lightwavemedia/Shutterstock
Source: lightwavemedia/Shutterstock

There are times when the words “I need” are not always as benign as your therapist or friends might have suggested.

How many times have you said something like this to your partner?

  • “I need you to tell me you love me right now.”
  • “I need you to stop goofing around and finish that project you promised to do.”
  • “I need a break from all of your arguing.”

Your partner might have complied, but there is a trap in the simple words “I need you to...” These words aren’t really about "I"; they are about your partner…and about demanding that your partner do something in order to make you feel better.

As such, these words hold a good deal of danger for couples. My observation is that these words are typically utilized by only one partner in a relationship—the one who is in most often in control. Since "I need" is often used as a theoretically more politically correct stand in for “I want” or “You must,” that makes "I need"` an effective, but hurtful, contributor to an imbalanced relationship. These two seemingly innocuous words lead you away from the partnership you think you are asking for when you say “I need you to…”

You probably have thought of “I need…” as a positive expression of your inner feelings: After all, your partner cannot be expected to read your mind! But let’s look at the alternatives: “I need you to tell me you love me right now” gets the message across, and demands to be obeyed. But “I’m feeling insecure right now—could you give me a hug?” works far better. It expresses the depth of your despair, the reason for it, and acknowledges that giving the gift of that hug is a choice that the partner can make. And it recognizes that your partner is his or her own person. 

This may sound petty. It’s not.

Struggling couples, particularly those impacted by adult ADHD, suffer greatly when the power balance moves away from an equal partnership to one person leading or demanding and the other following or obeying. In couples impacted by ADHD this imbalance often takes the form of what I call parent/child dynamics, in which the non-ADHD partner has all the responsibility and control, while the ADHD partner has very little. It’s an incredibly destructive relationship dynamic that diminishes both partners. In that context, the difference between the order “I need you to” and the request “Would you?” makes all the difference in the world.

Here’s another example: “I need you to get your ADHD symptoms under control.” While this is undoubtedly a true statement, it may well diminish the ADHD partner, as well as put him or her on the defensive. In conversations that I’ve observed, this particular “I need” statement implies that the ADHD partner isn’t already aware of the need to control his or her symptoms. It also implies that he or she isn’t already trying to do so. Spoken in frustration, this idea that the partner isn't already trying can be very far from the truth, and the implication is a great way to demotivate an ADHD partner. “If I’m working this hard and you don't even notice, why continue to try?” is the thought that might well be triggered in the mind of the ADHD partner.

And yes, I’m aware that hard work and outcome are often not the same thing—learning how to choose ADHD-friendly tactics that work well to manage ADHD is a key component of good ADHD treatment. Recognizing and acknowledging effort—even if it's incomplete—is a good way to support continued work on the part of the ADHD partner and, ultimately, get the symptoms under control.

The next time you hear yourself saying “I need you to…” ask yourself if you are fooling yourself with a politically correct way of saying "you must do X." Then consider the danger hidden in that approach. Take a moment to back up, and choose words that acknowledge that your partner is truly your partner.

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