First seen at Wit and Delight.
It was more than a quarter-century ago when I first read the book Composing a Life by badass anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson. I don’t recall loving the book at the time, perhaps because it was assigned in a college class—reading quiz and all. And, as an art major, perhaps I didn’t yet appreciate the profound life insights offered by brilliant social scientists and thinkers like Bateson. It’s curious and perhaps not by accident that a book my 21-year-old self felt too obscure, too out there, even a bit too weird is the one that has consistently woven itself into my consciousness and life, again and again—a tiny, tattered, yellowed paperback I often grab off my bookshelf for an injection of inspiration, a moment of aspiration, or a dose of direction as I sculpt, design, and work on the piece of art that is my life. And, of course, for wisdom in my own work as a relationship social scientist.
As Bateson reminds us in other writings: “As you get up in the morning, as you make decisions, as you spend money, make friends, make commitments, you are creating a piece of art called your life.”
I’d add: When in a committed relationship, we also sign up to cocreate a shared piece of art, one never finished. That piece, it’s called our we.
And here’s the similar thing about unfinished art and relationships: they’re designed to be messy. But don’t let that throw you off.
Bateson’s wisdom popped into my consciousness again last week as a friend said something profound about her ongoing, painstaking, difficult but worth-it work to express what she needs in her marriage without her spouse fully spiraling. As in, each time she expresses a core need—sometimes because she is disappointed it’s not being met, sometimes because her needs are evolving—he thinks they’re on-ramping the divorce superhighway. “Honey,” she wisely explained to her partner, “me growing is good for ‘us’ growing.”
Boom, my friend.
Neither Bateson nor I nor any other social scientist could have said it better.
Her disclosure got me thinking: Why is it so hard for so many of us to understand that simple truth—that the health, joy, strength, and solidness of every “we” is only as healthy, joyful, and solid as each of the “mes” that create it?
The answer, I believe, also reveals the how of advocating for what you need in your relationships. I’ll employ Bateson wisdom again: “Solutions to problems often depend upon how they’re defined.” And step one in advocating for your needs is clearly defining for yourself what they actually are. Sounds painfully obvious, right? But too often it’s a step we overlook, skip, or think we’ve completed but in fact we haven’t. And there’s lowercase “d” defining and capital “D” defining.
Most of us are actually pretty good at the lowercase version, the sometimes more immediate or practical, of defining our needs. “I need you to put your phone away when we are talking.” “I need you to let me know when you’re going to be home.” “I need you to be on time.” “I need it to be quieter at home in the afternoon because I have super important work meetings.” “I need our house to be cleaner.” These are all valid needs to be expressed and discussed.
But to more significantly grow ourselves and thus our relationships we need to uppercase DEFINE our needs. It’s a practice that doesn’t always come naturally because it’s a complex process of authentically, mindfully reflecting on not only what we need, but excavating deeper and asking ourselves what is driving the need? What fear or hurt or upset or logic or past experience—perhaps not even in the current relationship—is beneath that need? What makes it a need so core to us that when it’s not met our faith in our relationship shakens or, maybe, our relationship ends altogether?
What does the capital D defining of needs look and sound like? Usually, somewhere in the expression, you will find a core need related to the relationship building blocks of love, security, trust, and/or joy.
“I feel loved and valued when I get your undivided attention, when you put your phone on silent and leave it in the other room when we talk about the day.”
“I love spending as much time with you as I can in the evenings; sometimes it’s the only time we have together all day. I realize that when you get home later than you anticipated or planned, I start to feel lonely, and a bit distant from you.”
“Growing up my family was late for almost everything—even church—and it was embarrassing. One time I was even late being dropped off for the state finals track meet and I was team captain. So, when you’re late for things, I think I react so strongly because being late caused a lot of tension between my parents and me and I don’t want that same tension for us.”
When we uppercase define our core needs, we are more likely to be able to advocate for what we really want, and do so in a way that simultaneously strengthens the me and our we.
And, yes, defining core needs usually requires something too scarce in this noisy world: time intentionally spent getting quiet and engaging in serious and honest reflection. As Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist, wisely observes: “Silence is not the absence of something, but the presence of everything.” Read that again. And again.
Perhaps meditation, journaling, or even therapy is how you get “quieter.” I highly recommend all of the above, early and often. Whichever your preferred method, identifying what’s beneath and behind our needs requires inner self-work. It’s an essential step one to advocating for your needs because the less clear we are with ourselves about how we define our core needs and why we have them, the less clear we can be in our approach to advocating for them to be met.
Here’s a simple approach that helps. I call it the egg model of core-need identification, also a useful process for negotiating decisions or navigating topics that often cause conflict. But I like it as a process of cracking open (get it?)—for yourself and then eventually with your partner—what your needs are and areas of flexibility related to those needs. All you need is a piece of scrap paper and a pen. A cup of tea and furry pet on your lap while you draw is optional, but highly recommended.
The yoke is your core need and nonnegotiable. “I need to get time every week away from the house and kids to care for myself. When I get that time away I can show up for you, and our family, with more patience, love, and creativity.” The white space is where you define what is connected to the core but is an area of flexibility: perhaps how the need is met, when the need is met, or with what level of energy it’s met. “This doesn’t need to be a set day or number of hours, but it needs to happen at least twice a week.”
Doing this activity with yourself, and then inviting a partner or friend to do it as well, can be a profound opening to ongoing conversations, each part of building your stronger “we” while you also meet the needs of your “me.”
Believe me, I know: It can be scary as we really listen to what our soul is telling us we need—and even scarier having the conversations with our partner or family members as we express our nonnegotiables. But, my friends, getting clearer about what we need to feel happy, secure, loved, fulfilled, and valued is the only way we can then bring those needs into the consciousness of our partnerships. And it’s worth repeating, perhaps even writing on a sticky note and placing where you can remind yourself daily: The fact that we have core needs is nonnegotiable; how they are met is where some negotiation is okay.
Okay, so you’ve completed step one: DEFINING your core needs. Great job! You now get to move toward step two: talking about them with a partner, friend, or family member in a productive, growth-centered way. Oh, btw, frequently such conversations are not one-and-done; they are a series. Sometimes they even go into syndication! To get you started I’ve compiled a quick list of tips, each backed up not only by research but also by years of testing out on my own spouse, friends, and family (sorry/not sorry folks).
DO develop conversation rituals and rules for discussing your needs.
For instance, a friend recently shared that she and her spouse have a ritual question they ask each other when one expresses a need: “Is this important for your soul?” If the other person says yes, discussion over. It’s also helpful to create and protect intentional time, a sacred space for sharing your needs. Perhaps you declare that every Monday morning you have a 15-minute “marriage meeting” to begin your week. One couple I know does this via a call on their drives to work after dropping kids at school and daycare. It’s one of the times they know they have quiet, uninterrupted time, and it’s become a welcome conversation ritual during which each partner shares one thing that went well for them in the past week and one thing they need in the coming week.
AVOID keeping score.
If you or a partner identify needs or requests as something that needs to be balanced, it can lead to trouble. Fact: Relationships are rarely “equal.” Thinking about them as such is an indicator that your relationship might be troubled. While you’re avoiding the scorecard, also avoid the yellow penalty flag known as blaming and shaming your partner for not knowing something you think they should by now. “I can’t believe you couldn’t see how tired I am every single weekend and that I just need an hour alone without talking to anyone!” Blaming is likely to result in defensiveness, which is likely to then devolve into an unproductive, tit-for-tat conflict.
DO intentionally work on and frame your needs in the context of your ultimate desire: life-giving connection and a healthy, joyful, satisfying relationship!
Doing the work of building connection is core work in every relationship, something done little by little, choice by choice. And when done well, over time, asking for what you need becomes easier because your we is already strong.
One of my favorite resources for building couple relationships is the at-home kit built by badass marriage and family therapist Dr. Rebecca Jorgensen. Check it out! For less than the price of one therapy session you can get The Couple Home Connection System. It even comes with a twister-style mat (sans the requirement to bend and stretch…physically that is). The kit has everything you need, an engaging set of guides and tools for you and your partner, helping you walk into conversations and through often-difficult emotional states. And another awesome thing: It’s so robust you can use it again and again, coming back to it at various life stages and when new conversations or challenges emerge. Maybe this should become the new go-to wedding, anniversary, or engagement gift?!
AVOID waiting too long to do your reflection homework and express your needs.
Resentment and anger empties our relationship reserves, and we all know what happens when our irritations build up for too long. Even the small things come out like an explosion.
DO notice when your partner or friend or family member does something—even a small something—that tells you you’ve been heard, seen, or had a need acknowledged.
Say thank you. What we reward and affirm will more likely happen again. And again.
Finally, AVOID noticing and feeling the need to call out all the negative things—the places of lacking—you see in your relationship.
It’s hard, believe me. But if I’ve learned anything from the experts—including wise women like Bateson and even acoustic gurus who have helped me listen more and speak less—not giving energy to the negative is one of the most powerful tools for getting rid of the negative. That to which we give little attention doesn’t get the energy it needs to grow.
Okay, I now need to go enjoy a 30-minute Peloton yoga class in my basement, a need so core to my sanity and happiness my husband of twenty-eight years has come to nearly beg me to do it on the daily, even when it means him wrangling our new Bernedoodle puppy George and tiny old-man-dog Fred during the next Zoom meeting with his board chair. Because he’s figured out that a healthier, happier me is directly related to our happiest, healthiest we! Thank you, sweetie.