Although it is not a cure-all for every troubled relationship, asking for what we want—directly, honestly, calmly—from our spouse or intimate partner has the potential to reduce one of the major communication problems in a relationship. Even if the relationship has long-standing issues that are thorny and complicated, I believe that to improve the relationship significantly each person will eventually need to “own” his/her wants and needs and learn how to ask for what s/he wants from the other. Many of us, however, do not know how to do that, or just as likely we do not feel entitled to do that. Sometimes, we may not even know what we want. Each of these issues will eventually need to be addressed.
In working with couples, I often hear some variation of the complaint: “Well, if she really loved me, she would know what I want.” Some of us may have the romantic, but unrealistic, notion that our partner should anticipate our needs and wants. While that may occur sometimes, it is unlikely to happen consistently and reliably. I indicate gently, but emphatically, to couples that expecting one’s partner to intuit or mind-read is not a part of a healthy relationship. If something is truly important to you, why risk that your partner will not meet your expectation by remaining silent about what it is that you want? Speak up! In fact, your mate may be very grateful to receive explicit direction about what you would like from him. No more guesswork! I maintain that by keeping quiet, you are setting yourself up to be continually disappointed and frustrated, which usually then leads to resentment and perhaps even hostility.
I believe that each of us is primarily responsible for his/her own happiness. We enter into relationship because we have needs and wants that we cannot provide for ourselves, e.g., companionship, sexual satisfaction and fulfillment, emotional connection. However, even for those needs and wants that we cannot provide for ourselves, we still have the primary responsibility to arrange to have them met through our partner. Part of that “arranging” should be discussions with and direct requests to our intimate partner about what we want from him.
I remind couples, however, that just because you have asked for something sincerely, directly from your partner does not automatically mean that she is obliged to grant the request. Perhaps your spouse will be willing to grant your request, perhaps not. By putting it out there, however, it eliminates the guesswork, as mentioned previously, and it may also provide the opportunity to have a genuine discussion or negotiation between the two of you about how—or if—the request will be granted.
The concept of asking for what we want is relatively simple and straightforward, but in practice it can be far more difficult. Since most of us have come from a family system where there is some amount of dysfunction, most of us probably did not see honest, open communication modeled by our caregivers. It is unlikely that we saw our parents asking for what each wanted from the other and then having frank discussions about those needs/wants. Sadly instead, many of us saw our parents manipulate, put out passive-aggressive “hints,” threaten, resort to hysteria and drama, or perhaps even bullying to get what they wanted from the other. Small wonder then that we do not know how to directly, unapologetically ask for what we want from our mate.
Sometimes the most difficult part of learning to ask directly for what we want is to own our needs and wants. Again, if we have come from a dysfunctional background, we become very anxious when we feel vulnerable. One of the ways we may have learned in our childhood to manage our anxiety about feeling vulnerable was to disconnect from our needs and wants (and to disconnect from our feelings, in general). Some of us may have resorted to “caretaking” of others to keep our needs and wants in check. We still have them, but they have gone underground. Thus, in order to ask for what we want now in our current relationship means that we have to finally acknowledge what our wants and needs really are, a scary proposition because it increases our feelings of vulnerability and highlights our dependence on another person. And what if he should say no?!? Learning to identify our needs and wants and then asking another person to help meet them, however, enhances our emotional growth and may also help heal some of our childhood wounds.