I know I promised last week that we’d get to roadmaps this week, but it occurs to me we may need to delve first into how to develop a framework understanding of our own needs and wants. In the course of my own early counselling sessions as a client, I framed in what I consider to be my five cornerstone principles of a good relationship (be it a friendship, a professional relationship, an intimate, emotionally-invested partnership, etc.). These principles represent a framework on which I later hung the needs and wants I identified as important to my ability and willingness to engage in relationships. This particular structure has subsequently become an intrinsic piece of the work I do with my own clients engaging in self-discovery. Most clients come into therapy looking to change or improve some aspect of themselves, and especially with couples I often hear statements like, “We want to improve our communications, and our intimacy.”
That’s all well and good, say I, but what do these words actually mean? What do they look like when they are being adequately addressed? What does it look like when they’re not? So we start with what I think of as big umbrella words, words that cover a lot of terrain and (frequently, as we discover) mean different things to different people. When we start with the big words, we can begin to drill down into expectations and values attached to those umbrella words, and often find a host of more detailed needs and wants lurking in the shade underneath. Sometimes it takes a therapist to figure out how to extract the name of the need from the broader discussion around these frameworks, but often we can get to them on our own by breaking down the umbrella-level lexicon with two particular questions: What’s important about [principle] to you? What need(s) do those important factors meet for you?
Note: Bear in mind, what I identified as foundational for myself may not look the same for everyone; for example, someone coming out of very different life experiences may identify “Safety” as a cornerstone principle. For some, the ambiguous term “intimacy” might be at the top of their list, if they feel they need those needs met first and foremost before committing to emotional engagement and investment. My personal list below also makes the implicit assumption that basic needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, employment, income, etc., are already being addressed and met. In the case where any of these baseline safety needs are NOT being met, we often must address those first; if you know your Maslow hierarchy of needs, you’ll know that an individual cannot proceed to self-actualization work (which is largely what I write about) while their basic existence is uncertain or threatened.
Most of the list below falls under the Maslow category of Love/Belonging or Actualization.
My five principles are: communication, consideration, responsibility, availability, and collaboration. Using this 5-point structure, I am now going to attempt the death-defying feat of mapping these five cornerstone principles to a host of specific relationship needs. As this remains an organic work-in-progress for myself, some of these principles and needs remain general, and deliberately so; I also didn’t want to get distracted by the trap of trying to define my needs as they might pertain to *specific* relationships.
Needs: create time and space to talk and listen; create a shared lexicon of important terms; be willing to inform each other when needs/wants/expectations/plans/etc change, and stay present to create a solution (see Availability); question for clarity and understanding when one of us doesn’t understand something; don’t make assumptions or draw conclusion in the absence of information/answers from the other party–if the only reason you don’t know something for sure is because *you* failed to ask the questions, the responsibility for those possibly erroneous conclusions is all yours.
Needs: treat me as you want me to treat you (compassion); take those wants/needs/expectations of mine that you are aware of into consideration before making or acting on a decision that affects me or us, and let me know when your decided outcome runs contrary to what you know of my stance; be respectful of how you represent me to other people (whether I’m present or not); be supportive when I’m stressing; don’t deliberately risk the physical or emotional health and stability of the relationship (this is a catch-all for many things, best translated as, “Think many times before you introduce anything with a potentially negative influence or impact to our relationship”; tell me respectfully and in a timely manner if I’m being inconsiderate of you and your needs/wants/etc.; understand (and help me understand) that we are two distinct entities with two distinct purposes, two distinct perspectives, two distinct drives, two distinct methods of interacting with our respective worlds; help find a means of making those differences work for us, rather than drive us apart.
Needs: be willing to recognize, understand, and accept ownership for your actions, and the consequences thereof; don’t expect me to solve all your problems for you (trust that while I’m here to help, I am not your personal Quixotic hero, nor do I expect you to be mine); drive the process for resolving any issues you bring up that require such action (I don’t read minds, so if you have a need or expectation that isn’t met, it’s your responsibility to make that known to me, not mine to guess) – WHO HAS THE NEED, DRIVES THE SOLUTION; help me avoid known patterns like passive-aggressive “blamestorming” and skittering away from tense topics, and be cool when I call your patterns to attention in return; don’t assume that because I’ve asked for your input, that I’m expecting you to solve all my problems for me: DON’T OWN MY SHIT, DON’T EXPECT ME TO OWN YOURS.
[A recurring lessons originally phrased by a good friend as, “Don’t be complicit in your own subjugation”, also falls into this area of responsibility and owning your own actions, but as it wasn’t really something I could tie to a specific relationship *need*, per se, I didn’t initially include it. Maybe for future blog fodder, I might ponder a list of “lessons learned” that have been important steps on the path to that fifth Maslow tier of self-actualization– but not today.]
Needs: stay present when we’re talking about serious stuff, or, if you can’t stay present, tell me that you can’t (and preferably why), and let me know when you *will* be available; make time for me in your life, in your social circles and activities (let me discover and decide for myself which ones I’ll join you in, and which I won’t); make time for a physical relationship (sex, snuggles, touches, showers, play, whatever); provide timely information about your schedule so we can make joint or solo plans accordingly; be honest about your interest in any plans that come up (if you think you’re going to hate it, we can almost always find ways around requiring your attendance)
Needs: jointly establish mutual/shared goals and plans for achieving those goals; communicate interest and desire for collaborative projects (generally and specifically), along with identified degree of prioritization; be honest about your interest in collaborations, and communicate any influencing factors you are aware of that will impact joint efforts; if I explicitly ask for help with a challenge, work with me to determine what kind of help I’m asking for, and determining what kind of solution/resolution process I’m seeing help with; be willing to bounce ideas around together without assuming there’s any pressure on you personally to come up with the Ultimate Right Answer To Fix Everything.
Intrepid readers may note, “Intimacy” is not listed here as one of my foundational principles. For myself, I find intimacy is a reasonably natural by-product of these needs being met effectively within relationship. Intimacy is a willingness to be vulnerable, and vulnerability is something that develops in an environment where people feel safe and respected. If meeting these needs results in my feeling securely attached, then increased vulnerability and intimacy are the result, rather than needing to be a core principle themselves. If intimacy is NOT present in my relationships, however, you can be sure I’ll take that as a barometric measurement that one or more core needs are not being adequately addressed.
This list doesn’t even begin to cover my wants, because for many of us, “wants” are things that can change on an almost hourly basis some days. I have learned a few very important lessons about wants, though: first, if there’s something I want, I stand a better chance of getting it if I *ask* for it directly, rather than hint about it or approach the topic obliquely – or worse, say nothing and just assume people will figure me out. Just because something is a high-priority want in my mind, doesn’t mean that want will be clear and prioritized for anyone outside my own head. If it’s important, ask explicitly.
Second, it’s OK to take risks with wants. Wants are (almost) never going to be deal-breakers in a relationship, because if they are, then chances are *very* high you’re dealing with a mislabeled or misunderstood need. Therefore, ask for everything – you never know what you *can* have, until you ask for it. By the same token, however – and I cannot stress how critical this understanding will be – don’t *expect* that just because you’ve asked for something that you’re now entitled to have what you’ve asked for, because sooner or later, someone’s going to say No. In the vein of not counting chickens before hatching, don’t get emotionally invested in your wants until you’ve got the *thing* in your hands (metaphorically or literally), because again, sooner or later you won’t get what you want. And if you’re even moderately invested in getting that want met, it’s going to feel like a crushing defeat. Anticipate, sure – but don’t expect. There’s a whole other topic around wants & needs and outcome attachment, but I’m now getting several weeks worth of blog topics ahead of myself.
Next week we’ll finally get to looking at how to work all of this into an actual roadmap, I promise (assuming I don’t remember any other process steps between here and there…)