As a boy, saying “I love you” was never the easiest thing for me to do, probably due to the fact that I grew up in a family with four brothers and one younger sister.

My hesitation to say “I love you” didn’t change much during my dating years. In fact, the first time I uttered those words to a girlfriend was just three short weeks before I proposed to her.

From that point on, saying “I love you” gradually became easier and easier. On the other hand, showing love seemed to slowly become more difficult. To be clear, it wasn’t that my love for my wife was lessening in any way. Rather, I was on a learning curve that I didn’t see coming or even realize I was on at the time.

Thankfully, I was married to a woman who was willing to teach me. And then teach me again, and again, and again. Twenty-three years later and she’s still teaching me some things about love.

My struggle to learn how to show love wasn’t because I didn’t want to get better at it. I did. In fact, wanting to be good at it sometimes got in the way of me being able to hear or see that I wasn’t very good at it.

Looking back now, I realize that I was simply a good man struggling to be a good husband.

Those two things – a good man and a good husband – might seem like the same thing, but they most certainly are not. Why? Because being a good man doesn’t mean you intuitively know how to meet a woman’s emotional needs. And yet learning to do so is essential for a happy marriage.

To the Husbands

If you are a husband reading this, my hope is that you’ll appreciate the practical nature of this article. That it will not only outline your wife’s four emotional needs but will also give you some specific ideas for how to go about meeting those needs.

To the Wives

If you are a wife reading this, feel free to do a little fact checking below. I’ll confess though, most of what I’ve written below comes from my experience as a husband, not as a therapist. If it differs from your needs, please feel free to clarify that with your husband. But before you do, I’d invite you to read this article first.

Your Wife’s Four Emotional Needs

Before we jump in, I should mention two things. First, the needs listed below are not unique to women. Much of what is shared will resonate with you as well. If so, simply use that awareness to help you empathize with her needs. Second, although I share some ideas below to help you meet your wife’s needs, doing so is not a matter of checking off items on a list. So please, don’t kill yourself trying to accomplish every item on every list. Rather, focus on those items that echo things she’s also told you are important to her.

Here they are, in no particular order.

The Need to Feel Important

In the context of a marriage, feeling important means to believe that your spouse cares about you and sees you as the most important person in their life. In many ways, it involves what Dr.’s John and Julie Gottman call “turning towards” rather than “turning away” when your spouse makes “bids” for your attention.

When this need is not met, your wife will feel disconnected from you, as if she is alone despite being in a marriage – something that is actually more painful than being single and feeling alone. This feeling will likely lead to searching for meaning and importance elsewhere, whether that be in another role (e.g., as a mother), another context (e.g., at work), or another relationship (e.g., an emotional or physical affair).

Simple ways to help fulfill this need:

  • Give her 10 minutes of undivided attention each day (outside of the bed).
  • Answer her phone calls whenever possible.
  • Support her dreams and ideas.
  • Put down your phone when she is talking with you.
  • Take her out on dates (bonus points if you plan the date).
  • Give her thoughtful, unexpected gifts from time to time.
  • Include her in important decisions.

The Need to Feel Understood

This need includes understanding what’s going on in your wife’s world, including her fears, concerns, stresses, and challenges. It also includes knowing her preferences, opinions, plans, hopes and dreams. The most critical time to meet this need is when she is sharing with you a concern she has about your marriage or family.

When this need is not met, she will likely try harder to feel heard. As a result, her communication will have an undertone of frustration or even anger. Unfortunately, this tends to invite defensiveness rather than compassion. If it continues, she will likely oscillate between increasing her intensity and pulling away. In addition, she is apt to turn to friends or family for understanding and validation.

Simple ways to help fulfill this need:

  • Take time to ask about her world.
  • Avoid making assumptions about how she feels.
  • Instead, ask questions to better understand her concerns.
  • Recognize when she wants your advice versus a listening ear.
  • Learn to not get defensive when she expresses her frustrations.
  • Make time to talk through problems that come up in your marriage.
  • Remember important things she has shared with you.

The Need to Feel Supported

This need has both a tangible and intangible side to it. On one hand, it’s about giving her hands-on support with any number of her many roles. On the other hand, it’s also about creating an ever-present knowledge in her mind that if she needed you, you would be there for her. The best way to instill this belief in her mind is to be there for her even when it’s not convenient for you to do so.

When this need is not met, she will likely feel overwhelmed given all that she has on her plate. If her bids for help continue to be ignored, her resentment will grow and ultimately undermine her willingness to support you. If this happens, you’ll likely see a sadness set it. This leaves her vulnerable to forms of self-medicating (e.g., overeating, binge watching, alcohol abuse).

Simple ways to help fulfill this need:

  • Proactively help out when you see an opportunity.
  • Take care of a task she normally handles if you see she’s having a hard day.
  • Ensure that your shared responsibilities feel equitable to her.
  • Take the children to the park for a few hours to give her peace and quiet.
  • Confront your children whenever they show her disrespect.
  • Make it possible for her to do things with her friends.
  • Teach your children to be involved in family chores.

The Need to Feel Safe and Secure

At an obvious level, this means never subjecting her to any type of abuse – physical, verbal, or sexual. At a more subtle level, it involves her being able to trust that you will handle marital conflict in a respectful, constructive way. It’s about being a “safe container” for her when she needs to be raw, meltdown, or lose her cool. It doesn’t require perfection on your part. Rather, it involves stepping away before you lose your cool, and then coming back to the conversation when you’re ready. (Research suggests a minimum break of 20 minutes.) At its deepest level, it’s about trusting that you are here to stay, and that when things get tough, you don’t start thinking about divorce.

When this need is not met, the results can vary greatly depending on the circumstances. However, in almost every case, it creates within her an underlying feeling of anxiety and uncertainty. This often leads to trouble sleeping. Without even realizing it, she may begin to withhold herself from the marriage. Emotional intimacy will be clouded by a feeling of guardedness, and sexual intimacy will either feel less satisfying or completely out of place.

Simple ways to help fulfill this need:

  • Listen without becoming defensive.
  • Take responsibility for actions that have caused her pain.
  • Provide reassurance of your love and commitment.
  • Commit to never threaten or angrily mention the “D” word.
  • Take a break from difficult conversation and return when calm.
  • Get good at listening, empathizing, and holding her.
  • Check in with her regularly. A simple but genuine, “How are you doing?”

Again, To the Wives

If these needs resonate with you, then find considerate ways to share them with your husband. If there are other needs you feel should be shared with him, try your best to be clear and concise about what the need is, as well as how he can meet that need. He will be much more likely to receive your request in a supportive way if he believes he can successfully meet that need.

Again, To the Husbands

If your wife shared this article with you, it’s not because she thinks you’re a bad husband. It’s because she thinks you’re a good man with the ability to become an even better husband, and she loves you enough to be willing to learn alongside you.

So accept her influence on this one. Make this your priority. Because truth be told, fulfilling a woman’s emotional needs is, hands down, the most powerful way to say, “I love you.”

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