There is certainly a semantic distinction between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’, but in a relationship context it feels to me a bit like splitting hairs to insist on the differentiation. A bit like how I feel about jealousy vs envy, really; yes, you can sit and argue the distinction as long as you like, but if the outcome is ‘someone feeling shitty and in need of reassurance’, it doesn’t make much difference what word you give the emotion, as long as you have words and thoughts enough to communicate and explain and ask for what you need. It’s very useful on an individual basis to be able to label (and therefore legitimise, to some extent) your feelings, but it’s massively un-useful to tell someone that they’ve given their feelings the wrong name.
So things I want in a relationship I might term ‘wants’; someone else might term things of the same importance ‘needs’. If they have the same impact, it doesn’t make much difference what you call them as long as you talk about what they are. Words are only a poor standby for translating the thoughts and concepts in my head into thoughts and concepts in your head; language is the best we can do, in the absence of telepathy, and you can never be certain that someone else attaches all the same meanings to a word as you intended them to (see also the ‘I’m sorry’ discussion). And I want to talk about Wittgenstein and philosophy of mind here, but I’m saving that for another post.
A rough distinction, in my head, is that needs are deal-breakers – for example, I need someone I’m in a relationship with to be fundamentally kind and thoughtful towards other human beings, rather than thoughtless or callous. Without that, I couldn’t have a functioning relationship with them (and wouldn’t want to). A want seems like a preference but non-essential – for example I want someone I’m in a relationship with to have a fulfilling career/professional life that excites them (mostly!) but it’s not like I couldn’t have a great relationship with someone without that. I was joking with a friend the other day about how I ought to start dating someone who likes black olives, as I can’t stand them and don’t have anyone to palm them off on. That’s a pretty low-level want 😉
Needs and wants also require a certain level of self-knowledge. The Rake and I used to joke that if we’d written a list of characteristics of an ideal partner before we met, we’d never have matched up with each other. It’s funny because it’s sort of true – and speaking only for myself, that came from a lack of self-knowledge at the time about what was genuinely important to me and what characteristics worked well with my own personality, versus what was on my fantasy/nice-to-have list. If you know yourself well, can see your own positive attributes and flaws, know what your life goals are, and understand how those fit in with other people, you find it much easier to define your needs and wants realistically. Most people have come across friends who have an unrealistic laundry list of required attributes in a partner, and who find it hard to meet anyone who lives up to their standards. But then, perfect self-knowledge is pretty much unattainable. We just have to muddle along as best we can, and assume everyone else is trying to do the same thing.
I used to be accused of being ‘too picky’ in my single days. I just far preferred being single and enjoying my own company (and working out who I was and what I wanted) than spending time in a relationship that would ‘do for now’. I still am pretty picky, I think; I just happen to be in the extraordinarily fortunate situation of having found more than one person who fits my very high standards. Long may it last.
I think self-knowledge is really the key; not only to define what your needs and wants are, but to work out what is a deal-breaker and what isn’t. We all take in influences from all over the place – friends, family, society, films, books, magazines… We all find some things easier to kick against than others; in choosing a polyamorous relationship model, I and others have had to ignore substantial social messages in favour of monogamy. For me, that’s not been a huge problem – but on the other hand, I’m very close to my family and respect their opinions. When I came out to my mum or my sister about poly stuff, if instead of being positive and supportive they’d been critical and negative, I think I would have had real trouble with that and would have re-questioned my choices. I certainly hope I would have come to the same conclusion, but still.
Self-knowledge is what helps you separate out external influences from what you really and truly want. Sometimes it’s the same thing, of course. But without at least a reasonable level of self-knowledge, it’s nearly impossible to work out what you want versus what you think you want.
Mind you, how to achieve better self-knowledge? That’s a bit of a big topic… And not one I think I could come close to answering!
Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month six bloggers – ALBJ, An Open Book, More Than Nuclear, One Sub’s Mission, Post Modern Sleaze, and Rarely Wears Lipstick – will write about their views on one of them.