In 1972 Carl Rogers surveyed the changing marriage scene of his day and said “It is becoming increasingly clear that a man-woman relationship will have permanence only to the degree to which it satisfies the emotional, psychological, intellectual and physical needs of the partners”.

He went on to quote the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard , saying “The greatest danger , that of losing one’s own self, may pass off quietly as if it were nothing; every other loss, that of an arm, a leg, five dollars, etc., is sure to be noticed”(in Rogers, 1972) .

Accounts of divorce do often read very clearly as accounts of people who somehow lost themselves in the marriage. Today we have come to accept that marriage is a commitment of two unique individuals to a partnership, where they must reach satisfaction on their own terms and where individual happiness and fulfillment are not to be compromised. But for many, a committed relationship and a prolonged period of living with someone are new experiences, and for these people their wants and needs may not be clear even to themselves.

Should this seem evident from the introductory interview, a counsellor can get down to the business of helping them to gain better knowledge of themselves and their needs and expectations of each other, and how they are going to work together to achieve mutual cooperation and fulfillment.

Dr Willard F. Harley is a marriage counsellor and author in the United States who has studied the needs of men and women for many years. He has summarised those needs and placed them in the general perceived order of importance of his clients as follows:

Women’s Needs vs Men’s Needs

Affection | Sexual fulfilment

Conversation | Recreational companionship

Honesty and openness | An attractive spouse

Financial support | Domestic support

Family commitment | Admiration

Of course, he concedes that these needs are not the same for everyone, and there are many people who will nominate something on the list of their opposite gender. However, his experience with thousands of people tells him that these do tend to be the deepest needs for men and for women, as stated.

Furthermore he says that when these needs are not met, extramarital affairs, dismay, unhappiness and divorce are the common outcomes. Harley also tells us that people tend to give what they themselves need (Harley, 1994). A counsellor’s negotiating skills are going to be useful, therefore, in nurturing and establishing a relationship that is based on couples mutually recognizing their partners’ needs and trying to develop new routines and habits to be able to meet them.

We know that disparity in sexual needs and fulfilment is a major source of trouble in marriages (Tysoe, 1992; Argyle and Henderson, 1990). So a counsellor should be alert to differences in experience and expectations between the two prospective partners. The fact that men and women experience a different sexual pattern in terms of arousal, plateau, climax and recovery is something that may need to be covered. A common issue raised in couples counselling is that men often feel drowsy or detached after sex while women feel a strong need for continued affection.

Sex is one area where an established session routine of seeing the couple separately at times can be very handy, as it may be that one or both of the clients will want to say something about themselves that they feel in some way shy or inhibited about. There is a well documented difference in the need for affection experienced by women and the strong need for sex in men, and the conflict that these needs can generate in a relationship (Harley, 1994; Tysoe, 1992). Men should realize that an atmosphere of affection can put women in the mood for sex, but the absence of affection combined with regular demands for sex will very quickly drive the two apart. As Harley puts it, affection is the environment, while sex is an event.

Harley also introduces the idea of a Love Bank. The essence of this is that if people have more positive associations in being with each other than they have negative associations, they will tend to feel that they want to be with each other more.

This is similar to the approach of American social psychologist Caryl Rusbult who proposes that relationship satisfaction is based on the rewards versus the penalties that people are getting from one another (Rusbult, 1983). Both ideas have merit and both rely largely on couples providing pleasure and satisfaction to each other by meeting each others needs.