“I don’t know if I can stay in this relationship unless Carl* gets better at paying attention to my needs,” Rob states.
“What do you need from Carl?” I ask.
“I need him to be more supportive.”
“Are you talking about the party?” Carl asks.
Carl is referring to an incident several months back, when Rob, who is not “out” at his workplace, declined to take Carl to his company holiday party.
Carl took offense and told Rob that he should “grow up” and stop keeping his life partner a secret.
Rob then became angry at Carl for not believing that coming out would jeopardize Rob’s job.
“Well, if we’re talking about needs,” says Carl, “I don’t think you’re meeting my needs too well, either. I didn’t sign on to have a partner who’s ashamed of me. I need a partner who lets me call him at work and takes me to company events.”
“What would it mean for you to have Carl be more supportive?” I ask Rob.
“He would understand that I can’t be out at work.”
Carl jumps in. “But I don’t!”
“I’m your partner,” Rob replies. “I need you to support me unconditionally.”
“I could say the same thing,” replies Carl.
In my work as a couples therapist, I see this sort of thing happen all the time: Both people in a couple believe that “it is my partner’s job to meet my needs”.
But is this the way relationships work best?
“What’s the point of being in a couple if your partner’s not going to meet your needs?” Rob states.
“What if your partner can’t do what you want him to do? Or simply doesn’t want to?” I counter.
He thinks for a long minute, and his anger comes up. “What am I supposed to do–accept that he’s not going to give me what I need?”
Rob is asking a great question.
When we’re children, and we can’t take care of ourselves, it is someone else’s job to meet our needs. Ideally, our parents should take that role. But when we grow up, meeting our needs becomes our own job.
To make matters even more interesting, most of us confuse “needs” with “wants”. We need food, air, water, shelter, and some clothing. Everything else (yes, this includes sex!) is a want.
Confusing needs with wants and telling our partners that “they are not meeting our needs” is a harmful, shaming tactic. You may strong-arm your partner into getting what you want from him or her, but you’re likely to gravely damage your relationship by doing so.
Far better to resolve that your needs are your job, ask your partner for what you would like, and accept that you’re not always going to get what you want. It’s not your partner’s job to meet all your requests.
If you and your partner are driving each other crazy, trying to control each other’s behavior or attacking each other, feel free to contact me. I can help you get clear how to behave in ways that you actually respect and feel good about, ways that will help you have a better relationship.
*All names and identifying details altered in this article.