Freedom to Love

When did "I love you," degenerate into "Meet my needs!"

Posted Sep 13, 2010

To be free to do something, you must be free not to do it. We are free to love only to the extent that we aren't forced into it by guilt, shame, fear of abandonment, or, worst of all, the interpretation of vulnerable feelings as emotional needs. No matter how seductive "I need you," may sound in popular songs, the partner who needs you cannot freely love you.

If someone needs you, he or she is more likely to abuse you than to give freely of love and support. Most painful conflicts in committed relationships begin with one partner making an emotional request - motivated by a perceived "need" - that the other, motivated by a different "need," regards as a demand. Any disagreement can feel like abuse when the perceived "need" of one party to be "validated" crashes headlong into the "need" of the other not to be manipulated.

"If you loved me, you'd do what I want (or see the world the way I do)," one argues.

"If you loved me, you wouldn't try to control me," the other counters.

The problem is not in the language the couples use or even the content of their arguments, which is why communication and problem-solving techniques rarely help over time. As long as they perceive themselves to have emotional needs that their partners must gratify, their desire to love is reduced to "Getting my needs met," which the partner often perceives as, "You have to give up who you are to meet my needs."

The Perception of "Emotional Need"
An emotional need is a preference or desire that you've decided must be gratified to maintain emotional equilibrium. The sensation of need begins with an increase in emotional intensity - you feel more strongly about doing this or having that; as intensity increases, it feels like you need to do or have it.

The perception of need falsely explains negative experience. If I feel bad in any way for any reason, it's because my needs aren't met. It doesn't matter that I'm tired, not exercising, bored, ineffective at work, or stressed from the commute and the declining stock market, or if I'm mistreating you or otherwise violating my values; I feel bad because you're not doing what I want.

Once the mind becomes convinced that it needs something, pursuit of it can easily become obsessive, compulsive, or addictive and almost certainly self-reinforcing. Obsessing about the preference or object of desire increases emotional intensity and the perception of need - the more I think about what you should do for me, the stronger the perceived need grows. Failure to control behavior regarding the desired object has the same effect - continually criticizing you for not meeting my need increases the perception of need. In terms of motivation, emotional needs are similar to addictions, without the stimulation of reward centers in the brain when gratified and the cellular contraction in various parts of the body during withdrawal. While the body contributes to an addiction, the mind decides exclusively that you have an emotional need.

Toddlers have Emotional Needs
Over time, perceived emotional needs in relationships tend to be motivated negatively, to avoid guilt, shame, or anxiety; whatever well being results from getting your needs met is short-lived but better than the bad feeling of not getting them met. I may not even notice when you do what I want, but I'll be angry or depressed when you don't.

Perceived emotional needs come with a sense of entitlement - I have a right to get you to do what I want, because I need it, and my right is superior to your right not to do what I want. They also include a coercive element - if you don't do what I want, you'll be punished in some way, at least by withdrawal of affection.

Relationships driven by perceived emotional needs are likely to produce power struggles over who has to do what to meet whose needs. If you seek to get your needs met in a relationship, you will become as demanding and manipulative as a toddler, but, unlike a toddler, you're almost guartanteed to get depressed or chronically resentful.

Adults have Desires and Values
In contrast to perceived emotional needs, desires are positively motivated; if what you desire is based on your deeper values, the act of desire makes you a better person. For example, the desire to love makes your more lovable, i.e., more loving and compassionate.

Desire is appreciative, not entitled; if I desire something I am more likely to feel appreciative of it than if I feel entitled to it. Much of the distress in relationships stems from the deterioration of desire into entitlement, which is what people mean by feeling "taken for granted." In contrast, relationships driven by desire and values engender a sense of meaning and purpose.

Ultimately, the freedom to love is a core value issue. Which is more important to you, getting your perceived needs met or loving freely? Which gives you the better chance of being loved freely in return?

In How Can I be Me while You're being You: What to Do when Your Relationship Turns You into Someone You're Not, I explore in depth the differences between toddler love, driven by perceived needs, and adult love, driven by desire and values.