As the new year approaches, we are naturally drawn to reflect upon the past year. Reflections of this sort tend to reveal our successes, as well as the areas in which we hope to improve upon during the following year. ‘Taking stock’ in this sense, permits us to set meaningful goals for ourselves, which often include goals that help us to achieve a positive impact on the quality of relationships that are most important to us. In our intimate relationships, for example, one of our goals might be as simple as asking for what we need.
As a psychotherapist, I have noted in my work with couples that one of the more common complaints that arise sounds like this: “He/she should have known that I wanted (or didn’t want) X, Y, or Z”. After asking them how their partner should have known this, or if they’ve actually revealed this information to their partner, I often hear that they haven’t told their partners, mainly due to an internal belief that says “if he/she loved me, or cared about me, he/she would have known”. That’s not necessarily the case.
Let me provide a hypothetical example: A woman wants to find a dress for a special occasion and goes shopping with her husband. As she begins to pick out various options, she turns to consult with him but instead sees him wondering down another aisle casually perusing other merchandise. She feels angry. He believes he’s giving her the space to take her time, yet she feels abandoned by him and is convinced he’s not interested – not only in shopping (which he likely is not) – but in being with her at all. She had never told him prior to this event that his being involved in the process was important to her, but instead she believed that ‘he should just know’.
Upon first glance, this example may appear quite trivial. However, if this sort of miscommunication occurs often enough, and individual(s) begin to assume the inability of their partner to meet their needs is a reflection of their lack of commitment to them, or their relationship, then trouble is not far behind. It doesn’t take long for small resentments (or fears), as illustrated in the example above, to grow into a relationship busting proposition. And one of the most effective tools to prevent this is simply communication.
If it’s so simple, why aren’t more people willing to practice it? There are likely many possible explanations, but here are just a few common ones. One of them, and one that’s deeply rooted in the notion of ‘romantic love’, is the belief that if someone really loves us, they will intuitively know how to please us. Words are simply not necessary. Unfortunately, fairly tales, movies, books and other media forms tend to reinforce this belief system. For example, it was in the movie, “A Love Story”, where the painfully romantic declaration ‘love means never having to say sorry’ was born. In other words, saying ‘sorry’ or sharing other such feelings is simply unnecessary if one is truly in love. However, as we well know, love does not only mean saying sorry; it also means saying a whole lot more.
Another explanation is rooted in a fear of rejection. In such a case, the individual might hesitate being vulnerable to their partner for fear that their request might be judged negatively. Perhaps previous experience, either within their current relationship, or in one from their past – even in their childhood – taught them it wasn’t safe to ask for what they wanted from others. And, if the person judges their own need as being trivial in any way, that will only act to increase their fear of revealing this need to their partner.
Closely associated with this last explanation is the belief that it’s not appropriate for a man (or a woman) to ask for what they need. If they need it, according to this belief, they should get it for themselves, or just do without – and not complain about it. Buried in this belief are notions about what it means to be ‘a man’ or to be ‘a woman’, and unfortunately, many of these individuals who attempt to live within these rigid boundaries rarely ever get what they need to feel loved in relationships.
In addition to the explanations offered above, there are no doubt many more that you can think of. But now that you may have some understanding of why you don’t ask for what you need from your partner, knowing how you can begin the process might be helpful. Here are just a few strategies that can help you get started:
- Identify your unmet needs by writing about them or perhaps by talking to a friend;
- Gain some insight into the reason(s) why this need has not been communicated to your partner in the past (understanding it might help to break through your fear of doing so);
- Attempt to communicate this need to your partner when you feel the time is most amenable;
- If verbal communication feels too intimidating (or has failed in the past), try writing it in a letter to your partner, which may result in less defensiveness – on either side – which might increase the probability of being ‘heard’; and
- As a more comprehensive guide to steps you might take, you might want to read “Getting the Love You Want” (1988) by the well-regarded relationship therapist, Harville Hendrix, Ph.D.
Regardless of the reasons we have for not asking for what we need, if we work to break through these barriers, much is to be gained all around. For example, we’re more likely to get what we need; we will find ourselves feeling less resentment; asking, in and of itself, is a healthy process regardless of the outcome, simply because it aids in building a deeper connection between the couple; we permit our partner the opportunity (the gift) of fulfilling a need that they might otherwise not be able to if they didn’t know. And finally, the process of asking for what we need can model healthy relationship behaviors to our children who, in turn, may begin to apply this technique to their relationships with us as well as with their peers.