In my 30 years of working with couples, I’ve noticed that most people have an easy time describing what they don’t want in their relationship: If someone prompts them, they’re able to rapidly fire off the many issues that they feel are creating distance between their partner and themselves. Yet if I ask the same people what they do want in a relationship, or from their partner, it seems to catch them off guard. The answer comes far less easily, as they pause to reflect on a question they haven’t necessarily asked themselves, at least not in a long time.
As a relationship progresses, it’s easy to focus on its problems. We can catalog all the negative patterns that have arisen or all the frustrating qualities a partner has. As a result, when we communicate with a partner, we often say what we don’t want instead of what we do. Somehow, it’s easier to complain or vocalize dissatisfaction than to directly state or ask for what we actually desire.
Many couples are comfortable telling each other, “You never do this," "Why are you always forgetting what I say to you?" "How can you be so insensitive?” or, “Do you ever stop thinking about yourself?” They’re not as comfortable slowing down and saying, “It makes me feel so much more relaxed when I have help with this or that," or, “I really want to feel you listen and understand.”
Unfortunately, most people automatically take a defended self-protective stance in relation to the inevitable hurts they experience with their partner. They fail to recognize that when they experience strong emotional reactions to a perceived slight by a partner that they are often reacting based on unresolved issues from their childhood. They have little awareness that this style of relating is moving them further from the outcome they want.
When in this defended, self-righteous posture, they lose track of their ultimate goal. The conversation becomes about being “wronged” or winning an argument instead of resolving an issue that’s making them not feel as close to their partner. They may have destructive thoughts or be listening to “critical inner voices,” that tell them, “How dare he treat you that way? You better stand up for yourself," or "She is so self-centered; she only cares about herself.” As my father, psychologist Robert Firestone, often says about engaging in this way, “You may win the battle, but you will lose the war.”
While many partners tend to be combative, others take the opposite approach: Rather than say what they want, they shut down or turn inward. They may feel quietly resentful toward their partner or indulge in destructive thoughts toward themselves. They may have critical inner voices telling them they are unworthy or trying to convince them that they will experience humiliation, hurt, or rejection if they go after what they want. In either of these reactions, the person is avoiding expressing, or sometimes even acknowledging, his or her basic wants and desires.
Saying what you want is actually a powerful tool to end a fight. It helps you avoid hurtful ways of relating to your partner that might put him or her on the defensive. It's also a way of being vulnerable that allows your partner to really know and feel for you. When you speak about your wants honestly, directly, and from an adult point of view, your partner is more likely to be open, responsive, and personal in return.
Here are a few approaches that can help you move toward this style of relating:
1. Practice unilateral disarmament. This is a technique I often introduce to couples that is valuable to implement in heated moments when an argument is going nowhere. If the goal is to be close to your partner, there are times when it is best to simply drop your side of the dynamic. You can do this by first calming down within yourself, refusing to lash back, and instead saying something warm and honest like, “I care more about feeling good with you than winning this argument.” Taking these steps often softens the other person, and he or she, too, is more likely to drop his or her side of the dynamic. You can then communicate from a more direct, vulnerable stance that isn’t about blame or being right. You can start to cleanly express what you want and encourage your partner to do the same. (I wrote more about this process in the post “5 Steps to End Any Fight.”)
2. Stay vulnerable. It’s hard for many people to say what they want out loud, or even admit it to themselves. When you do express your wants, it’s important to do it directly but from a vulnerable place. Try not to speak in an entitled manner, as if you’re demanding something, or using words like “I deserve.” When someone in a relationship acts like their partner owes them something, they tend to fall into traps in which they find themselves nagging or complaining, both of which only serve to alienate or irritate a partner.
But you also shouldn’t feel the need to overly explain or apologize for what you’re saying. You shouldn’t feel guilty or ashamed to simply state what you want. You should try to remain open and honest without getting sidetracked or back-stepping because you start to feel afraid or uncomfortable. The wants you express do not have to be rational—one common feeling is, “I want to be loved and accepted all the time no matter what I do or what mistakes I make.” Expressing this directly may seem unreasonable, but actually stating it in this vulnerable way will often stir up sadness and openness in both you and your partner. Most partners can relate to this feeling and will feel moved by your openness.
3. Don’t use victimized language. Refusing to act victimized is an important principle in general. When you talk about what you want, steer clear of speaking in ways that sound victimized or childish. In “Don’t Play the Victim Game,” Robert Firestone wrote, “Maintaining a child victim role leads to chronic passivity.” It’s important not to be passive-aggressive toward loved ones. You shouldn’t punish them for not knowing instinctively what you want or for failing to read your mind.
No one can or should expect any one other person to meet all their needs. Rather, you should strive to feel like a whole person in yourself. Of course, it’s natural to want to feel love and connection, but there’s an important difference between saying what you want as an adult and feeling like a dependent child whose survival depends on your partner giving you what you need. Your words should be an authentic expression of what you want, not a demand for what you “need” or an expectation of what you’re “entitled” to.
4. Avoid “you” statements. One way people diverge from saying what they want directly is by switching from “I” statements to “you” statements. Many people tend to be more comfortable saying, “You don’t act excited to see me anymore," or, "You’re always distracted.” It is valid to give your partner feedback, but if all he or she hears is a stream of complaints, it is more likely to drive them away than to get them to move closer to you. On the other hand, the exercise of saying what you want is really about expressing something about who you are and what matters to you. That’s why it is better to start with “I": “I want to feel wanted by you.” “I want your attention.” “I want to have fun with you.” “I want to feel that you listen.” This helps you to have more feeling and understanding toward yourself, while hopefully inspiring the same reaction in your partner.
So many people avoid acknowledging what they want because there are strong emotions attached to wanting. For many couples I’ve done this exercise with, saying what they want seemed to awaken primal hurts, bringing up memories of what they longed for as children. One woman said that she wanted more affection from her husband—and much to her surprise, she was quickly filled with sadness, as she repeated statements like, “I want to be hugged. I want to be held.” She described afterward how the picture in her head had changed from her husband to her parents, who rarely offered affection and frequently ignored her cries for them to pick her up.
As Dr. Pat Love pointed out in an interview with me, "When you long for something, like love, it becomes associated with pain—the pain you felt at not having it in the past. Feeling connected to what you want in the present makes you feel vulnerable, like you can be hurt all over again. Because of this, many people don’t always want to recognize what they want much less express it to someone else, who can then potentially let them down.”
Every one of us has defenses surrounding our wants and desires, but it’s beneficial to let your guard down and take a chance on being direct in your adult relationships. There’s incredible value in learning to communicate what you want: You feel empowered when you live in a state of wanting. You are in sync with yourself, and have more direction in your life. And if you do get hurt, you learn that you are strong and can handle much more disappointment than you imagined. Most important, when you express yourself in this way, you learn that you are worthy of what you want—and much more likely to get it.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive