For an Instant Relationship Upgrade, Stop Using This Phrase

Amazing how four short words can cause you to come across as controlling.

Posted May 13, 2019

(c) creatista/fotosearch
What's causing the tension?
Source: (c) creatista/fotosearch

Marriage and other long-term relationships are high-skills activities.  Yet most of the skills for their success are not particularly difficult.  Almost all of them are easy to learn.  This one is especially simple, and yet surprisingly high impact.  Like a little handle that can crank around a large wheel which in turn sets in motion many interconnected gears, changing this phrase to a more benign one may make a surprisingly large difference on how you and your loved one interacts.

"Hey honey, I need you to ..."

Babies have needs.  They cry to tell you that they need milk, food, a dry diaper.  You respond.  Their need is your command.  By contrast, when an adult talks about their needs, odds are that they are describing desires and preferences, not needs. 

When you tell a loved one "I need you to ... ," you inadvertently turn yourself into someone who is needy.  Paradoxically, you also will come across as bossy.  That's because "I need you to . .  . " comes across as giving commands. 

Do you like being commanded to do this or that?  I definitely do not.  I'm glad to respond to my grandbabies' cries. I'm also generally glad to be helpful when adults make requests.  I'm not at all happy, by contrast, when others order me around.

In sum, the word need causes the speaker to feel all the needier—helpless and dependent like a baby.  At the same time, the word need has such a demand quality that the receiver is likely to feel bossed around.  How many spouses do you know who like to feel controlled?  Hmmm...

A more benign version of I need you to ..."

Okay, maybe the example above sounds pretty benign.  You or your loved one maybe would cringe a tad at being told what to do, and then just get the job done—or not.

Still, would you rather hear, "I need you to come home early from work today" or, "How would you feel about coming home early today?"  Ah, with the second version you are acknowledging that there are two of you, and both of you may have agendas. 

By putting a question in your request you convey that you regard the other person also as a full person with responsibilities and preferences.  A how or what question invites partners to share what's going on in their lives.  It's so much more respectful.  And it's so much more likely to lead to productive win-win decision-making.

Does "I need you to ..." change your relationship?

"I need you to stop leaving messes in the kitchen."  "I need you to spend more time with the kids.  I need you to ..." These words express your preferences as demands.  Even worse, they express wanting to change the other person.  That's not your job.  "I need you to . . . " results in you become controlling in the relationship instead of sharing power on an equal power playing field.  Hmmmm.

Trouble ahead.

My book on the skills you need for sustaining a long-term relationship, The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong & Loving Marriage, which also has a workbook plus an interactive website version, goes several steps further by explaining what I refer to as crossovers.  Crossovers occur when one person crosses the boundary, which I think of as a little white picket fence between you and anyone else.  Crossovers are instances in which you tell others what you think they think or feel, or tell others what to do.  That last part, telling others what to do, is a sign of what therapists refer to as being controlling, demanding or domineering.   Goodbye, loving feelings.  Hello, tensions.

It's for you to figure out what you can do, or to ask what others would feel about doing something.  It's not for you to tell others—except maybe employees, children, or slaves, or situations of dire emergencies—what to do. 

So goodbye "I need you to . . . " 

Need you to is a powerful crossover word, so powerful that it turns requests into demands.  Not a good idea if you want a tension-free marriage.

What's better phrasing for inviting help?  Try, "I would be hugely appreciative if you could . . ."  And to top it off with full clarification that you are asking, not demanding, "How would you feel about doing that?"