpetually unresolvable conflict, recurring arguments, and a veritable cornucopia of resentment, criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and avoidance. Two empty cups trying to fill each other up and blaming one another when it doesn’t work out.

Many a marriage crumble in such a fashion.

Identifying Your Unmet Needs

All children have basic emotional needs that, when consistently provided for, create a nurturing environment for healthy maturation to occur. In her book, The Emotionally Absent Mother, Jasmin Lee Cori provides a simple list of ten fundamental childhood needs and suggests that you rate the degree to which they were satisfied in your childhood using the following scale:

1 — Strongly Unfulfilled
2 — Somewhat Unfulfilled
3 — Somewhat Fulfilled
4 — Strongly Fulfilled

The needs that weren’t met back then often point to present-day problems or emotional deficits. If you grab a sticky note and a pen, you can bang this assignment out in a minute or so. Here is the list of needs:

  1. To feel that you belong somewhere and are part of the larger web of life.
  2. To attach to others in a secure way and know it is safe to be vulnerable and show your needs.
  3. To be seen for who you are and have your feelings met (mirroring).
  4. To have help and guidance that is calibrated to your needs.
  5. To receive encouragement and support, to feel that someone is behind you.
  6. To have others serve as a model for you and teach you skills that you need to succeed.
  7. To have needs met in a timely way and to be comforted and soothed when you are upset, thus establishing an ability to soothe yourself and bring your system back into balance (self-regulation).
  8. To have adequate protection so that you are safe and are not overwhelmed.
  9. To be treated in a way that communicates respect (for your boundaries, needs, feelings, etc.).
  10. To feel loved and cared for.

After scoring your childhood for each of these needs, repeat the process for your present-day self. You may be shocked (or completely unsurprised) by what you see.

Breaking The Cycle

If you’ve been living in emotional poverty for far too long, searching for “the one” who will finally satisfy those needs, I hope you now see why this isn’t really a strategy for success. People with unmet needs are attracted to other people with unmet needs. And sooner or later they both realize that neither one of them is competent to the task. So they break up and go find an identical person to do the same shit with.

If you wanna try something different, I have two suggestions for you.

Get Your Damn Needs Met

My first suggestion is, for each of the ten needs above, literally write down as many people, places, things, and activities that will contribute to satisfying that need. Don’t include hypotheticals like “My boyfriend should be able to do this for me,” if you know damn well he probably won’t. You need practical, reliable sources. As many as possible.

Then for each of those ten lists you made, start integrating as many things into your daily life as possible. With or without a partner. With or without approval, permission, acceptance, or whatever. Just get your damn needs met.

Get Help

The above suggestion is often more appealing to people because it feels empowering. But the truth is, if you suffered from childhood emotional neglect, getting those needs met was probably never modeled for you, and you may be ill-equipped to pull it off.

So my next suggestion is, as James Clear would say, “Join tribes where your desired behavior is the normal behavior.” This could mean joining CoDA or ACA, a church fellowship, meditation circle, therapeutic community, book club, men’s or women’s group, etc. It just has to be a safe place where meeting those ten needs is standard protocol. That way you don’t have to make any lists or figure any of it out yourself. You just drag your ass to that group once a week (or more) and get your cup filled.

Why Is Suggestion #2 Better Than Suggestion #1?

In my experience, that first suggestion often turns into a case of waiting for willpower to overcome a trauma response (which could be a long-ass wait). However, people with developmental trauma (chronically unmet needs) are prone to self-reliance and distrust of others. So I like to give people a chance to try and “fix it themselves.”

And when they finally realize that they’re suffering from relational trauma, which literally cannot be healed in isolation, they begrudgingly take my second suggestion.


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Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

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