One of the most common ideas about how marriage should work is that partners fulfill each other’s “needs”. The idea that “needs-that-must-be-fulfilled” is what we bring to our relationships promotes a self-centered approach to relationships. The concept of need became popular in psychology during the middle of the 20th century as an expression of the more general idea that we are all motivated primarily (or only) by self-interest. The view that human beings act from self-interest and only from self-interest is not new. It has been the dominant view in psychology and in much of Western thought in general.
The view that human nature is motivated ultimately by self-interest applied to intimate relationships translates into the idea that we must fulfill our partner’s self-identified individual needs.
The toxic effects of this position are:
- Needs are demands that must be fulfilled. A need is something we are entitled to have fulfilled.
- They can be exchanged (tit for tat, quid pro quo) but not truly negotiated because they are entitlements.
- To not have a need fulfilled is an injustice that will breed resentment.
- The value of my partner gets defined by the degree to which he “fulfills” my “needs”, satisfies my self-interest. In other words, he has no intrinsic value or worth to me independent of the degree to which he fulfills my self-identified needs, and vice versa, my value to him is based on how well I fulfill his needs.
- There is no end to the list of things I need. All wants, preferences, and desires can be identified as needs.
- I do not have to be concerned about the impact on my partner of fulfilling my self-identified needs.
- People who promote this view tend to adopt the idea that men and women have biologically-determined, inherent and enduring different needs (men are from Mars and women are from Venus). In this view, husbands and wives must fulfill each other’s biologically-based gender needs.
If marriage is to work in the 21st century, it cannot be built around the idea that if we fulfill each other’s self-identified, gendered needs we will live happily ever after.
The idea of partners as having things they want, and the related notion of “preference”, in order to flourish in life is a better way to promote good intimate relationships. A want (or preference) is something that can be negotiated in your relationships; a need demands fulfillment.
To have a want or preference is an expression of oneself; it is an expression of what one believes important to living well, to having a good life. As an expression of oneself, one’s wants and preferences must be acknowledged as standing on their own. At the same time, they are not demands that must be catered to. Wants and preferences are no more than an expression of oneself but they are no less than the expression of oneself. In fact, from my perspective wants (and associated preferences) are the best expression of who I am. My wants derive from my values, my desire to flourish, my gender, and my experience in life. And wants and desires can be negotiated.
The way to create a committed relationship in which each of your wants and preferences are respected and honored in your relationship is through collaborative negotiation. Collaboration is the ultimate form of working together; a synergistic process of shared creation. Collaborating partners operate as a team to achieve a common purpose, which is larger than anything than either could achieve on his/her own. Negotiation collaboratively is the ultimate form of jointly weighing how things are to work out between the two of you. True collaborators are always equals and each partner accepts full responsibility for his/her part in the process of negotiation.
Differences between the sexes, to the degree that we actually know what these are, may be important in determining the individual wants of men and women. As wants or preferences, they can be negotiated, avoiding the risk of having gender differences create the opportunity for an unequal relationship by “privileging” male over female “needs” or vice versa.
Note: To read more about the theoretical and philosophical bases for the concept of “need” as a motivational concept in psychology, I recommend two books by Drs. Mike and Lisa Wallach, both profs of mine at Duke University: (1) Psychology’s Sanction for Selfishness: The Error of Egoism in Theory and Therapy and (2) Rethinking Goodness. Both are brilliant thinkers.
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