There is no perfect time, place, or way to tell someone what you need from him, yet most popular psychology books on relationships stress finding the right time and way to talk about issues. The truth, however, is that the what is usually more important than the how or when. Once you have a clear understanding of your needs, or at least some of them, you know the what. Then, it’s important to just give them without worrying too much about the perfect opportunity that often never comes.
This was certainly true for Leah, whose husband, Tony, had erected such emotional barriers around himself that at times it seemed he was an absent husband and father even when he was in the house. When he wasn’t working, he was watching TV sports or out drinking a few beers with the guys. When he was home, he tended to make derogatory comments to Leah and the kids. His lack of support for her or the family was a strong factor in her depression.
Tony was unusually resistant to change or even talking things over. Leah told her Uplift group, “I’ve tried using tact and ‘I language’ and waiting for the right time, just like the books said to do. But he just accuses me of complaining and says no wonder he doesn’t want to spend much time together if I’m always on his case.
He says I should just support him, and a couples’ therapist we saw agreed. But I tried that and nothing changed.”
We told Leah not to worry about the how just yet, but to get to the what first.
After much hard work, she came up with a very functional set of needs for her husband. As instructed, she tried not to dwell as she did so on whether Tony would meet them. But now was crunch time. Her needs weren’t doing her any good hidden away in a drawer.
One Saturday afternoon, she told her Uplift group, she came into the family room and switched off the TV set. “I’m putting our relationship on the line,” she told her startled husband. “It’s simply not working for me. I don’t want to leave you, but I can’t stay anymore under these conditions. I need you not to interrupt me or leave the room as I tell you what the conditions are under which I can stay.
Just listen and tell me whether you will meet these needs. I’ll make my decision about what I do next based on what you say.”
Leah gave Tony her most pressing red-zone needs: spending at least two hours on weekdays with her and the kids, being on time for dinner, and not criticizing or snapping at the kids. On weekends, she wanted five hours a day, but he could choose the time so that he didn’t have to miss his favorite sports.
As she read her needs, her voice trembled, but she didn’t stop. There were no histrionics, no accusations. At one point a tear coursed down her face, but she wiped it off with her hand and went on. Finally, she looked up at her husband. Would he yell or threaten to leave? She was so emotionally exhausted she was almost numb.
“I didn’t realize it was that bad,” said Tony quietly.
“Well, it’s not that there haven’t been some good times, but yes, it is that bad.”
“You really mean it, about leaving if I don’t change, don’t you?”
“Honey, I really do.” She swiped at another tear but did not break eye contact.
“What if I can’t stop saying things you think are critical? It’s the way I talk.”
“Well, I can’t live with it, and it’s bad for the kids.”
“I’ll try. But what if I mess up sometimes?”
The bombast was gone; the worry was real. Leah smiled, and her tears really started to flow. But they were tears of relief. “Then you have to have a consequence, just like the kids.” A quiet chuckle. “You have to take me shopping for an hour and watch me try on at least ten outfits and give me your opinion of them with no criticism of me.”
“TEN OUTFITS?” Mock outrage, perhaps relief. “You drive a hard bargain, woman!”
“Maybe I’m worth it.”
“Maybe you are. Now, how about bringing me some potato chips while I catch up with the game. I’ll . . . uh . . . be through about five, then maybe we can . . . uh. . . take a walk with the kids or something.”
The relationship wasn’t in the clear yet. But Leah and Tony had just had their first genuine conversation in years, perhaps ever. And as a result of Leah’s giving her red-zone needs, the long-range forecast was looking a lot better, for both the relationship and her emotional health.
The How-to of Giving Needs
The method of presenting your needs, like the content of the needs themselves, will vary widely depending on what sort of relationship you have with the person they are for. For example, you can present them either verbally or in writing, separately or all together. However, a few overall guidelines—some of which we’ve already mentioned—deserve repeating:
1. Whenever possible, give the needs at a quiet, calm moment, preferably before a situation they refer to arises. However, if the person has crossed your boundaries, don’t be afraid to state the need then and there, regardless of circumstances, as Marty did with Stan. For example, “That’s not an appropriate way to speak to me.
I need you not to criticize me again.” Exceptions may include the children being in the room and your physical safety being compromised. In which case, give the need at the next appropriate opportunity.
2. State your needs clearly and to the point. Don’t feel required to justify them. In a close relationship where you want the other person to understand you better, you can, however, choose to say why these are your needs and how they relate to your program.
3. Needs giving is a two-way process. For important relationships you will probably have to explain what functional needs are when you ask for theirs. Don’t forget to mention that these needs will form the conditions of your relationship; they aren’t simply whims.
4. The needs process often encounters a resistance minefield—both on your part and theirs. Give yourself and them a timetable for the exchange, and stick to it.
Make sure you keep copies of needs you both agree to meet. These contracts have a strong tendency to get lost. You also need to keep these agreements up to date, as they may change. The important thing is to start the process soon.
Stating what you need from someone can be frightening if you’re not used to doing so. If you’re nervous about using the “N” word, here’s a tip: use the word need whenever possible. Whenever you buy something, inform the clerk that you “need a receipt.” Tell your grocer that you “need” him to tell you which vegetables are fresh today, your friend that you “need” to change the time you were going to pick him up for the movies, or your boss that you “need” him to tell you if the deadline for a certain project changes. Make a game of it and see how many times you can say “I need you to . . . ” in a single day. Stop yourself every time you sense that your tone or words are apologetic when you ask for something.
Now let’s look more closely at how to exchange more significant needs with specific people in your life. In the next chapter we’ll explain how you negotiate your needs and come up with agreements, or contracts.
Lover and Life Partner
If your partner is receptive, you may want to start discussing the needs process right away, describing how you think it will help you and the relationship. You can give him some examples of your needs and encourage him to think about what he needs from you. However, at some point soon you will want to present them to your partner at a more structured needs meeting.
If you and your partner are having difficulty communicating, you may want to be fully prepared with a complete needs list before you try to explain the concept.
But it’s essential to keep up your momentum, so if possible don’t let more than a week go by after you’ve prepared your initial needs list before presenting it or starting to.
It’s also vital to get a commitment from your partner regarding exactly when he will give you his needs list. Remember that you both can adjust these needs as the relationship progresses. The real danger is that the process might get waterlogged and sink before you solve your problems.
Do not invite your partner to help you formulate your needs or offer to do the same for him. This is one of the few things you should do on your own. Otherwise, you risk being swayed by the other person’s opinion and his program. If you feel confused, get feedback from a third party instead.
To ensure that the needs meeting won’t be interrupted, take steps ahead of time such as organizing a baby-sitter or turning off the phones. Make sure you have your written needs on hand.
When it comes to exchanging needs, you can decide together how many to do at a time and whether to give all of one person’s needs before the other starts, or to alternate. Most couples choose the latter. After reading each need, ask first if your partner understands what you mean, and then if he will meet it (here’s where some negotiation may come in). We recommend meeting weekly or once every two weeks at first to exchange and review needs.
If your partner refuses to take your needs seriously or to communicate clearly what he needs from you, there is really nothing more you can do for the relationship. He is telling you either that he doesn’t want a relationship with you or that he only wants it on his terms—which he won’t discuss. And you have a right to reply,
“I hear you!” and make decisions based on that information.
Source Credits: Creating Optimism: A Proven, 7-Step Program for Overcoming Depression, Based on the popular Uplift program, written by Bob Murray Ph. D., and Alicia Fortinberry, published by Mcgraw-Hill