In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

I Need You More Than Want You

The place of need in romantic love

"I need you more than want you, And I want you for all time." Jimmy Webb

The song "Wichita Lineman," which was written by Jimmy Webb in 1968, is about a man working in rural Oklahoma. His simple job, in which he is all alone most of the time, requires him to fix damaged phone lines along the long roads. He keeps thinking about his beloved wife who is far away. He likes his work, but still needs "a small vacation", but is unable to have even a small one. He is torn between his love for his woman and his love for his work—a conflict that is typical of distant relationships.

The man says, "And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time." This is by no means a straightforward desire. To begin with, deep love is usually understood as involving disinterested care for the beloved, regardless of the lover's need. Furthermore, it is not entirely clear what the difference is between need and want, and how can you need something more than you want it even though you want it for all time. In clarifying these predicaments, the distinction between romantic intensity and romantic profundity is central.

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The legitimacy of need as a reason for love

At first glance, the claim "I need you more than want you" seems insulting, as it may imply that your love is concerned with your own selfish needs rather than your romantic desires or the needs of the other person.

The Jewish Ethics of the Fathers says: “Whenever love depends upon something [external to love], and then this thing passes, then the love passes away too. But if love does not depend upon something like this, then love will never pass away.”Are one's needs external to love? Sometimes it is certainly perceived this way. Thus, we are familiar with statements such as: “You don’t love me; you just need my body (money, status, wisdom, cooking talents, etc.).” Love has been described as involving genuine and disinterested care for the beloved—that is, care which is not determined by any benefit that the lover might receive in return. However, in the beautiful song quoted above, the man's love is based upon his need and not upon the beloved's need. Can a need be a legitimate reason for love?

I believe it can, if a certain conception of love is adopted. In this regard, the distinction between the other-validated and the self-validated models of romantic relationships is useful.

The other- and self-validating models of romantic love

The other-validated model of romantic love is based on the anticipation of one’s partner’s acceptance, while the self-validating model relies on one maintaining one’s own autonomy and self-worth. While romantic love involves both types of attitudes, the self-validated model is by far more significant.

The other-validated model is expressed in its extreme in Emmanuel Levinas’ view, which considers the other to constitute the center and the ultimate preoccupation of the lover's meaningful world. Hence, “the relationship with the other is not symmetrical… at the outset I hardly care what the other is with respect to me, that is his own business; for me, he is above all the one I am responsible for.” Love “is originally without reciprocity, which would risk compromising its gratuitousness or grace or unconditional charity.” According to this view, one should even be prepared to sacrifice one’s life for the beloved (1998, 105, 228-229).

As an alternative to the other-validated model, David Schnarch (1997) proposes the model of self-validated intimacy, which relies on each person maintaining his or her own autonomy and self-worth. In this model, the foundation of long-term marital intimacy is differentiation, which is the ability to maintain one's sense of self while in close intimate contact with one's beloved who may pressure the lover to be consistent with the beloved's attitudes and needs. This model does not attempt to maintain the exciting period of infatuation forever (though this may nevertheless happen), but rather encourages the self-development and fulfillment of each partner and thus requires greater autonomy, sensitivity, and flexibility to the complex circumstances. Each must keep pace with the other’s development in order to keep the relationship alive; similarly, each must exhibit self-control and not try to control the other.

The shift in emphasis from the other to the self should be distinguished from egocentrism or self-centeredness. Attempting to nurture your capacities and genuine needs, while at the same time developing a loving equal relationship with another person, is not egocentric. A flourishing relationship cannot exist if one partner is not flourishing. Promoting self-validated intimacy should distinguish between profound needs and superficial wants. Only needs are essential for constant personal flourishing.

Needs and wants

A need is something essential—people need food, water, and shelter because these are necessary in order to survive and flourish. Romantic needs enable the flourishing and survival of a profound romantic relationship; they include, for example, shared valuable activities, caring, reciprocity, and nurturing each other. Want is something you would like to have; it is a desire or an inclination for something. Wants are nice to have, and they contribute to the overall quality of the relationship; however, they are not as essential as needs. Romantic wants may refer, for example, to the following activities with the beloved: having sex, going out for dinner, watching TV, walking in the mountains, sharing gossip, and telling jokes.

As fulfilling one'spersonal needs is essential for the flourishing of the relationship and hence for the flourishing of the beloved as well, such fulfillment is not egoistic; rather, it is of great value to ensuring the happiness of both. It is an excellent deal, like getting one plus one for the price of one: for the price of fulfilling one's personal needs, you are also helping the relationship to flourish (and typically also fulfilling the partner's needs). Fulfilling one's wants may also be beneficial but not to the extent that fulfilling one's needs is, and it runs the risk of becoming an addictive occupation that disregards profound needs, isolates the "wanter" from the interaction in the relationship, and can become egotistical and selfish.

I would like to suggest that romantic needs are mainly concerned with romantic profundity in the long term, whereas romantic wants, or desires, are mainly concerned with romantic intensity in the short term.

Romantic intensity and romantic profundity

Romantic intensity mostly expresses a snapshot picture of a romantic experience in a given moment. Romantic profundity refers to the dynamic and ongoing activities, which are constitutive of romantic love in the long term. In romantic profundity the temporal dimension of love is added. Accordingly, romantic profundity is described along two axes: intensity and the temporal (duration and frequency) dimension. Thus, a short sexual desire may be more intense than a longer experience of romantic love, but less profound. The profundity of a romantic experience is different from how intensely it is felt, as it also involves shared activities that fulfill needs essential for personal flourishing, as well as for the flourishing of the whole relationship.

Short-term features, such as attractiveness and intense desire, are given great weight at the beginning of relationships, but their value in the long run is limited. Features such as caring, kindness and reciprocity, are given less weight when the decision is taken in the short run, but are essential needs constituting romantic profundity and enabling the long duration of love. This can explain many cases in which the spouse was perceived at the wedding as a romantic compromise (since romantic intensity was not that high), but after years together, their shared activities considerably increase romantic profundity, so that the spouse is eventually considered the great love of the agent's life.

Romantic intensity often clashes with romantic profundity. Thus, the desire to engage in sexual activities with one's lover is intense; however, in some cases blocking this desire can increase profundity and desirability. Two ways of doing this are "Playing hard to get" and the "In due course policy."Nevertheless, people often do not use these methods and compromise on profundity in order to achieve more intense superficial experiences.

The essential role of needs in profound romantic relationships does not invalidate the romantic value of little things. Love is often described in terms of grand deeds, such as moving (and not merely climbing) mountains. Love can indeed induce such deeds, but usually it is the little things that mean a lot more in love. These little things, be they gestures, actions, or words, are the many small things that we do every day and that naturally express our heart. They are not the result of calculations or intentions, but are rather spontaneous expressions of what we want to do. Small manifestations of our love, such as blowing a kiss, touching our beloved's hair as we pass her, linking arms when crossing the street, and sending the warmth of a secret smile, are natural and spontaneous actions that genuinely reflect, more than any expensive present, the heart of the lover. As such gestures can be expressed throughout the day, they articulate our continuous love. The combination of the little things, which express our wants, and the more meaningful activities, which fulfill our profound needs, is at the heart of great love stories.

The intensity of less profound wants, such as sexual desire, is considerably increased by replacing the object; since the want is not so deep-seated, merely repeating it with the same person can produce boredom. In contrast, increasing romantic profundity, which enhances personal flourishing, often involves increasing familiarity with the object. Romantic intensity is a one-time achievement, which people desire to experience again and again (as is expressed, for instance, in having orgasms). Romantic profundity is an ongoing process that combines both romantic intensity and meaningful shared activities over time.

It seems that in our digital and global society, more people give up the search for romantic profundity and are satisfied with occasional instant sexual intensity. Nevertheless, it appears that most people still yearn for romantic profundity, which gives them the romantic calmness and certainty that are of great value in life.

Concluding remarks

Extramarital loving relationships (as opposed to merely sexual affairs) are characterized by the lack of fulfillment of certain basic romantic needs. In such loving relationships basic needs, such as being together with the beloved all the time, sharing essential everyday activities, raising a family together, are not fulfilled. It comes as no surprise to learn that Glen Campbell, the singer of this moving song, said that Jimmy Webb wrote the song about his first love affair with a woman who married someone else.

Claiming that I need you more than I want you indicates that my need to be with you, to share my valuable activities with you, and to establish a meaningful flourishing life with you is greater than my want to touch, have sex, or go out for a dinner together. Our needs are "more" than our wants in both the temporal dimension of frequency and duration, and in the profoundness dimension of the necessity and centrality of these activities. In the song, this man's need is so great that he also wants the nonessential activities to last for all time.

It seems that the cost of being so much in love with someone is that you have to bear the suffering of being away from her. The price of nurturing the beloved's flourishing includes providing the beloved with a personal space in which she can engage in her personal intrinsic activities, some (but not all) of which are not necessarily done with her lover.

References

Levinas, E. (1998). On thinking-of-the-other. London: Althlone Press.

Schnarch, D. (1997). Passionate marriage: Love, sex, and intimacy in emotionally committed relationships. New York: Norton.

 

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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