I believe there are really big differences between needing something and wanting something. And I think in our culture, we are often encouraged to express things as “needs” that are actually “wants.” I think this is an unfortunate practice, because it’s rather inaccurate, and inaccuracy is one of those things that often gets in the way of clear communication. Worse, I think it cements pathways of thought in our minds that would do much better to be kept soft and earthy and ripe for change.
I’m quite sure that many people will disagree with my use of terminology in this way. I’ve met some of them. Some of them write self-help manuals, even, and so by the law of Having Had a Book Published, are probably more entitled to claim Being Right on this count than I. Nonetheless, I will put out my personal lexical schema here for you to peruse and make use of, or discard, as you please.
Need. A need is for a thing that you cannot live without. A need is about survival. And I don’t mean the happy kind. I mean the are-you-still-breathing kind. When someone says “what are your needs in a relationship?” I am often puzzled. My needs are the same as everyone else’s. Food, water, air, warmth, shelter, medical care as appropriate. These things may be related to relationships, but are also fairly independent of them most of the time.
I am willing to acquiesce to a bit of flexibility in the term in the realm of universal (or should-be-universal) deal-breakers. So, for example, it might be accurate to say that in the context of a relationship, our needs include basic respect and freedom from violence and abuse. And by definition, in a relationship, there’s a basic need for the people in question to be interested in one another. Please note that I don’t say “sexually attracted to” or “in love with” or anything else that’s more specific—but they do have to be drawn to one another, or no relationship is gonna happen.
If you wanted to stretch the concept of a need a bit further, you’d perhaps want to include your personal deal-breakers on the list. As in, the things without which you will not consider entering or staying in a relationship. For example, I’d say that a deal-breaker, for me, is honesty. If someone lies to me, even just once and even just about some small thing, that’s actually a big hairy deal. It takes a long time for me to get over; I’m not sure that I ever really do. More than once, and we are probably going to split up. There is the teensiest, tiniest bit of give in there, but hooboy, it is infinitesimally small. So would I say that I need someone to be honest? Probably. “Need” still wouldn’t be my term of choice, but it could serve. Accuracy and all.
A need, to me, is non-negotiable. Which is fine. I think it’s a very good idea to know what your non-negotiable points are. The problem is that a lot of us like to say things like, “I need you to call me and say goodnight every night.” Which really means, “I’d really like you to call me goodnight, and when you do I feel special, and when you don’t I feel nervous that you’ve forgotten about me.” But that’s not a need. That’s a desire, a preference.
Take that further, even. “I need to have four nights of alone time every week” might actually mean “I’ve determined that I function best with a lot of alone time, four nights is what seems to fit best into my current schedule, and I’d really like to ask that you respect my desire for solitude and understand that without it I become a very grouchy bear very quickly.” Phrased as a need, it leaves little choice but “Okay, honey, whatever you need.” Phrased as a preference, a desire, and contextualized, it leaves room for “Cool, that makes sense. Now, if our lives looked like this instead, what would that change? And what does solitude look like to you, and how can I best respect that?” And so forth.
Even further. “I need you to tell me what’s upsetting you” might mean “I’d really like to be there for you when you’re upset.” Phrased as a need, it places the onus on the upset person to reveal what’s going on, irrespective of their preferences. Phrased as a desire, it leaves room for the upset person to talk about the pace of communication that works for them, how they handle their emotions, what would make it easier for them to talk, what kind of support feels good to them.
When you make these things into needs, you’re creating a very rigid framework of non-negotiables, both in your own mind and around the other person’s actions, which can get very controlling and demanding very quickly, even if you’re awfully nice about it. Need is urgent, not very flexible, and difficult to challenge—who am I to tell you I think you don’t need what you say you need? What callous and cruel person would I be if I told you your needs weren’t important? What a disappointment would I be if I couldn’t meet your needs?
Needs are all about you. Wants, desires, ideas, thoughts, feelings—these things open up space for co-creation, for trust, and at their best, for wildly better and more fabulous fulfilments than you ever thought possible.
In my world, at least, the more that’s negotiable, the better. Not because I think we should settle for crappy relationships (or other aspects of our lives) that don’t really make us happy. No, quite the contrary. I have ridiculously high standards when it comes to getting what I want. The idea is, rather, that I think we should give life and breath and flexibility to our wants, allow them to really drive us, allow that driving to create space and nourishment for all sorts of miraculous wonderful things that otherwise would be off the table—because of a rigid “need” that precludes them combined with an underdeveloped sense of wanting that tells us we shouldn’t really put our energy into thinking about things that are too big, too expensive, impossible, that we don’t really deserve.
A lot of people think this is a strange place to draw a line, though—as though somehow a “need” is real but a “want” is just whimsy, and not, therefore, worth much at all. I feel precisely the opposite. I think needs are often cumbersome and limiting, and serve to keep us imprisoned in the tiny boxes of how we think things should go, whereas wants are exquisitely powerful and infinitely beautiful.
The best thing about wants is that there’s absolutely no limit on how many of them you can have. If you have a list of five dozen needs, well, then, the chances of someone being able to meet them all are relatively slim. But you can have a list of five thousand wants, and that’s just dandy. I think we need more wants. Lots of them. Want all you please.
What do I want? Well, that’s quite a question. I want world peace, an end to racism, a good hot meal placed instantly in front of me every time my tummy rumbles. I want boots I can’t afford, a 29-hour day, a six-week annual paid vacation. I want to do yoga twice a week and eat organic vegetables and read a novel for fun one day soon. I want fresh flowers in the house and I want the days to stretch, every time I visit a city full of people I love, so that I can spend quality time with each and every one of them and not feel like I need to limit and schedule and rush and apologize. I want a sunny summer, I want to dance salsa, I want very badly for my relationships to be wonderful and happy. I want my neighbours to stop smoking so much stinky weed, the crack addicts down the street to find wholeness and health, the cars to stop crashing at the intersection outside my window. I want, I want, I WANT. I want so fucking much!
I want to be a photographer, a journalist, an Excellent Dominant, the babysitter you can call to take care of your gorgeous queerspawn at the drop of a hat ‘cause I’m always available (ha!), and with fresh-baked wheat-free chocolate-chip cookies to boot. I want to travel all the time, explore the world; and I want to stay home, putter and paint and write. I want to publish twenty books, be an expert tango dancer, stretch my hamstrings far enough that touching my toes becomes par for the course instead of a cause for celebration. I want, oh good lord, I want to jump in bed with that ridiculously sexy transmasculine queer person I met the other day with whom I exchanged flirtatious pleasantries but not names or phone numbers. I want to let go of my fears and go bungee-jumping and perfect my Spanish and master the next eight levels of sign language and learn Italian so I can visit Italy where my ancestors come from and actually converse with the people there. I want to make art and get buff and kick ass at school and learn to appreciate the curve of my generous ass instead of being convinced, deep down, that I was meant to be a boyish-bodied androgynous type instead of this hourglassy thing I am. I want leather to grow on trees instead of on animals, I want people to stop hurting themselves, I want to see all abusers heal and all abuse survivors get strong. I want an end to poverty, I want to save the environment, I want my brothers never to be hurt or scared. I want, oh great goddess, I want so much that it kills me to stop writing about it, but I remind myself that this is a blog post and not a never-ending story.
All of this to say that I think wants are amazing and strong. And just because we want things, that doesn’t mean we will get them, and I think that’s okay too. There’s something to be said for working hard toward a goal. There’s also something to be said for balance, for picking your battles and causes, for leaving yourself room to breathe, for seeing everything you choose to invest in as a worthy pursuit rather than just seeing all the things you had to choose not to do or be, in order to make that space. There’s something to be said for taking what comes and learning to make the most of it, for accepting what’s not likely to happen and learning to love that space or absence for what it does give you rather than draining out your energy on disappointment or on lamenting the lack of things that would make the perfect picture in your head come true.