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Give and take: U of T researcher says its crucial for couples to talk about their needs

Rebecca Horne, a PhD student at U of T Mississauga, is studying sacrifice in romantic relationships and is currently collecting data on couples who relocate for a partner's job, and how relationships change as a result (photo by Drew Lesiuczok)

When is the last time you and your partner had a heart-to-heart about your respective needs and how they are being met? A University of Toronto researcher, whose work focuses on sacrifice in romantic relationships, is encouraging couples to have that talk.

“Open discussions about needs generally is crucial to relationships, which may sound really silly and obvious, but I think it’s quite striking how little we know about our own needs or our partner’s needs, and the best way we can go about meeting each other’s needs,” says Rebecca Horne, a PhD student in psychology at U of T Mississauga.

Relationships are often built on give and take. That might mean watching a movie one partner wants to see or choosing a restaurant one partner prefers. But sometimes those little sacrifices can be much larger. Someone might give up their goals, their job or even their friends for their partner.

The impact those bigger sacrifices have is the focus of Horne’s research. She is currently collecting data on couples who relocate for one partner’s job and examining how relationships change as a result. She plans to follow 150 couples over a period of one year.

Her current project is an extension of a paper she co-authored that was published last year in the Journal of Family Psychology, which takes this idea of sacrifice a step further and examines what consistently putting the needs of a partner before one’s own needs has on relationship satisfaction.

The key reason people in long-term relationships continue to give, even if it’s detrimental to them personally, is because they get some relational benefit, Horne says, noting it’s a tradeoff between personal well-being and relationship well-being. Whether that’s good or bad depends on the person, she says.

It is important for people to reflect on the type of supporter they tend to be when in a relationship, how they meet their partner’s needs and in what ways they like to meet their own needs, Horne says.

“Is it in line with how you like to give care and support, or do you find it exhausting or overburdening?” she asks. “Does it work well for you or not?”

Doing things for a partner one might not do for themselves might be good for the relationship to some extent, but partners should be mindful of the boundaries of such giving behaviour and determine if there are some needs being neglected, Horne says.

Perhaps a couple hasn’t done something one partner wants to do for a long time. That partner needs to decide if they are OK with that, if there’s a reason this has happened, or if it’s a pattern that’s developing in the relationship, Horne explains. And if it is a pattern, then the partner needs to assess if they are comfortable with that.

“It’s really about taking stock of how support and care is playing out in a romantic relationship, in a more explicit way, so certain patterns and routines don’t become set in stone and set you on a trajectory you don’t really want to be on,” Horne says.