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Expressing Your Wants vs. Making Demands

Are you being demanding? Who gets to say?

This questions arrived in my mail, and I thought it was a good enough one to address here: "I have heard you say, 'Asking for what you want increases your chances of getting it.' I like getting your encouragement to do that. My concern is becoming too demanding. How can I tell when I cross that line?"

Unfortunately, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it’s usually the other person who will call you on your request/demand, and then you get to decide whether his or her perception seems correct. Sometimes it’s your choice of words which will make all the difference. Sometimes it’s the tone of voice in which you deliver your statement.

“Get that back porch swept!” will of course sound different than: “Will you please sweep the porch now rather than later, so I can put the furniture in place before the guests arrive?” You can imagine the tone in which both sentences were said. Undoubtedly it was different. Also, providing a reason for the appeal often softens it from a demand to a reasonable request.

There is a modern locution often used by teachers in classrooms which I personally find very annoying: saying “I need you to” when what is being asked for is obviously a want and not a need. I need you to remove your foot from my toe if you’re standing on it; otherwise, asking you to move because you’re in my way is a want. There is an obvious difference.

When “need” is frequently used instead of “want,” who is going to be able to tell the difference when a real need is being expressed? It’s sort of like the story of the boy who cried wolf.

Often, the issue of demands (or even reprimands) being perceived when requests are what was intended often comes up in a sexual context. “I’d like you to touch me this way” is heard as “I don’t like the way you’re touching me,” or even “You’re doing it wrong!” The partner then chooses to feel insulted and is unlikely to do what is asked, or may view the asker as demanding.

I’m reminded of a couple in my counseling office who had an issue of communicating sexual preferences. Together for seven years, she was frustrated because her partner seemed to ignore all her carefully worded suggestions and hints about how she most enjoyed being made love to.

At my suggestion, she asked him, “How would you prefer I let you know what I would like in bed?”

His response: “I wouldn’t! I want to figure it out for myself.”

Now when it comes to someone who is this touchy about taking direction, who will perceive any suggestion as a demand to which he stubbornly will not give in, you have a genuine problem. Any sexual partner who said anything about her preferences would be seen by him as demanding.

In another example from my practice, a man who worked at home complained that his wife was constantly interrupting him with housekeeping demands, such as “Take this downstairs,” or “Don't forget to remove the clothes from the dryer when the buzzer goes off.” Her complaint was that he never helped around the house, so she effectively had two full-time jobs.

Both were angry and resentful. My suggestion was that he could take occasional breaks at his own pace and then ask her what he might do around the house. He felt less put upon since he was not interrupted, and she felt much happier since he was volunteering rather than her being perceived as a nag.

So what is the takeaway here? Some people are going to be compliant no matter how a request or a demand is put. They enjoy being obliging, especially to a loved one.

Others are going to be obstinate and see every request as a demand with which they do not want to comply. Most people will fare better if they choose their words carefully, state their preferences clearly, and discuss their resentments if they arise. When it comes to getting along in the world at large, and with sex specifically, communication is the best lubrication.