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Adventures of the Polka-Dotted One

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On 'Needs' vs. 'Wants'
pink hair
"Having needs doesn't make you needy. It makes you human. Just thought you should know."

A friend posted the above comment on Facebook today, and while I think I am fundamentally in agreement with the spirit of the statement, I am twitchy about the use of that particular word, 'needs', and have been for a long time. I do want to say that *wanting things* does not inherently make anyone a bad person, or needy, or whatever. To want is very definitely human. On the other hand, the word 'needs' as used to describe relationship requirements or even very important and urgent wants always gives me a little shudder because it is such a fuzzily defined term the way most people use it, and I have seen it very badly misused in the past.

Sure, everybody has needs. Food, water, shelter, basic medical care, y'know... the sorts of things that make us Not Die. But using the word 'needs' to mean 'minimum things I want in a relationship' or simply 'things I really really want right now' has always struck me as somewhat blackmailish, because it raises requirements within one particular relationship to the level of things that are non-negotiable for survival, which - and folks may certainly disagree with me here - in my opinion, they aren't. However much I might value my chosen family and the relationships I have built in and around that, the basic unit for survival is the individual, not the family, and definitely not the relationship.

Using the word 'needs' to describe any expectation or desire within a relationship seems to me to demand that a specific person (or sometimes in poly a small group of people) should meet those 'needs' whether they want to or not.

I strongly feel that romantic relationships are voluntary and therefore all aspects within those relationships should be voluntary as well (beyond the basic minimum level of respect that we should all have for our fellow human beings, of course). Not everybody has them, not everybody *should* have them. Ultimately where we are talking about the emotional aspect of a relationship, everyone is responsible for meeting their own needs or that aspect of the relationship is no longer voluntary and therefore, I would argue, neither is the relationship itself.

If I'm not able to satisfy what all of my partners *want* right now this minute, or vice versa... well, sometimes them's the breaks. We can't always expect our partners to 'perform' for us on every level. On the other hand, if I am not able to satisfy my partners minimum relationship requirements, or if they're not able to satisfy mine, logic says that we should dissolve the relationship. Whereas if the word 'needs' is used, the implication seems to be that if I am not able to satisfy my partners 'needs', I am a Bad Partner(TM) and should step up to the plate, whether doing so works for me or not.

I am probably extra sensitive to this because I had an abusive relationship in the past where my partners 'needs' were used as levers to demand more and more from me that I wasn't actually prepared to give, on the basis that *I* was a Bad and Abusive Partner(TM) if I didn't provide for them. How awful a person was I, to ignore things that were stated as NEEDS? Even if those needs effectively negated anything I might ever want out of that relationship myself, and even if those needs were things I would have stated as outside the remit of that relationship had the request been made in any other way. I was *needed*. To say no would have put me in the wrong, no matter what was being asked.

Everyone deserves to be able to ask for what they want in relationships, but every single person also deserves to set the terms of their own relationships, and not be hung out to dry if what they are able to provide is not the same as what the other person in that relationship wants, however those wants are stated.

I mean, how unreasonable would I be if I was to say "I need you not to use the word 'needs' ever again"...?

How do you folks feel about this question? Do you have different ways of defining the word 'need'? Do you love it, hate it, feel neutral about it? If you use it, what do you mean by it?

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Um. I'd love to agree with you, but sometimes there are broken people. And I don't think I can even say any more without seriously breaching confidence and risking a life.

I think the term 'needs', when used in the context of relationships, tends to be used to convey the sense of urgency and importance of a desire. The word can indeed be used to pressure people into things they don't want to do, and I completely understand your reluctance to use it yourself. But it is also an important signifier to the people one is connected to about the importance something has to your mental health. While often abused, it is nonetheless something which has a valid place in interpersonal communication.

Certainly, the need for reassurance and love is less of an essential requirement to life than the need for nutrients - but if we acknowledge that mental illness kills, then we also have to acknowledge that lack of psychological needs like a sense of security or sense of purpose can kill us too. To state that any declarations of need are invalid if they are not directly connected to ones physical well-being reduces the human existence to something entirely physical, which I think is something we can agree is not accurate to our experience of life both as and alongside human animals.

So while I agree that misuse of 'need' is endemic (no-one 'needs' a new phone or a diamond ring, for example), I do believe that the concept of non-physical needs is an important one, and cannot think of a better term to replace it which would convey the same idea with the appropriate weight.

As a solution to the word's abuse, I think that rather than attempting to remove the semantic concept from usage, a better understanding of what ones responsibilities are to ones partners should be encouraged. It is fine to ask for your needs to be met. It is also fine to refuse to meet those needs if you cannot. Having needs is not a problem - pressuring other people into fulfilling those needs when they are unwilling or unable is.

*Nods in mostly agreement* I think the hard time I have with the word centres around the fact that I feel that pressure to fulfil those needs is built in to the sense of the word itself.

I have had more than one partner try to 'nudge' me into behaving in ways that we had agreed that I would not, because it was what they felt that they 'needed'. One partner, for example 'needed' me to pretend that I was monogamous with him, having known I was poly from the start, and not okay with being closeted. Another 'needed' me to suddenly start behaving like a primary parter for her, even though that wasn't the relationship we had negotiated. In both cases it wasn't viewed as a relationship renegotiation, it was viewed as me being a bad person for not meeting their (brand new and unilaterally imposed) needs, even though I myself had not changed... as though by not changing who I was for that particular partner I had done something terrible.

While I don't regret the fact that those relationships are now in the past, because we clearly became incompatible along the way, the manner in which they ended, and the way in which I was demonised for not changing myself instantly to suit my partner(s) is still sore. I can't help feeling that if either partner had used any other terminology - even to themselves - I think it would have been obvious that what they were trying to do was not okay, but it is hard to get outside of the cultural narrative that says if you are not fulfilling all of your partners needs you are harming them in some way... and for me personally, although I think I agree with the way you define the word yourself, it is *very* hard to hear the word 'needs' without also hearing entitlement.

While I agree that "need" can be used to manipulate, I'd like to offer a few things as possible thought experiments that might illuminate other angles.

A "Role Playing Games" analogy: if someone comes at you with a weapon with +10 ("need"), why are you not countering that with your own +10 ("need") weapons? For instance, in your second paragraph you could have said that you needed to be poly, and not closeted (an "outdoor cat" :-) ). Why was their "need" not matched with your "need" -- it certainly sounds like it was as important to you as their "need" was to them. (IMHO, the outcome of incompatible needs is "I guess we're just not compatible" rather than "I guess I have to bend myself to your needs".)

A "difference in cultures" analogy: (it's been years since I saw the original so I'm vague on the details here, but this is close enough for illustrative purposes...) The (white) American wife of an African American was visiting her mother in law, and frequently tried to complement the mother in law on having excellent taste, by saying things like "I like that scarf", only to find she was being given the item in question. It turned out that the mother in law had a cultural expectation that if someone said they liked something, it meant they wanted it, and you were culturally obliged to give it to them. The mother in law thought her daughter in law was "very greedy" for saying she "liked" so many things, and forcing the mother in law to give them to the daughter in law.

My view of "needs" is "strong wants" to the extent of "cannot live happily without forever". In a hierarchy of needs (air, water, food, shelter, ...) many of the emotional "needs" are definitely down below air/water/food, but possibly not so far down as to be dismissed. It sounds like you're attaching more importance to "needs" than that, both when you hear it from others (perhaps of the "don't use that word, it's too powerful" variety) and also in choosing not to use it yourself ("I can't use 'need', I can live without this thing even if I might not be happy").

A "need" to be in a monogamous relationship, or a "need" to be in a primary relationship (ie, be treated as a primary partner), for instance, do definitely have an entitlement side to them. The person is entitled to pursue finding that monogamous relationship of their dreams, or someone who will treat them as a primary partner, etc. But that entitlement doesn't meant that any specific person has to provide it for them. In the legal sense, it's a liberty ("you're entitled to do this, but other people don't have to go out of their way to bring it about") rather than a right ("other people have to give this to you").

So yes, I think "need" is a strong word, and can -- and perhaps often is -- be used as a form of manipulation for "you'll give me this if I state is as a need rather than a want". But I think the answer is to meet the person using it at their level of communication -- match their statements of needs with statements of your own needs, without hearing the "you must give this to me".


@edm, regarding this part of your comment:
the outcome of incompatible needs is "I guess we're just not compatible" rather than "I guess I have to bend myself to your needs".

I'd have honestly been quite happy if the outcome had simply been an agreement that we had *incompatible* needs. I think possibly you missed this part of my previous comment, though...

"In both cases it wasn't viewed as a relationship renegotiation, it was viewed as me being a bad person for not meeting their (brand new and unilaterally imposed) needs, even though I myself had not changed... as though by not changing who I was for that particular partner I had done something terrible."

This is the problem I have... it hasn't been a single one-off event, but a repeated use of the word 'needs' by multiple persons as a tool of manipulation and a means of trying to beat me into being something I'm not (and I say trying, because it generally has not worked out well for the person trying it, beyond the first very specific case of the abusive partner who also happened to be my very first Dom when I was inexperienced in kink). Incompatibility I'm fine with. Being told outright that I'm a bad person for not changing my own core values in response to whatever my partner(s) feel they currently 'need' from me, not so much.

I can't help thinking that entitlement stems from more traditional monogamist thinking, where partners are expected to be 'everything' to each other.

I think we're in agreement on how it *should* work, though. I've had some awesome relationship transitions (both breakups and intensifications of relationships), on the other hand, with folks who were prepared to lay their cards on the table without manipulation and say something more like 'What I want has changed. Where do we stand as a result?' (whatever words they use to say it).

Edited at 2015-04-24 03:58 pm (UTC)

Thanks for clarifying.

I think we're in agreement that the entitlement (you must provide this for me because I want/need it) is problematic. And I definitely agree that someone using "need" to describe something is a danger sign that there may be that underlying entitlement. But I think the entitlement is the problem, more than the choice of words. Your post does make me more aware of (excessive) use of "need" as a warning to pay careful attention to what else is going on though.

Sorry you've had to deal with enough (unsuccesful) manipulation to spot the correlation. But thanks for warning the rest of us :-)


(Deleted comment)

Comment from Facebook

The friend whose thread inspired my original post had this to say, and I'm copying it here (will come back and credit when I've checked it's okay) because I think it was a great response and brought up many good points:

"Interesting read. I do think that needs as a word tends to be overused. However, where I think I fundamentally differ from your view is that I do view human relationships as a need. And I don't think the individual can meet their emotional needs on their own. I think we are interdependent, not independent. And that codependency is undesirable. Loneliness kills as much as tobacco and bad relationships shorten your lifespan. And the studies that cover that tends to take suicide out of the equation. We have some needs and sometimes they are different. I do think each individual has responsibility to get their needs met, but, just like our economical needs, they can't be met alone. They require others. I think the line between needs and wants is blurred. You are also allowed to want whatever you like and ask for it. The key is to have boundaries and to be responsible for your actions. If you ask for too much and are manipulative, you may hurt yourself and others."


Re: Comment from Facebook

My own reply:

Thanks, that's a great response, and you make a good point about relationships being a need in the general sense (though not for everybody). I think the problem I have comes somewhere around the point where that human need for relationships in general becomes a demand for action from one person in the specific, and I am aware that I'm particularly prickly around that area after having folks mess with my personal sovereignty in various ways in the past.

Where the specific is concerned, I'm way more comfortable with expressing things as 'wants', 'desires', 'requests' and suchlike, because saying no to any of those is (I think) a culturally okay thing, whereas to deny someone a *need* is to cause harm - and to be automatically a bad person for setting my own boundaries if that need is for something I'm not comfortable fulfilling, which is where I go ouch and think about running in the opposite direction!

Re: Comment from Facebook

Comment credit: Victoria Rosa of www.openandawesome.com

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