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Desire vs. Emotional Need

Living and loving after betrayal

Even after a lot of self-care, a heart hungry for intimacy may occasionally cry out its longing in anxiety or despair. When that happens, we should not confuse the perfectly natural yearning for a close relationship with an emotional need for one. The best chance of finding freely-given love in a safe relationship is to approach it from desire, not emotional need.

“Freedom to love” is a key phrase. To be free to do something, we must be free not to do it. We are free to love only to the extent that we aren't forced into it in vain attempts to relieve guilt, shame, or fear of abandonment or by misguided efforts to make up for past mistakes or, worst of all, by misinterpreting vulnerable feelings as signals of emotional need.

An emotional need is a preference or desire that you've decided must be gratified to maintain equilibrium, that is, you can’t be well or feel whole without it.

The perception of need begins with a rise in emotional intensity—you feel more strongly about doing this or having that. As the intensity increases, it can feel like you “need” to do or have it, for one compelling reason: It’s the same emotional process as biological need. When emotion suddenly rises, your brain confuses preferences and desires with biological needs. Here’s how it works.

You don’t normally feel anything about breathing, until you have difficulty doing it. At that point, emotional intensity spikes to signal imminent survival threat. Similarly, you normally don’t feel anything when your partner is working on his computer. But if you speak to him, and he seems to ignore you, your emotional intensity is likely to increase, until the desire for his attention seems to be a need for it. Instead of trying to engage your partner’s interest because you desire it, you’ll demand it, because you “need” it or punish her for failing to meet your needs. Now which do you think is more likely to get you the kind of attention you most desire from a loved one, showing interest in him or demanding that she “meet your needs?”

The habit of interpreting preferences and desires as “needs” vastly distorts subjective experience. Emotional intensity can rise and fall for a great many reasons, most of which have little psychological meaning. For instance, your current physiological state (hungry, thirsty, tired, bloated, sick, agitated, hormonal, etc.), as well as the time of day, sudden changes in weather, and the current state of your self-value, influence variations in emotional intensity to a greater extent than most preferences or desires. When you’re starving, exhausted, sick, freezing, or depressed, how loving, appreciative, communicative, safe, secure, etc., can you feel?

Even though the association is largely artificial and accidental, when the increase in emotional intensity stimulates a perception of need, that perception, in turn, increases emotional intensity. In other words, the perception of need becomes self-reinforcing: “I feel it, therefore, I need it, and if I need it, I have to feel it more.”

This self-perpetuating feature of the perception of need is predominantly unconscious. The way it gathers conscious strength is by falsely explaining negative experience. For example, if I perceive myself to have emotional needs, and I feel bad in any way for any reason, it's because my needs aren't being met. It doesn't matter that I'm tired, not exercising, bored, ineffective at work, or stressed from the commute or the declining stock market, or, most important, whether I'm mistreating you or otherwise violating my deeper values; the reason I feel bad is that you're not meeting my needs.

Once the brain becomes convinced that it needs something, pursuit of it can easily become obsessive, compulsive, or addictive. In terms of motivation, perceived emotional needs are quite similar to addictions. My clients who think they have strong emotional needs almost always begin treatment with descriptions of their relationships that sound a lot more like addiction than desire:

“I can’t live without her.”

“I shake all over when he’s gone.”

“It’s like heaven when he’s nice to me.”

One client actually said, “She’s my drug. I can’t face the day without a dose of her.”

While the body contributes on a cellular level to addiction, the mind decides exclusively that we have an emotional need. The feeling can become so powerful that it makes us believe we have holes within us that someone else must fill. That’s a tragic—and false—assumption that almost always leads to bad relationships. No one has holes within, only drives to create value.

Big Holes Attract Small Cups

If you believe you have holes within, you will almost certainly attract a partner with a small cup to fill them. Here’s why.

For one thing, people with big cups, i.e., a lot of love to give, don’t look for partners with big holes. They want partners who also have big cups, who can give as much as they get in a relationship. But if I perceive myself to have a small cup, i.e., not much to give, I’ll be attracted to someone who thinks she has big holes, because her “emotional needs” will inspire me to become her rescuer or hero or whatever need she projects. Of course, I won’t be able to uphold the role of giver or rescuer for very long, because they’re so unnatural for me. Eventually I’ll condemn her for the very “needs” that first attracted me: “Nobody could meet your needs; you’re insatiable!”

When "I love you," Degenerates into "Meet my needs!"

No matter how seductive "I need you," may sound in popular songs, the partner who “needs” you cannot freely love you. Most of the painful conflicts of intimate 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. This is the classic relationship dynamic known as demand-withdraw: The more one partner demands, the less the other can give; the more one pleads, the farther away the other retreats. Both feel like victims. Indeed, any disagreement can feel like abuse when the perceived "need" of one to be validated crashes headlong into the "need" of the other not to feel 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.

“If you loved me, you would do this.”

“If you loved me, you wouldn’t ask me to do that.”

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 perceives as, "I have to give up who I am to meet your needs."

The best way to avoid this kind of entanglement that leads almost inevitably to some form of intimate betrayal is to build relationships on desire and mutual values, rather than perceived emotional need.

Living and Loving after Betrayal

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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