I Need to Be Needed: Relationships as Regulators

At a recent speaking engagement I heard a mother say, “I need to be needed by my kids.” I thought this was a powerful statement and got me thinking about the need to be needed and what that means for us emotionally and mentally. Many of us feel that if we are needed, we are loved. If we are loved, we are connected. When we are connected we have a better possibility to survive. Could relationships tie into our need for survival? In this way our relationships act as regulators. In fact, “the regulatory capacity of relationships is especially evident during infancy. When immature brains depend completely on caretakers for emotional and physical survivial, even a brief separation results in measurable hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) responses” (Hennessy 1997).

This means that our brain actually alerts our body that we need to have connection with others. As we get older, the idea of connection gets muddled. This was evidenced by the mother stating that she needed to be needed, this was her way of feeling loved, connected and therefore scratching her internal itch to survive. Think about how this effects you:

-Do you struggle for people to need you as opposed to love you?

-When thinking about parenting your child, do you like the idea of having another person depend on you?

-Do you pay attention to the needs of others before your own?

Many people will answer yes to one or more of the questions above. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to feel truly fulfilled when you want to be needed rather than loved. We need to pay attention to our own needs, yet this is impossible when we think we need to pay attention to others first for survival. In this way, relationships, or outward stimuli are actually regulating our internal environment. This is a shaky way of living. Unfortunately many of us have been conditioned to allow others to dictate how we feel, as opposed to taking charge and regulating our own emotions and moods. How does this work in action?

When A Relationship Is Regulatory:

Clara gets up after 7 hours of sleep. Despite the sunny day and her desperate need for coffee, she picks up the phone to call her husband to make sure he got to work on time after an early early morning. When he picks up he is irritated because of the tough morning at work preparing for their 9am meeting. Clara offers to bring him lunch and he gruffly insists that a restaurant will be better than her sandwiches. After a terse dialogue about dinner and plans for the evening, Clara is also irritated for the rest of the morning. The coffee she makes is bitter, she skips her workout to get some of her husbands shirts tailored–thinking that might make him feel better and anxiously awaits her husbands 5pm arrival home.

When A Relationship Is NOT Regulatory:

Clara is having a nice morning. She got 7 hours of sleep, woke up to sunny skies and has an easy day planned. As she makes her coffee, she dials her husband to see how his early morning went. When he picks up he is irritated because of the tough morning at work preparing for their 9am meeting. Clara offers to bring him lunch and he gruffly insists that a restaurant will be better than her sandwiches. Clara, sensing he will be upset about everything, wishes him luck, sends him a kiss and hangs up. She takes a deep breath, sips her coffee and decides after her workout she will swing by the bakery and get a treat for after dinner.

The difference in these two stories is how much Clara’s inner world revolved around her husbands actions. In scenario one, Clara’s relationship with her husband is regulatory. She uses her standing with him and his emotional well-being to gauge how her emotional state should be. This happens with many relationships in our lives. Sometimes we even mirror certain friend’s moods after meeting with them or hold our breath when calling our teenager. There are some relationships that are unavoidably regulatory. When our boss is in a bad mood, it is hard to stay chiper in the office. However, I think it is very important to examine our relationships in terms of how much they affect us–both positively and negatively. We should be in charge of our own inner space.

Many times even positive relationships can be regulatory and this can turn negative. Intense love or infatuation has the same signs as addiction. Have you ever had a friend who kept getting back with an awful ex? They keep going back for more even though their life is spiraling out of control and the relationships is making them sick. This is because that relationship has become regulatory for them. The relationship helps them gauge their inner feelings, it makes them feel needed, loved and connected–which makes them in turn feel better able to survive.

I challenge you to answer the following questions:

  1. Are there any people in my life who make me feel bad about myself after being with them?
  2. Are their people or relationships I seek out when I am feeling low? Does their response directly effect my mood?
  3. Do I need to feel needed?

Regulatory relationships are not all bad. Some friends and spouses can be very comforting. However, it is always better to be able to control and deal with your inner emotions so as not to depend on others to tell you how you should feel. In addition, we have to work hard as humans to avoid the trap of needing to be needed.

This is part of our Science of Family series. If you would like to read more articles on the scientific research and studies behind relationships, families and teens, please visit our Science of Families page for tips and updated research.


Shore, A. (1994). “Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self.”

Hofer, M. (1984). “Relationships As Regulators.”

Hennessy, MB. (1997) “Hypothalamicpituitaryadrenal responses to brief social separation.”

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