Neanderthink: Desperation With a Difference

Women are devastated by failing relationships, says Nando Pelusi, Ph.D., while men flail more over unattainable relationships.

By Nando Pelusi Ph.D., published on March 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

After a one-year relationship with a difficult boyfriend, my client had to face the facts: "I've spent so much time and energy on this guy, I just can't believe it's not going to work." Amid her tears she also realized that she didn't even like the guy, who had kept her at arm's length and endlessly proclaimed his inability to commit. She was gripped by what she always feels when she realizes a relationship is troubled—a grim determination to make it work no matter what.

The next client to enter my office wasn't crying, but he was grief-stricken about a relationship that just didn't get off the ground. He couldn't understand why a woman he pursued with elaborate overtures (and cold hard cash) never really responded. He ruminated for hours about why nothing worked.

Many of us can relate to these predicaments. But each distinct saga has played out so many times in my office that the conclusion is unavoidable: Men and women are needy in different ways. Men get obsessed before they land a partner; women get obsessed after they find one. Men and women alike become desperate for a guarantee of love, but that desperation kicks in, roughly speaking, at different points in the relationship.

I've seen neediness arise even when men and women do not particularly care for the person they're needy about. In addition, the anguish associated with the need for love paradoxically causes some people to dispense with love altogether—it's just too painful for them.

The notion that we live for love is as old as literature. But the writing on our genetic parchment is much older, and that algorithm says: "Be fruitful and multiply—and agonize about keeping your mate along the way."

Shades of Heartache

Men and women have different unconscious reproductive motives. In casual relationships, more women than men want to know where the relationship is going and obsess about the long-term potential, because women have a lot more at stake reproductively. Women may take longer to get emotionally involved, but once they pass the threshold, they're in. Female vigilance is evident in a woman's tendency to test her partner at a relationship's start—acting coy or simply being wary of his intentions—and then get obsessive once committed.

Men, by contrast, usually start out at peak emotional investment because they have a lot to gain from immediate coupling. Twenty minutes of intense pleasure does not compare to the years spent raising children. A man's neediness stems from falling in love at first sight. Men are much more likely to agonize over how to get a woman than how to keep her.

The less a man knows about a woman, the more alluring she is at first—and the more driven he is to interact with her. This is because men dream up the perfect woman, a bias that spurs them to give chase. "Male idealization of females smooths the courting process," says David Geary, author of Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences and a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri.

When it comes to seeking long-term relationships, men get obsessed with women who are barely within their reach, because of the high payoff: finding the best vehicle for their genes. They pursue a woman doggedly, sparing no time, energy, or expense on a woman's every non-sexual concern to show that they're not "just in it for the sex."

This behavior qualifies as needy when the guy suspects the relationship is going nowhere but can't put the brakes on. The needy approach may work, but at great emotional cost. Ironically, such behavior subverts a man's goal, because women generally lose interest in guys who get clingy and act more like a butler than a boyfriend.

The Neediness Switch

We might rationally know that we don't need that special person, but it's hard to argue with generations of evolved impulses that whisper otherwise. Rationality is limited when dealing with the dictates of our passions, and sexual attachment—sanitized as love—is deeper than our dispassionate analysis.

Neediness is an escalation of desire at a critical juncture in the relationship or in its pursuit. Our emotions make an all-or-nothing sprint for the amorous goal, and we tell ourselves things such as, "I can get her to like me and I must not mess it up."

Neediness kicks in when we're not sure whether we can obtain someone, but believe (or fantasize) that we have a shot. The average man is not needy for the supermodel du jour, because although she might be a perfect vehicle for his genes he knows he doesn't stand a chance. Men get needy only when they suspect someone is within reach.

Desire and neediness are not on the same continuum; wanting someone or something with all your heart does not by definition mean that you're needy. You can want something passionately without turning it into an absolute necessity. A desire says, "I'd like to make this work because I really like and love this person—and I hope we click." A need says, "This relationship must work out, or else I'm a loser and I'll be single forever."

Men and women pursue and cling to inappropriate partners for far too long, because genes are not out for anyone's interests but their own. That's right—my goals may not be the same as the ones my genes have for me. However, since we've inherited big brains, we can now think our way to new goals—shaped by evolution but not determined by it. When you get rid of neediness, you don't become indifferent but rather more passionate; you experience desire and connection unsullied by desperation.

The act of loving is what gives us fulfillment. Receiving love is nice—but it is not a necessity. Enjoy your pursuits, but refuse to believe that you can't be happy without that certain someone. We tend to be terrible judges of what will make us happy.—Nando Pelusi, Ph.D.

Derailing Desperation

How to keep from falling into the neediness pit

Memo to Men

Be wary of your desire to pursue an idealized woman, maybe even an ex (idealized again, after an absence). Guys get needy for acquisition and pursuit. You're fantasizing about a perfect woman. That's OK. But if you want to get off that roller coaster of chronic disillusionment, remind yourself that your genetic legacy is to fool yourself before you're in, and then pull away once the woman is off the pedestal. Dante may have been intoxicated with Beatrice his whole life, but it was from afar. He never so much as kissed her. That makes for great poetry, but not great relating.

A Word to Women

Be cautious about your tendency to believe you need to make a relationship work at all costs; it's a taxing and corrosive path—and it rarely works. You may not consciously want children, but the emotional engine that has evolved among women is to be very cautious about sex—and then to get very emotionally involved once in the relationship. That means that you may have unwanted feelings of neediness only after a relationship has emerged. You can fight the idea that a particularly fraught relationship must work out.