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Our Job as a Detective in Relationships

All bad behavior is the result of an unmet need. This can be a hard thing to hear.

Regarding children, some common things I hear from parents are complaints about the behavior of their children and helplessness or powerlessness to change it. We must become the detectives to determine their unmet needs. This can be challenging as we as parents also struggle with our own capacity issues.

Some behaviors you may witness in children with which you have interaction are screaming, lashing out, hoarding, not sharing, slapping, or being needy or seeking attention through other external means like social media or unhealthy friend groups. What they are telling us about themselves is that “I don’t feel heard,” “I have to get loud, or I can’t get my needs met,” “I’ve had scarcity or not enough consistency with my belongings or my structure and hoarding or not sharing is how I can gain some control,” “I feel unsafe or threatened,” or “I need more nurture and physical touch to feel loved and seen.”

In adult relationships the behaviors may just be more adaptive versions and can be categorized by what I call the “too much’s.” Perhaps the person is always on their phone, works too much, drinks or smokes too much, gambles, shops, or care takes more than is needed. Those behaviors also tell us messages about what the person is experiencing. The subconscious messages that they may experience are that they cannot tolerate feelings of loneliness, boredom, guilt, shame, anxiety, or sadness, and the behaviors provide a reprieve from their more vulnerable emotions.

If we are in a relationship with someone that exhibits these behaviors and we feel affected by their actions, we have an opportunity to become detectives regarding their unmet needs or feelings of distress. Although it is not anyone’s job to manage the behavior of another (in adult hood), if we are in a relationship, it is our job to lean in and be curious about the needs of another in addition to taking responsibility for our own needs. We must take personal accountability in expressing our needs in relationships.

The truth is, this gives us a lot of freedom and power. If we know that all “bad” behavior is the result of an unmet need, we can get busy being curious what that unmet need might be. We can communicate with the other person and ask what needs may not be getting met. When we show up for someone with genuine desire to hear and understand how they are experiencing the world, they can then feel safe and validated that their needs matter and that they matter. They can express their feelings and unmet needs, and we can get busy trying to course correct. This is beautiful in relationships as when we become detectives and get curious about how another is really doing, it cultivates connection. When we are in connection, we are much less likely to exhibit “bad behaviors.”

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