How to get what you need from your partner without asking!
Six steps toward making your needs heard (and perhaps even fulfilled!)
We all feel vulnerable and none of us wants to get hurt. Most of us have a core belief[i] that wanting or asking is scary because you risk rejection, ridicule, or shame. Since none of us like being rejected, we protect ourselves in ways that hide our desires. The price we pay for this lack of clarity is that many or our wishes are not heard or fulfilled by our partners, leaving us disappointed, angry, or lonely. We usually assume that their unresponsiveness to our needs stems from a lack of sensitivity, love, or caring. That is sometimes true, but more often than not, their behavior is a direct result of our unformulated ways of communicating.
As a couple therapist, I have developed a paradigm that can help you clarify your relational requests, which I call The Wanting Spiral. The four phases of the spiral of wanting are: Expecting, Demanding, Asking, and Sharing. It is a spiral because you can move up or down depending on your energy, awareness, mood, and effort. As you move up the spiral, you are more aware of your internal needs, which, in turn, allows you to be more explicit in your ask. Being more explicit may make you feel more vulnerable and anxious. Yet nevertheless, such clear communication increases the chances for your partner actually hear and respond to your needs, resulting in a deeper sense of confidence, intimacy, and connection.
First, though, we must distinguish between an external want and an internal need. The external want is your conscious desire, be it a behavior, feeling or goal. The internal need is the human universal necessity that we all share (the need for love, trust, autonomy, etc.). It is more often than not unconscious and is sometimes connected to our deep pain, flaw, or blind spot. It is this need that drives the external Want. Sometimes we recognize our external want, but rarely do we know (and even more rarely express) our internal need.
Wanting is an internal desire for something. When you are conscious of your want, sometimes you don’t dare to express it because of fear or embarrassment, or a sense that you don’t deserve it. Therefore, you often will keep your wants private which keeps you safe, but also lonely. After a while, unformulated wants turn into expectations.
Although you may not even be fully aware of your need, you may begin to expect your partner to fulfill this desire. You may begin by telling yourself: “A normal partner, somebody who loves me and who is decent would surely understand this want and fulfill it without my even asking.” Like an infant with a deep symbiosis with a caretaker, we expect our needs to be intuited and met without a need for verbalizing them. This normal childhood fantasy never fully leaves us, and often our fantasy of such complete intimacy is actually a wish to return to that more complete mind-reading symbiotic care-taking phase. After all, implicit expectations are the modern day expression of our infantile symbiotic fantasy.
Should our partner not succeed in intuiting our needs or reading our minds, the needs may start being expressed as demands, or commands, or, in more extreme cases, as ultimatums.
The problem with demanding is once you demand something, you enter a lose-lose situation. If your partner agrees to the demand, you will never know whether they did it because they wanted to or because they were scared of you. And even if they did what you demanded, most chances are you won’t really be satisfied and feel seen because it didn’t come from them.
Another difficulty about demanding is that there is also a high probability that your partner will purposely ignore, refuse, or behave passive aggressively, especially if they were feeling tested regarding your expectations. Demanding is a sure way to create more tension and negative sentiment override in a relationship.
The next step in the wanting spiral requires a higher degree of self-reflection and differentiation (click here for a video explaining differentiation). In this phase, you explicitly ask for what you want. This act is essentially letting go of the infantile symbiotic fantasy. You enter a “high risk-high gain” situation — where you might get rejected, ridiculed, or ignored, but you also risk having your wants and needs fulfilled. In this phase, the relationship becomes “hotter” with both partners being more vulnerable, intimate, and authentic as well.
With all of the dangers that asking entails, it also holds the possibilities for greater understanding and clearer communication. Once you and your partner are solid enough and differentiated enough that you are able to hear each other’s wants without feeling responsible, then you can enter the last phase of the wanting spiral which is sharing.
In this phase, each partner self-reflects and self-confronts to discover their own internal need that is at the core of the external want. Sharing with your partner is when you open up and share your internal need without expecting them to do anything in return.
Sharing is different than expecting. Sharing is more of a vertical statement, about yourself that you are sharing with your partner. This requires both partners to be solid, confident, and clear, as this is clearly different from a demand. This phase also offers the highest possibilities for self-understanding as well as personal growth and the growth as a couple.
How can you move up the spiral?
- Reflect and recognize one unformulated want. With some self-reflection, you might even discover the internal need that is at the core of your want.
- Share with your significant other this article so you have a common language and understanding in order move up in the spiral.
- Dare to be more explicit and move up in the spiral with your significant other.
a. If you are in the expecting or demanding stage, then dare to ask directly.
b. If you have been asking unsuccessfully, dare to share.
4. Sharing — Prepare your partner beforehand to just listen from a non-reactive position. They don’t have to do anything in response to what you say.
5. Start verbalizing your want while allowing yourself to go deeper and reflect on why that want is important to you. What is the need underneath the external want? Don’t try to formulate clever or coherent sentences, just “broadcast live” your stream of consciousness. After you have verbalized your want and, hopefully also your need, try to stay open and not retreat or close off due to embarrassment or awkwardness.
6. If and when you slide down the spiral back to expecting or demanding from your partner, be kind and forgiving to yourself. It’s natural and unavoidable and will happen from time to time. Breath, forgive yourself and dare once again to ask and share.
It’s a spiral. We spiral up, we spiral down. We’re constantly in a state of flux. Moving up the spiral allows both more closeness with your partner while enhancing your sense of honesty and congruence. You might be surprised to discover that you can open and meet yourself in the presence of your loved one, even if they refuse your requests. Ultimately, you might not fulfill your symbiotic fantasy, but you can create a mature, differentiated bond that will allow you both to grow.
Originally published at https://www.psychologytoday.com.