An exchange with an anonymous (male) reader about this post from last August
about men not understanding that women want to feel desired has had me thinking a lot lately, and in this post I'll share some of those thoughts, and how my view has evolved a bit because of our discussion.
Our discussion started like so: my reader argued that in the post I claimed that men don’t need to feel desired, and he feels strongly that they do have such a need. He said he has been in relationships of both kinds and they are “like night and day.” (So have I, and I agree completely.) In my reply, I admitted that I could have been more precise in my post: it’s not so much that they don’t need to feel desired as that many men have never thought about it, because they have never experienced feeling desired—needed, or even wanted in some vague sense, but rarely desired.
The issue of whether most men do or do not need to feel desired is ultimately an empirical question: I think the answer is no and my reader disagrees. Absent some data, there’s no definitive way to settle the question, and either of us may be right. Fair enough!
But the more interesting question—and the one that made it difficult for me to respond to this reader at all, because I felt I was avoiding the real issue—is should men need to feel desired? More specifically, is it good or healthy to have such a need? My reader implied the answer is yes, saying in his original comment that “I'm not sure where this notion that men don't need to be desires came from, but it certainly isn't healthy.” I’m not so sure, but let’s think about this some more.
In a limited sense the answer to “should men need to feel desired?” is clearly yes, because it would help them understand how many woman feel—and may even help them walk the fine line between respect and desire that I described in my original post. In this way, however, feeling desired serves a purely instrumental purpose, helping a man understand the woman he’s involved with, but not necessarily helping him directly in any way.
In the exchange with the commenter, I made the analogy to a need for touch. Most all of us like to be touched, and we would probably say we need to be touched; many doctors attest to this basic human need as well. But if someone had not been touched in a long time—at least not affectionately, romantically, or sexually—that person may forget or not be aware of any such need. Call it self-deception or sublimation at the worst, or adaptation at the best; some of us are simply good at not wanting or needing what we can’t have. And if you were never touched at all—as unhealthy as that state would be for you—I imagine you would be unlikely to feel or realize that you need it. And if we do need to be touched on a basic level, it would be better if we felt that need so we would seek out touch.
So the question “should men need to feel desired?” actually collapses to the question “do men need to feel desired?” Basically, if something is good for us, then feeling a need for it is good because that makes it more likely that we’ll seek out what we need. For example, we need food, so we feel hungry to motivate us to find food. Likewise, if men have an essential need to feel desired, they should feel that need so they will seek that out ways to satisfy it by being made to feel desired.
However, this is where it gets more complicated, because for one reason or other, most men are rarely told that they’re desired. They may need to feel desired, and they may even recognize that need, but for some reason, that need doesn’t get fulfilled. It would be great if that changed, of course. But if this lack of fulfillment is due to traditional gender norms and behaviors that are slow to change, then we need to amend our question to “should men feel the need to be desired even if this is unlikely to happen?”
Think of the person who has never been touched and doesn’t realize he or she needs it. Is such a person better off not realizing this need, or realizing it and being disappointed? (Such a person might say, “I never realized I needed to be touched, but now that I do, I’m very sad that I’m not being touched.”) Is ignorance bliss, as they say—are people such as this better off not knowing what they were missing? Perhaps they are, if only in terms of peace of mind, but this doesn’t change the fact that they are still missing something they need, whether they know it or not. And they need to realize it before they can actively seek it out—even if that search will be difficult and seem futile at times.
Even if traditional gender norms make it difficult for women to tell men they’re desired, though, each couple can decide to act differently. And it isn’t just up to the woman to tell the man that he’s desired—the man can tell the women he needs to be told. (Neither may be easy, but they are important!) It may not seem the same if he has to ask, of course, but after a while, he’ll forget he asked, especially once he realizes how good it is to be told he’s not only needed or appreciated, but truly desired.
Does this desire need to be spoken? A friend suggested to me that partners don’t have to tell each other they’re desired—they can show it as well. I agreed, but added that men will not necessarily interpret expressions of desire as reflecting desire so much as appreciation or affection—both of which are fantastic, of course, but are not the same as desire. And if men need to feel desired, and they’re unlikely to interpret nonverbal expressions of desire, they might need to be told. (After all, men and women alike often miss signals we’re not expecting.)
In the end, I still don't believe that all men need to feel desired, but I’m sure more men would recognize this need if they experienced the feeling. I'm not going to go as far as to say that men who don't have this need are lacking in any way—even though many human needs are shared, not all of us share all of the same needs. However, those men who do need to feel desired should definitely acknowledge that need and seek out someone who will fulfill it.
For those men who have never felt desired, I hope that they can experience that feeling so they can enjoy it and find out if they need it or not. And if some men who have never felt this need do find out that they need to feel desired, they have to be brave enough to tell their partners that they need this, and their partners should express this to them, in words as well as actions. Whether or not we need to feel desired, it is a wonderful feeling that everyone should experience as much as possible—traditional gender norms be damned.
For a select list of my previous Psychology Today posts on relationships, self-loathing, and other topics, see here.
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