Institute for Integrative Psychotherapy

Integrative Psychotherapy Articles

Contact and Relational Needs in Couple Therapy: An Integrative Psychotherapy Perspective

Richard G. Erskine & Janet P. Moursund


The term “contact” implies full awareness of both internal and external events. Relationship is based upon contact; people need both internal and external awareness in order to maintain a healthy relationship. In any relationship, healthy or unhealthy, relational needs are experienced by the partners. In this paper, we describe eight major relational needs that arise in couple relationships. When these needs are not responded to, the relationship becomes increasingly toxic and is likely to go through predictable stages of dysfunction. Intervention strategies are suggested, based on the relationship’s progression through these stages; and specific intervention techniques are described.

Key words: couple therapy, relational needs, contact, healthy relationships, couple dysfunction, integrative psychotherapy.

“Contact” is a core concept in Integrative Psychotherapy; we believe that establishing and maintaining full contact – full awareness of internal and external events – is a sine qua non of mental and emotional well-being (Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, 1951; Erskine, Moursund & Trautmann, 1999; Erskine & Moursund, 2011). For couple therapists, this notion of contact is centrally important for it determines the quality of the relationship, as well as the psychological health of the individual partners.

In a healthy couple relationship, the internal and the external facets of contact are interdependent, interrelated, and mutually causal. Contact with one’s partner requires contact with one’s internal processes, for only as one is aware of those processes can s/he share them with a partner. And, conversely, full internal contact is supported and expanded by contact with a partner who is interested in and sensitive to internal experiencing – of both self and partner.

International Journal of Psychotherapy: July 2020, Vol. 24, No. 2, pp. xx-xx: ISSN 1356-9082

© Author and European Association of Psychotherapy (IJP): Reprints and permissions:

Submitted May 2020; peer-reviewed twice and reformatted, July 2020; resubmitted and accepted.

Therapy with couples brings to the foreground specific experiences which we call relational needs: the needs of one person with regard to the behaviours of another. In this context, what is desired and needed includes both external behaviours and internal responses: we want those with whom we share our lives not only to behave in certain ways with us, but also to experience certain internal reactions to us (to care about us, to sympathize, to be interested). Internal and external contact are inextricably bound together, needed by each partner in him- or herself, and in/from the partner.

When external contact is distorted or broken – when relational needs are not responded to appropriately – the relationship is damaged. Damage occurs when one partner fails repeatedly to respond in the needed way; it also occurs when the partner does make an appropriate response, but the response is missed or mis-perceived by the other. The critical factor is not what “actually” happened, but rather the experience of need acknowledged or need missed. If I believe you to be unaware of or uncaring about what I need from you, I am not likely to experience our relationship in a positive way. I won’t trust you, won’t be willing to be vulnerable in your presence, and will be increasingly reluctant to respond to what you need from me. Conversely, if I do experience you as noticing, being interested in, and responding to my relational needs, I am likely to feel safe with you and increase my attention to your needs.

Notice that nowhere in all of the preceding have we suggested that partners must or should always satisfy their partner’s relational needs. To “respond” to a need may indeed mean acting so as to satisfy it, but it may also mean simply acknowledging it, recognizing it as a valid internal experience, while at the same time being unable or unwilling to fulfil it. Couples who recognize and respond to each other’s relational needs, sometimes attempting to meet them and, at other times, simply acknowledging them, are likely to have a healthy relationship; couples, who always feel compelled to meet those needs in each other, are in danger of falling into confluence (Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1951)

While it is neither realistic nor healthy to expect one’s partner to meet all of one’s relational needs all the time, it is equally unrealistic and unhealthy for the partnership when no relational needs are met by one’s partner or when specific needs are chronically neglected. There are many things that I can’t or won’t always do for or with my partner, and there may be some things that I will seldom do (even though I may recognize and even sympathize with his or her desires for them). But, for the most part, it is essential that I gain satisfaction and pleasure from activities that are need-meeting for my partner, as well as for myself – or why should we bother to be in a relationship at all? A subtle challenge for any partnership, then, is to find a healthy and comfortable balance between those relational needs that are met within the partnership and those that are met elsewhere.

The Eight Relational Needs

At this point, it may be useful to get more specific about what we have thus far referred to generally as “relational needs” (Erskine, 1998; Erskine, Moursund & Trautmann, 1999; Erskine & Moursund, 2011). There are probably as many different ways of describing relational needs as there are people in relationship. Humans are remarkably creative in how they relate to each other and describe their relationships (Stewart, 2010). The concept of relational needs has been applied in both individual and group psychotherapy (Erskine, 2015; 2019; 2021) and validated via empirical research (Toksoy, Aker, & Zvelc, 2020; Žvelc, Jovanoska & Žvelc, 2020; Pourová, Řiháček & Žvelc, 2020).

In our work with clients, both in private practice and in our workshops, we have noticed that eight particular relational needs keep coming up again and again. Let’s take a look at what they are:

1) Security: In a relationship, one needs to feel secure in order to thrive. One needs to know that the relationship is a safe place to be who one really is, to show all of oneself without fear of losing the other person’s respect and liking. Security requires more than verbal reassurances. It is the visceral experience of having one’s vulnerabilities respected and protected. It grows out of repeated experiences of sharing a new aspect of self and discovering that the relationship is still there, still solid, still okay.

2) Valuing: The need to be valued, cared about, thought worthy, is an obvious part of any relationship. Why would one want to be in relationship with someone who didn’t value or care about or respect him or her? But “valuing” as a relational-need goes even beyond this general sort of caring about. It has to do with one’s psychological process being understood and that process being valued. Not just (or even necessarily) what one does, but why they do it, is the key to valuing. When I am valued in a relationship, I know that my partner expects and believes that whatever I do must have a reason that makes sense to me, and that s/he wants to understand the sense-making of my behaviour.

3) Acceptance: Being cared for, respected, needed. And not by just anybody – by a reliable, stable, and protective partner, a partner from whom one can draw strength, and whom one can care for, respect, and need in return. This kind of acceptance allows each partner to support and to accept support from the other. It keeps in balance the kind of emotional “taking turns” that is essential if all of the other relational needs are to be dealt with in a fair and satisfying way.

4) Mutuality: The need for mutuality is the need to be with someone who has walked in one’s shoes – who understands what one is experiencing because s/he has experienced something similar, in real life or imagination. Part of this need arises from the natural desire to not have to explain everything fully, to be understood without words. And part of it has to do with being able to believe that the other person really does understand and accept and value: if you have been there too, then of course you know what it’s like for me – and I am not alone.

5) Self–definition: Self-definition in a relationship involves experiencing and expressing one’s own uniqueness, and having the other person acknowledge and value that uniqueness. In some ways it’s the mirror image of the need for mutuality: the need to be different, as contrasted with the need to be similar. We need our partners to acknowledge our differentness, our disagreements, and even our irritation or anger, when these emerge as a facet of our individuality. When this happens, each partner can grow and individuate with full support from the other.

6) Making an impact: An essential part of any meaningful relationship is the ability to have an impact on the other person: to be able to change their thinking, to make them act a different way, to create an emotional response in them. And not only to cause these effects in the other, but to be able to see the effects, to be shown that something has happened to the other person in response to one’s input.

7) Having the other initiate: A relationship in which one partner must always make the initial approach, always initiate, always take first step, will eventually become dissatisfying if not painful for that partner. We need our significant others to reach out to us in a way that acknowledges and validates our importance to them, to demonstrate their desire to be involved with us.

8) To express love: In any close, positive relationship the participants experience caring, affection, esteem and appreciation for each other. Expressing these feelings is a relational-need; not doing so requires that one push aside and deny the internal experience. When we deny the need to express love we also fail to express self-definition within the relationship. Part of who I am with you is how I feel about you, and – if I am to be fully contactful – I must be able to express those affectionate feelings.

And what about the need to be loved? The need to be loved is fulfilled within the relationship when all eight of the other needs are satisfied, at least some of time.

Relational Needs Unmet

One of the things that interferes with appropriate, timely and satisfying responses to relational needs between partners is the fact that each partner is an individual, following his or her own experiences from his or her own point of view and with his or her unique history. Relational needs are not always complementary; what I need and want from you at any given moment may be quite out of sync with what you need and want from me. In a healthy relationship, such mismatches are temporary and time-limited. Partners learn to take turns, to put their own needs to one side for a while and attend to the other, with the certainty that the partner will soon do the same for them.

When relational needs are consistently not responded to in relationship one or both partners are likely to become irritable, indifferent, or depressed. The longer this situation exists, the more acute the discomfort. Over time, a relationship in which one or both partner’s relational needs remain unmet will become toxic. Contact between the partners becomes a source of pain rather than of pleasure and satisfaction and the partners act so as to protect themselves from that pain. The ways in which the protection manifests itself form a familiar list of relational disruption: withdrawing, criticizing, accusing, arguing. Each disruption leads to a further reduction in contact with even less likelihood of meeting relational needs.

When couples seek therapy, it is almost certain that one or both partners are not getting their relational needs met within that relationship, and that one or both are creating some form of contact distortion as a consequence. Rudolph Dreikurs (1964), in his studies of children’s behaviour, developed a hierarchy of behaviour dysfunction which seems to apply to adult relationship ruptures as well. Initially, when a partner feels needy and that need is not met, s/he is likely to act so as to get the other partner’s attention. “Notice me! Notice that I need something from you!” the behaviour says. If the partner notices, and responds, the relationship has a good chance of getting back on course. Over time though, if the partner fails to notice and respond, the partner with needs-not-met moves into some sort of attempt to gain power. Either “I’ll make you notice” or “I’ll stop needing you at all (by getting my needs met elsewhere, or by being so powerful I don’t need anybody).” Power-seeking behaviour tends to be more aggressive, more attacking, than attention-seeking behaviour in both children and adults.

If power-seeking fails too, the next step in the hierarchy is likely to be a quest for revenge. Revenge-seeking, however it is acted out, is of course likely to damage the relationship even further. Worse, it sets up a dynamic in which the revenge-seeking partner feels that s/he cannot accept what was once so badly needed because that would be tantamount to giving up the possibility of “getting even” with the partner who is now seen as the source of pain.

Revenge does not nourish; it may provide momentary distraction but it leaves the original need untouched. People who stay in a revenge-motivated relationship eventually reach the stage of despair, in which the only thing left is proving (to the other and even to self) that everything is truly hopeless, that they are without worth, and that nothing really matters.

So, what can be done to reverse this dismal progression? The thrust of the therapeutic intervention depends, logically enough, on where a couple is in the hierarchy. If one or both partners has reached the fourth stage, the stage of despair, the therapist’s efforts will be designed to restore a sense of worth and a sense of hope; nothing else will make much difference until this is at least partly accomplished. The revenge-seeking partner must be persuaded that his or her self-interest is best served by finding a way to respond, and be responded to, in the relationship, rather than be lashing out and punishing. S/he must be encouraged to choose meeting current needs over being “right” or evening the score and to accept the fact that no amount of vengefulness now can change the partner’s past behaviours. Power-seekers need to find alternative ways of interacting with and impacting their partners. The partners of power-seekers need to learn that it is possible to respond to their partner’s needs while at the same time maintaining their own boundaries and integrity, that is, not to cave in and also not to withdraw. And attention-getting is usually the least difficult of all, for it simply involves teaching the partners how to ask for attention in ways that their partner can hear, can notice, and respond to their requests.

Origins of Couple Dysfunction

While all of above is very logical and useful in terms of setting an overall frame for therapeutic intervention, it is still not very specific. In order to choose a particular intervention, another facet of diagnosis is useful: let’s consider how the rupture of relational need-meeting gets started in the first place.

a) The simplest situation is that of ignorance: one or both partners honestly don’t know what is happening between them, or what to do about it. They know that they are unhappy but they don’t know the source of the unhappiness. They know that they are often disappointed in or irritated with their partner but they don’t know why. Or the “why” is always related to some specific incident, and they see no underlying pattern.

b) Sometimes this not-understanding is related to a more deeply-rooted lack: one or both partners have no sense of what relational needs are all about. They have never learned to identify their own relational needs nor to attend to the relational needs of others. They may have grown up in families in which such needs were never recognized or in which people were criticized for needing anything from each other. Such people cannot ask for what they want because they don’t know that they want it; and they are often similarly deaf to the requests of others. Talking to them about their relational needs is like discussing the difference between red and green with someone who is colour-blind.

c) Both of these varieties of dysfunction are often learned and reinforced during the early history of a relationship. Couples tend to train each other during the early courting process; they learn what works with the other person, what to expect, what is expected of them, and how to make up for not getting what they really want. The map is drawn, the familiar routes become well-worn and invariant, and nearly impenetrable walls grow up around the unexplored areas. It is as though the map is a non-verbal contract, and when one partner fails to respond as the other expects, the contract is broken.

d) Another factor in the evolution of a relationship has to do with the kinds of self-protective patterns each partner has learned throughout his or her life. Both bring to the unconscious expectations and core beliefs that may form their life scripts (Erskine, 2008, 2009, 2010). In a relationship, these individual life scripts become interlocked. One partner, for instance, may bring to the relationship a basic belief that he is stupid and unable to figure things out, that his relational need for valuing can never be satisfied. The other partner may have decided, and believed for years, that nobody can really understand her, and that her need for self-definition cannot be met in a relationship. What a splendid fit! The “stupid” partner cannot be expected to understand his partner, because after all he’s incapable of understanding. Moreover, it’s useless to even try understand because nobody could possibly value his feeble and doomed-to-failure efforts at the impossible. The other partner will never challenge that belief, because she knows that nobody will ever understand her anyhow. She cannot ever feel supported for being herself in a relationship, because that self cannot possibly be understood. Each partner’s belief supports and reinforces the other’s in a kind of mutual dance of dysfunction(see Chapter 7 in Erskine, 2015 entitled “The script system: an unconscious organization of experiences”).

e) In addition to problematic patterns in the relationship itself, a partner may be trapped in their own history of dysfunctional relationships and be literally unable to attend to needs and demands of the partnership. For such a person, the individual life script pattern may need to be addressed before couple work proper can begin: notice, though, that word “proper”. Work on a partner’s individual script pattern can be and often is done in the context of couple work, with the other partner there to observe and support the work (Kadis & McClendon, 1998). Also, since partners’ scripts nearly always interlock, change in one will inevitably invite change in the other, as both partners begin to understand how their old script beliefs are reinforced by interactions in their current relationship.

Discussing the ways in which a therapist facilitates changes in an individual life script is beyond the scope of this paper; the reader is referred to our previous writings (Erskine, 1997; Erskine & Moursund, 2011) and most especially to both “ Beyond Empathy: A Therapy of Contact in Relationship (Erskine, Moursund & Trautmann, 1999) and Integrative Psychotherapy: The Art and Science of Relationship (Moursund & Erskine, 2003) for detailed discussion of our theory of individual therapy. Let’s turn our attention back to the couple work, with partners who are able to invest energy in improving their relationship as such.

Intervention Strategies

Analysis. The first step in intervention is analysis: getting a clear sense of what unmet relational needs are in the foreground and what contact disruptions have developed as a result of these unmet needs. When the therapist has a sense of how these dynamics are working themselves out, s/he can help the couple to begin to understand what is happening. Teaching a concept is probably the easiest of interventions and may be sufficient to help the couple to initiate small changes which can take on their own momentum over time.

Using/creating examples. The effect of pointing out patterns, and how they are enacted in the relationship, is further strengthened by using both naturally-occurring and therapist-prescribed interactions between the partners to enhance their awareness of relational needs in themselves and each other. They can share those awarenesses with each other and check on and correct their partner’s perceptions. They can learn to inquire about their partner’s inner experience and to value that experience even when it doesn’t match their own perception of what is happening. Teaching and practicing the skill of inquiry is, in fact, a central focus of our work with couples.

Safety. It is necessary to provide a safe therapeutic environment when we invite the partners to explore new ways of listening and responding to each other. We do not allow partners to take revenge or to punish each other (either accidentally or deliberately) as they experiment with new behaviours and new vulnerabilities. On these occasions we may intervene, attending to the relational needs of each partner, making sure that neither is neglected. Then we encourage each person to take turns being the focus of the other’s inquiry. We model contactful self-disclosure and we consistently translate non-verbal into verbal communication, encouraging both partners to “talk straight” with each other.

Flow of the process. Couple work in which relational needs and their satisfaction are seen as the core of the relationship, and the key to both partners establishing and maintaining internal and external contact, is a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of patterns and interactions. The focus moves from the perceptions and needs of one partner, to those of other, to those of both partners in relationship – and back again. Nothing is static; as one set of relational needs is dealt with, another can move into foreground. Like a child walking upstairs with a yo-yo, the momentary ups and downs are parts of an upward progression. Even though the relationship may seem to worsen at times, the overall trend is positive, toward healthy growth and contact. As one partner learns that his or her current relational-need can be met in the relationship, s/he is energized and encouraged (literally, infused with courage) to let go of some bit of protective armour, to allow himself or herself to be more aware of what s/he is experiencing and of what his or her partner is experiencing as well. In so doing, s/he is able to respond to that partner’s relational needs in a more contactful way. Changes in each support positive change in the other and the downward spiral of dysfunction is reversed.


There is no panacea here, no “magic” that is guaranteed to mend broken relationships or to create positive change overnight. Some relationships are remarkably resistant to change; some partners are so damaged by their own pain, so stuck in power-seeking or revenge or despair, that they have little or no concern for the well-being of the partnership. Nevertheless, we believe that attention to the interaction between relational needs and contact can help the therapist to focus on those aspects of a relationship that are most malleable, most open to intervention. It allows us to encourage, even in difficult relationships, the kinds of small changes that allow the partners themselves to cultivate and build upon their success.


Richard J. Erskine: Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and training director of the Institute for Integrative Psychotherapy ( ). He is Professor of Psychology and Education at Deusto University, Bilbao, Spain and conducts several training programs throughout Europe.

Janet P. Moursund, PhD, is Associate Professor Emerita at the University of Oregon, where she served as Director of the DeBusk Counseling Center and as Acting Chair of the Counseling Psychology Program ; she also was the founder of the Eugene Center for Community Counseling .


DREIKURS, R. & SOLTZ, V. (1964). Children: the challenge. New York: Hawthorn Books.

ERSKINE, R.G. (1998). Attunement and Involvement: Therapeutic responses to relational needs. International Journal of Psychotherapy, 3, 3, 235-244.

ERSKINE, R.G. (1997). Theories and Methods of an Integrative Transactional Analysis. San Francisco, CA: TA Press.

ERSKINE, R.G. (2008). Psychotherapy of Unconscious Experience. Transactional Analysis Journal, 38:2, 128-138.

ERSKINE, R.G. (2009). Life Scripts and Attachment Patterns: Theoretical Integration and Therapeutic Involvement. Transactional Analysis Journal, 39:3, 207-218.

ERSKINE, R.G. (2010). Life Scripts: Unconscious Relational Patterns and Psychotherapeutic Involvement. In: R.G. Erskine (Ed.), Life Scripts: A Transactional Analysis of Unconscious Relational Patterns, (pp. 1-28). London: Karnac Books.

ERSKINE, R. G. (2015). Relational Patterns, Therapeutic Presence: Concepts and Practice of

Integrative Psychotherapy. London: Karnac Books.

ERSKINE, R.G. (2019). Relational Group Process: Developments in a Transactional Analysis

Model of Group Psychotherapy. International Journal of Psychotherapy, 23(3):41-60.

ERSKINE, R. G.(2021).A Healing Relationship: Commentary of Therapeutic Dialogues.

London: Phoenix Publishing.

ERSKINE, R.G. & MOURSUND, J.P. (2011). Integrative Psychotherapy in Action. London: Karnac Books.

ERSKINE, R.G.; MOURSUND, J.P. & TRAUTMANN, R.L. (1999). Beyond Empathy: A Therapy of Contact-in-Relationship. Philadelphia: Brunner/Mazel.

KADIS, L.B. & MCCLENDON, R. (1998). Concise Guide to Marital and Family Therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.

MOURSUND, J.P. & ERSKINE, R.G. (2003). Integrative Psychotherapy: The Art and Science of Relationship. Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole-Thomson Learning.

PERLS, F.S., HEFFERLINE, R.F. & GOODMAN, P. (1951).Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. New York: Julian Press.

POUROVA, M., RIHACEK, T. & ZVELC, G. (2020). Validation of the Czech version of the Relational Needs Satisfaction Scale. Frontiers in Psychology.

STEWART, L. (2010). Relational needs of the therapist: Countertransference, clinical work and supervision. Benefits and disruptions in psychotherapy. International Journal of Integrative Psychotherapy, 1:1,41-50.

TOKSOY, S. E., CERIT, C., AKER, A. T, & Zvelc, G. (2020) Relational Needs Satisfaction

Scale: reliability and validity study in Turkish. Anatolian Journal of Psychiatry, 21

(Supplement 2), 37-44. doi:10.5455/apd.115143

ŽVELC, G., Jovanoska, K., & Žvelc, M. (2020). Development and validation of the Relational Needs Satisfaction Scale. Frontiers in Psychology, 11.

The Institute for Integrative Psychotherapy is approved by the American Psychological Association to sponsor continuing education for psychologists, by the National Board of Certified Counselors for counselors and by the American Board of Examiners in Pastoral Counseling for pastoral counselors. The Institute for Integrative Psychotherapy maintains responsibility for this program and its content.