Using the important difference between “need” & “want”

In talking with clients, have you ever noticed people describing their partner (or themselves) as “needy” or “demanding”?  They complain about pressure for (or a lack of) affection, sex, attention, talk etc.

Yet our culture idealises the notion of needing your partner. “I need you” is generally offered up in a movie or book as the ultimate declaration of love, the height of romance.  We are encouraged to give ourselves up or surrender to our partner.

So why is it that so many people complain about it??

When we give ourselves up or surrender to our partner, we are making our identity dependent upon the choices and behaviour of another person. If this is your model for love, this can eventually leave you feeling trapped in a very vulnerable and dis-empowered position.

The answer to understanding how we fall into this trap lies in understanding adult development, particularly the development that takes place in the context of relationships.

The state of passionate merger that is idealised in books & movies is only the first of many stages that a relationship can mature through over time. Colloquially it’s called the “honeymoon” phase (although it’s often over well before any commitment rituals are planned). Typically it lasts between 6 months to 2 years.

In the Developmental Model we formally label this stage “Symbiosis” and define it as “…a merging or lives, personalities, and intense bonding between the two lovers.  … similarities are magnified and differences are overlooked” (Bader & Pearson 1988, p.9) . This rush towards sameness provides comforting evidence of the bond.  However this can create a false sense of security as, eventually, differences surface and need to be dealt with.

If a client is stuck in this stage they may be saying to (or hearing from) their partner things like: “I NEED you be with me/ have sex with me/tell me what’s going on with you/share my hobby/ etc”. The difference between “wanting” and “needing” gets lost in this way of talking.

Here’s how we think the two differ:

The difference between “need” & “want”

When you say:  I NEED you I WANT you
It’s about:DependanceDesire & Choice
The implicit message is:“You have to”“You are free to choose”
Your partner feels like a:ThingDesirable Person
It comes across as:ControllingAn Invitation
The tone will feel:NeedyRomantic (maybe even sexy)
You will seem:WeakStrong
Which is usually seen as:UnappealingAttractive

You are welcome to use this table with clients (appropriately credited to this webpage, please) as you try and help them see that owning their wants and desires is a healthy step in self-definition and clear communication, both of which will enhance their relationships.

Nic Beets