We are born fully programmed to ask for, and receive, what we need. A baby just minutes old will turn its head expectantly, assuming its biological need for sustenance will be met promptly. If it isn’t, the baby cries, and mama puts the little wiggleworm to her breast. Feedback loop complete. Easy, right?
Well, yes, it is, before all the complex layers of meaning human society places upon the idea of “need,” not to mention the crazy double-think we are taught when it comes to “making demands” or “being selfish.” In fact, at different times in the last 100 years, some pediatric professionals have tried to convince us that a baby crying for food is being demanding, manipulative, and selfish and has to be taught to be independent. (As if a tiny human who can’t lift its head or move can be independent.) Why are we so obsessed with the idea of being self-sufficient to our own detriment at times? That’s a long story and no doubt warrants expertise in sociology, psychology, and history.
For now, I just want to say that not only is there nothing wrong with having needs, it is normal to have needs. We all have needs – and not just the need for food and shelter. Manfred Max-Neef, Chilean economist and environmentalist, created a model for human development based on fundamental human needs. He identified a series of basic needs that humans have that include more than mere subsistence, and include everything from affection and understanding to learning and meaningful work. (Here is a cool wiki link about his classification system.)
Our needs are fundamental, and yet it very difficult for many of us in relationships to say, “This is what I need.” Here are some reasons we humans struggle with this so greatly:
- We don’t know what our needs are. You may know when you are hungry or thirsty but when it comes to what you need from your partner and from the relationship, you may be clueless. Often, we don’t really get that we have a need until it becomes an issue. If a need we don’t even know we have is unmet, we are likely to experience anger, frustration, despondency, or resentment, and not even know why.
- We fear rejection. What if, when we express our needs, we are met with indifference, or worse, contempt? We are scared that simply asking is an act of such audacity that our partner will get up and walk out the door.
- We fear that our partner may not be willing or able to meet our needs. That would be a sad outcome, but on the other hand, since our needs are not being met anyway, asking is probably a risk worth taking.
- We don’t want to appear “needy.” Needy is a bad word in American culture, where we are expected to be rugged, independent islands of individuality from a young age. Men and women alike tremble at the thought of being accused of neediness. Women, battling eons of absurd stereotypes that painted them as inherently weak and in need of caretaking, don’t want to let down their guard for a second. Men, who have been indoctrinated to believe they don’t and shouldn’t have needs, are horrified to learn that they actually do… and will do anything to keep that fact a dark secret. The result is a big mess.
- Basic lack of self-confidence. Self-doubt, insecurity, whatever you call it – works against us. If we don’t have the confidence in ourselves to recognize our own needs as valid and important, we will never be able to ask that they be taken into account by our partners.
- We learned from the best. If you are having difficulty acknowledging your needs and asking that they be met, chances are you are modeling your behavior on what you saw day in and day out as a child… from your parents. It’s often hard to undo that early programming.
- Fear of hurting someone’s feelings. Does a newborn baby hurt its mother’s feelings by needing to suckle? It does not occur to many people that voicing a legitimate need is just as honest and innocent an act as a baby crying for food. We often fear that we will hurt someone else by expressing what is important to us. Ask yourself what in your expressed need could possibly hurt your partner?
- Inability to assert ourselves. Basic assertiveness (not aggression, pushiness, or selfishness) is a vital skill and one that many of us do not ever learn. The idea of sending a steak back for being overcooked is just as inconceivable as the possibility of telling the one you love what you need from the relationship.
- A disengaged partner. Maybe you are ready to talk about what you need but you can’t get your partner to sit down with you. Maybe he/she shies away because “it’s too heavy – let’s just have fun!” or because he or she also has a fear – for example that knowing the truth will bring about an end to the relationship.
Little is as damaging to a relationship than when one or both partners’ needs are not being met. There is, literally, nothing to lose in beginning to express those needs. If something is holding you back, look again at the list above and be honest with yourself. Why are you not having that conversation?
Realize, too, that your partner is probably not a mind reader. Very few people are intuitive enough to anticipate all the emotions, let alone needs and desires of their partners. Always assume that you must use good old fashioned verbal communication to get the information across. And, in turn, you can offer to listen to your partner’s needs. The worst thing that can happen is that one or the other of you will say, “No, I don’t think I can meet that need.” Is that the end of everything? No! This is when prioritizing and compromise come in. If one of your needs is lots of physical affection, and your partner can’t stand too much touching – where can you meet in the middle so you both feel okay?
Finally, understand that by voicing your needs you become empowered. You will be holding yourself in high regard – something I imagine you wish to do, and believe is right. Don’t fall prey to the false image of independence that has everyone living in isolation, even when in a house full of people.
True independence is having the strength to admit you are worth a lot, and that includes having your very real and realistic needs met in your partnership. It is liberating and leads to personal growth that can only enhance your current relationship.