As we’ve discussed before, many men these days have trouble being assertive. One of the things these “Nice Guys” struggle with is communicating their needs to others. Because they shy away from conflict, and don’t want to trouble or inconvenience others, they constantly let other people’s needs supersede their own, and they find it difficult to articulate their personal goals and desires. Instead, they rely on “mind-reading,” believing their partners should intuitively know what they need without them having to say anything. If the Nice Guy’s partner isn’t skilled in telepathy, he becomes resentful and begins ascribing negative qualities like selfishness to her, even though he’s never actually given her a fair chance to meet his needs.
Relying on mind-reading to get your needs fulfilled creates feelings of chronic anger and contempt towards your partner, conditions which will almost invariably lead to the demise of your relationship. To keep your relationship strong and happy, it’s up to you to make your needs clearly known. As the authors of Couple Skills, Matthew McKay, Patrick Fanning, and Kim Paleg (hereafter referred to as MFP), put it, nobody is in a better position to understand your needs than you are:
“You have a right to ask for the things you need in a relationship. In fact, you have a responsibility to yourself and your partner to be clear about your needs. You are the expert on yourself. No one else, not even your partner, can read your mind and know what you need in the way of support, intimate contact, time alone, domestic order, independence, sex, love, financial security, and so on.”
So if articulating your needs isn’t something you’ve felt comfortable doing, how do you start going about it? And how do you do it in a way that doesn’t create defensiveness and anger, and offers the best chance of your partner being willing to listen and fulfill that need?
MFP offer a really helpful “needs script” to follow when initiating this kind of sensitive conversation. Obviously, it’s not a word-for-word script – what you say will vary greatly according to your relationship and personal situation. Instead, it offers a very simple template for communicating your needs in a healthy and productive way. However, if expressing your needs is something you really struggle with, you may actually find it helpful to write out your “script” beforehand. You don’t need to read it to your partner, but putting down your thoughts on paper can help you prepare. That way, in the heat of the moment, you don’t fall into old traps of passiveness or aggressiveness and can instead navigate the healthy middle path of assertiveness.
The Needs Script
Situation (specific, objective description of facts). Start off the conversation by offering a straightforward description of the situation you want to address. Leave out analysis, interpretation, and inflammatory or accusatory language – try to make it as specific, impersonal, and objective as possible.
- Our relationship has really sucked lately. We’ve been fighting a lot more than usual these last few weeks.
- Our bedroom looks like a bomb went off. There are a lot of clothes on our bedroom floor.
- Your spending is out of control. We’re $300 over our budget this month.
- I’m going crazy in this sexless marriage. We haven’t had sex in two months.
- I’m always stuck at home and never get to see my friends anymore. I haven’t been out with my friends since the baby came.
Feelings (non-blaming “I” statements). When you tell your partner what you’re feeling, you need to be careful to not vent or explode in a vague, accusatory way (“I’m angry/stressed/upset and you’re to blame!”) which may feel cathartic, but isn’t actually productive. In order to keep the conversation as a problem-solving discussion rather than a heated argument, you want to accurately convey the nature, intensity, and cause of your feelings. So before you begin the conversation, you’ll want to have honed in as much as possible to the specifics of what you’ve been feeling. Once you’ve identified the broad feeling that first comes to mind (angry, upset, hurt, etc.), MFP suggests narrowing down its nature and focus with these modifiers:
- Definition. First, make your broad feeling more specific by adding some synonyms. When you say angry, do you mean angry and stressed, or angry and irritated? Or are you really more confused or disappointed than mad? When you say you’re upset, are you upset and disappointed, or upset and depressed? The more specific descriptors you can use to describe how you’re feeling, the better.
- Intensity. Add modifiers that accurately convey the intensity of your feelings. Have you been feeling a little resentful or a lot? Slightly discouraged or majorly depressed? Be honest here.
- Duration. How long have you been feeling this way? Have you been stressed since you lost your job or ever since you got married? Have you felt irritated for weeks or for days?
- Cause and Context. You want to avoid naming your partner as the cause of your feelings, no matter how tempting, and even if their actions really have been the catalyst. Blame begets defensiveness, not communication. What will result is a fight that doesn’t end up addressing the real problem whatsoever. Instead, try to communicate the cause of your feelings in the form of their impersonal context, and describe your own feelings rather than those of the other person. You can accomplish this by using “I” statements rather than “you” accusations.
- Your clinginess is making me feel suffocated. I miss seeing my friends.
- Your nagging is driving me crazy. Getting numerous reminders about doing something makes me feel patronized.
- You’re such a slob. I feel frustrated when there are things all over the floor.
- You’ve really been bringing me down. I have been feeling depressed and unhappy lately.
- Getting this overdraft notice makes me feel like you’re not competent enough to handle our finances. I get really worried about our finances when I see an overdraft notice arrive in the mail.
Request (for behavior change). MFP spell this part of the script out well: “Ask for a change in behavior only. This is a very important rule. Don’t expect your partner to change his or her values, attitudes, desires, motivations, or feelings. These characteristics are very hard to change. It’s like asking someone to be taller or more intelligent. People feel personally threatened if you ask them to change intangibles that are seen as part of their very nature and beyond their conscious control. For example, what does it mean to ask someone to be ‘more loving’ or ‘less critical’ or ‘neater’? These kinds of requests are heard as attacks, and little real change is likely to result.”
MFP counsels that instead of going after someone’s “core” attributes, and having them react defensively, stick with making a request that they modify a specific, observable behavior.
- I want you to be neater. I would really like it if you could put your dirty dishes away in the dishwasher and close the cabinets after you take stuff out of them.
- I want you to be less critical of me. I would appreciate it if you didn’t make jokes about me being out of work in front of your parents.
- I want you to be more loving. It would mean a lot to me if you gave me a kiss when I came home from work and asked me how my day was.
- I wish you were up for sex more often. I know we’re both crazy busy, but I’d like us to commit to trying to have sex at least once a week, even if that means scheduling it.
- You need to be less clingy. I want to hang out with my friends at least once a month.
When you make your request, only tackle one situation and 1 or 2 observable behavior changes at a time. You don’t want to overwhelm your partner – she’ll just shut down. Pick small changes that will make her feel like, “Okay, that’s reasonable. I can do that.” See if your partner follows through on those changes. If she does, then bring up something else to work on down the line.
Here’s a full example of how the “needs script” might go:
Situation. Ever since the baby came, we’ve both really had our hands full. We haven’t gone out together alone in months.
Feelings. I feel like we’ve become more platonic roommates than lovers. I’ve been feeling really disconnected from you.
Request. I know you’re worried about leaving the baby with a babysitter, but I’d like to try it once, just for a couple of hours, to see how it goes.
Other Things to Keep in Mind
Keep your tone as calm and level as possible. Don’t let anger or annoyance creep into your voice – using even a slightly heated, annoyed, accusatory, or patronizing tone can escalate things into an unproductive argument.
Pick a time when your partner can give you their full attention. Don’t start the conversation while your wife is holding a crying baby or your girlfriend is about to find out whodunit at the end of Law & Order. You don’t want their annoyance about the circumstances to color how they receive your request. Select a time when they’re in a good mood and ready to listen.
Start out by expressing a small need, rather than a large, contentious one, especially if your relationship has been struggling. Once you start meeting each other’s needs successfully, you’ll be in a better position to tackle more polarizing problems.
Don’t feel like having to ask for something makes it less valuable. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that your partner should know what you need without you having to say anything – that if they really loved you and knew you, or weren’t so selfish, they would just naturally do it. You might then feel that a change in their behavior is somehow less “real” or valuable if you had to ask for it. “You’re just doing it because I told you I liked that, not because you really want to.”
But people, even those in the closest of relationships, think and see the world differently. Something may seem obvious to you, but simply not occur to them – not because of some character defect or lack of love — but because they are simply a different person with a different brain than you. Instead of seeing their inability to anticipate your needs on their own as a flaw, accept your differences. And instead of seeing behavior changes you directly asked for as less valuable, appreciate the way they’re willing to meet that need, even if it doesn’t come naturally. It’s just as worthy as a gesture of love and commitment, if not more so.
Communicating needs is not a one-way street. Hopefully this is obvious, but asking someone to meet your needs is not a unilateral process. Encourage your partner to make her needs known as well, and do your best to listen to, understand, and try to meet those needs when you can. In a healthy relationship, both partners are eager to try to do what they can to make the other person happy.
If you’re on the receiving end of a needs request, one of the most important things to do is to try to accept the other person’s “quirks.” You may not understand why she likes things done in a certain way, or how something that can seem so trivial to you can be so important to her, but you have quirks, too, that she finds equally hard to grasp. The more you can compromise and accommodate each other’s unique, but not-so-onerous needs, even without necessarily understanding them, the happier you’ll be.
You have a right to ask, but that doesn’t mean your needs will always be met. Your partner and kids have needs too, and their needs may conflict with yours. Making your needs known is not about issuing an ultimatum, but about open communication, compromise, and cooperation. Maybe your stay-at-home wife doesn’t feel like she can clean the house more consistently, but is willing to stop going out to eat on the weekends and use the saved money to hire a housekeeper. Maybe she isn’t up for all of your sexual fantasies, but is willing to try a few new things. Maybe she isn’t willing to give up her Wednesday night running club so you can go to a shooting class with your buddy, but is willing to watch the kids all Saturday afternoon so you can play golf with him. Even if you don’t come up with the exact solution you had hoped for, being open about your needs will make you a happier, less angry husband or boyfriend.
If your partner is unwilling to compromise or cooperate with you in any way, you have a choice in how to proceed. You can:
- Try to put this one refusal in perspective with all the good things she does offer and bring to the relationship. Is the issue such a big deal in the big picture? If not, you express your disappointment and work to understand why you can’t meet on this issue, but ultimately accept her position. Ask if you can re-open the discussion at another time.
- Utilize a self-care alternative. MFP suggests having a “self-care alternative” in mind when possible in case your partner can’t or won’t meet your needs. For example, if you want to pursue more independent interests, but your partner doesn’t give any ground, you might pay for and enroll in a weekly class you want to take anyway. The self-care alternative is your “or else,” but it’s not meant to be a punitive ultimatum, simply “your plan for solving a problem if you can’t get your partner’s help in a preferred solution.” Because while it doesn’t hurt to ask, in the end, it’s not other people who are ultimately responsible for meeting your needs.
- If an issue is too important to you to simply accept a “No,” and/or if this refusal to meet your needs is a consistent pattern, in which you’re always being walked over while giving a lot in return, you may need to end the relationship.
Couple Skills by Matthew McKay, Patrick Fanning, and Kim Paleg. I read through a bunch of relationship advice books recently looking for some good bits that might be helpful to pass along to readers. This was definitely the best in the bunch. It’s written by men (one of which runs a men’s support group) and includes lots of concrete, useful, practical tips.