Singletude: A Positive Blog for Singles

Singletude is a positive, supportive singles blog about life choices for the new single majority. It's about dating and relationships, yes, but it's also about the other 90% of your life--family, friends, career, hobbies--and flying solo and sane in this crazy, coupled world. Singletude isn't about denying loneliness. It's about realizing that whether you're single by choice or by circumstance, this single life is your life to live.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Quantifying Relational Needs

Ah, those relational needs. Pesky critters, aren't they?

You think you've found your partner in crime, that guy or gal who finishes your thoughts before you think them, who knows you better than you want to know yourself, who makes you feel like if you could never, ever listen to your iPod or buy new shoes or eat pizza again, it would be okay as long as you were with them. Bliss follows.

And then one day, you crack that trunk of musty old stuff from his or her childhood attic--otherwise known as baggage--and out pop the relational needs. At first you think they'll fit perfectly with yours because they're all, say, living room furnishings. So you take them back to your new place and set them up in the living room with your own relational needs. That's when, to your dismay, you discover that these relational needs clash with yours. They're not the same style, color, size...nothing. You try to dress them up in a fresh coat of paint, change the lighting to give them an air of grace, a certain shabby chic, if you will...but it's still painfully obvious that while all these furnishings belong in a living room, they don't belong in the same living room, together.

That is, you and another person might have certain relational needs in common (eg., a need for excitement and novelty or a need for intellectual conversation), but your slice of that need pie might be a lot bigger or smaller than theirs. To continue with the home decorating metaphor, our needs exist on a spectrum much like the spectrum of color swatches you see when you want to paint your walls. There's not just blue but robin's egg and sky and cobalt and turquoise and aquamarine and periwinkle. It's the same with relational needs. Maybe you and another person have the same need but to differing degrees.

That's why trying to match your needs with someone else's can be like trying to find a stranger whose DNA matches your own. If you can't match your genotype, it really doesn't matter how identical your phenotype appears. In the end, you're incompatible.

Quantitative (as opposed to qualitative) differences can show up with all kinds of needs, but they are, perhaps, most damaging when they involve communicational needs. Communicational needs, I've found, are among the most integral yet variable relational needs. While we can break most people into two qualitative groups of communicators--verbal and nonverbal--within those groups are endless variations in communicational patterns. Think of all those fractal designs a mathematical genius can derive from a single equation. Yeah. Like that.

The problem is that our individual relational needs (and, in this case, our communicational needs) inform our expectations for interaction with others. So when a loved one, even or especially one who has the same qualitative needs, doesn't meet our needs to the degree that we expect, confusion, heartache, and the demise of the relationship ensue.

As an example, some years ago, I dated two men in succession who were, ironically, at opposite ends of the verbal communication spectrum. (Yes, the swing from one end to the other was a wild ride!) While they were both, like me, verbal (as opposed to physical) communicators, the degree to which they desired communication was like night and day.

The first guy–we’ll call him David–wanted a lot of contact, right away. No sooner had we gone on our first date than he was calling me every night and every afternoon at lunch and IMing me whenever he saw me online, too. Well, this was overkill to me. In my mind, it was too early in the relationship for daily chit-chat, and even if our relationship had progressed, I wasn’t sure I’d ever want someone to habitually contact me whenever he had a spare moment. Soon, I was avoiding his calls or excusing myself after five minutes to, you know, take that meeting with Barbara Walters. Eventually, David confronted me, complaining that I didn't like him enough. In fact, I liked David quite a bit. But he and I weren't on the same frequency--literally--with our communicational needs. I just didn't require that much contact, so his need became a burden.

After David, I dated a man we’ll call Evan. Evan and I were together three times as long as I’d been with David and were in a committed relationship, whereas David and I had just been casually dating. Nevertheless, not only did Evan refrain from calling me twice a day, there were quite a few days that he never called at all. Up till that time, I'd never been with anyone who didn't call at least once a day, and his behavior threw me for a loop. I talked to him about it, telling him that I preferred some daily communication, and he nicely but firmly told me that although he loved me, that wasn't the way he operated. While he was happy to see me in person more often, he didn't like conversing on the phone or Internet and had no intention of doing it every day. I tried to content myself with this, but the fact remained that my need was greater than his, so I was dissatisfied right up until we ended our relationship.

Tragically, many otherwise healthy relationships, friendships, and working partnerships unravel due to differing degrees of communicational needs. This is not only because the need itself goes unfulfilled but because we approach our relationships with assumptions based on our needs. For instance, David's assumption was that if a girl liked him, she would want to talk to him two or three times a day like he wanted to talk to her. In contrast, Evan's assumption was that I should know he loved me, whether or not we talked every day, like he knew I loved him. We conduct our relationships based on these highly individualized needs, communicational and otherwise, and then are shocked and dismayed when other people don't share our needs to the same degree. What's worse, we interpret others' behavior in the context of our needs, not theirs. So, continuing with the example of communicational needs, that person who calls us more than we need to call them is deemed "desperate" or "insecure," while the one who doesn't call as much as we'd want is "cold" or "detached."

So is there hope if you and a loved one have different relational needs or the same relational needs in different quantities? Is there any way to break out of the habit of judging others' relational needs by our own? And, more to the point, is it possible to meet someone else's needs and still get our own needs met when those needs are different? Tune in next time to find out!


Have you ever had a relationship, romantic or otherwise, with someone who had similar relational needs but to a different degree than you? What problems did that cause for the two of you? Have you ever judged someone's actions based on your own relational needs and then realized you were wrong?


Fun Link of the Day

3 comments:

Victoria Gothic said...

Communication. Amazing how simple it is among friends until they become more than friends, isn’t it? I defiantly understand your point though. I have seen it happen, though not as often experienced it. You see, within my relationship, we were both really obsessive, so spending ever waking moment talking to one another wasn’t a problem between us, but it really screwed up things with everyone else we knew, and eventually each other. But the big picture you really pointed out, what people need; that’s it really, isn’t it? Not much else to define if people will work together or not. Well, I have to correct a statement. With my ex, we were obsessive in the beginning, but as time wore on, we came to find some differences. First, I wanted to be in contact more often, while she could go a few days without calling me. Second, she defiantly counted talking with someone, regardless of the medium (phone, computer, in person) as time spent, while I considered phones and computers as sub-par communication devices made only to stay off my feelings until we could be together in person again. This made a few problems. She thought I was too possessive, and I thought she was too stand-offish. Needless to say, it soon led to the demise of things between us.

Oh, and I must add, thank you Elsie for all your help, but my thoughts were only the wistful wishful thinking of a fleeting romance. No harm done. I can even smile to myself while typing it up here now. But at the time, when it took such prescience, and I just needed to talk about it, you defiantly helped me out, probably more than you could understand possible! Mostly, I wanted advice; a second opinion to make sure I wasn’t totally insane, but even more than that, I just wanted to talk about it to someone. Now, I don’t know if this will make sense, but I think better when I’m talking. Like, when I’m trying to wring out a problem in a plot of something I’m writing, I’ll call one of my trusted friends and begin talking, explaining the plot. Every once in a while, I’ll stop and say, “Are you still there dear?” My friend will pause momentarily from their movie or computer conversation and reply “Of course.” I will then continue. After explaining everything I understand, I come once again to the problem, but this time, it makes perfect sense! After leading up to it, I understand what to do! “Thank you lovie!” I say over the phone. “Not a problem.” They’ll say (In fact, they say only between 15 to 20 words during my rants). Which isn’t a problem, because I don’t need them so much to listen, although I love it when they reply, I just need to talk it out to myself, to make it clear in my own head. So, when I post that enormous comment, I would have been happy with an “Of course, darling” reply, but you gave me a comment at least as long as one of your posts here at Singletude! (Which is far too much of me to ask of you). Regardless, I can’t thank you enough for all the help you’ve given me.

Now then, back to the original point. The only conclusion I can come to is a lack of realism. As you said, you and both David and Evan knew you cared for each other, but things fell apart anyways. First I would like to clarify, I’m no expert, and I’m still working on this myself. I think we become immersed in what the relation means to me (generic me) and it becomes very personalized. We know that the other person cares, we just don’t see it at the time. After the relationship, we can see it for what it really was. So, I assume post relationship is reality setting in, no more illusions, just the facts you’re looking at. So perhaps the answer is to detach yourself emotionally for just a few minutes at a time and take an objective look at what’s going on around you (generic you), like “she’s been faithful and caring and everything else I could hope for, she just doesn’t want to talk to me every minute of every day.” And be content with that. Believe me, its harder than it sounds. That’s the exact phrase I should have come up with during my relationship, but instead I believed it was something personal she held against me.

Ah yes. Well, I must say Elsie, I’m sorry for my absence as of late, but its good to be back. Till later Lovie.

bobbyboy said...

Relational needs are indeed important, but to what extent, I don't know. It seems to me that the over all compatibility is going to out weigh relational needs to an extent anyway. Maybe it has to do more with settling or prioritizing our needs for the sake of a relationship.

It would be interesting to see which needs and what percentage of them are deal breakers. You have given a couple of clear ones from your experience Elsie, but it makes me curious as to an average, say, from around the country.

"Have you ever had a relationship, romantic or otherwise, with someone who had similar relational needs but to a different degree than you?"

Yes, every single relationship.

"What problems did that cause for the two of you?"

This is where confusion sets in for me. Having a grand total of 3 real relationships my whole life, there has been a degree of relational differences in our needs, but never a deal breaker, at least not for them. Possibly because of my Tom Cruise/ Brad Pitt type looks? Certainly not, so it must be something more in which lies the rub, but simply alludes me.

"Have you ever judged someone's actions based on your own relational needs and then realized you were wrong?"

Sorry Elsie, maybe I haven't had enough coffee yet, but I have no idea what this question means.

I will say that this topic has drawn some interest for me. I guess maybe because I don't see any real connection as it pertains to me. Although, I'm sure it does.

Clever Elsie said...

Victoria: It's nice to see you around here, First Poster. :) I was beginning to wonder where you were.

So perhaps the answer is to detach yourself emotionally for just a few minutes at a time and take an objective look at what’s going on around you (generic you), like “she’s been faithful and caring and everything else I could hope for, she just doesn’t want to talk to me every minute of every day.”

I think that's true, and you've probably noticed by now that I touched on that in the next post, Resolving Differences in Relational Needs. When we talk to our partners about our relational needs or even, as you said, just reflect on the subject for awhile ourselves, it sometimes helps to realize that we've been judging our partner's needs based on what we need. And, as you also mentioned, sometimes we realize that our needs require a more realistic readjustment. But you're right that this can be challenging to accomplish since it involves a lot of dedication to changing our thought patterns and certain routine behaviors.

I'm sorry to hear that things didn't work out with your ex, but it sounds like you've come to terms with it and are moving on. Good for you. :) And I'm glad that I could be a listening ear for you when you needed one. Lots of people find that verbalizing their thoughts on a subject can really clarify it, so you're definitely not alone in that.

And how are things working out for you and your friends? Did you talk to your parents about it at all?

Bobby: It would be interesting to see which needs and what percentage of them are deal breakers.

A number of studies have been conducted on this topic. If you check out the "Fun Link of the Day" on this post and the last one, you'll find a few web sites that identify the most common relational needs. If you're interested in which ones are the most significant to the success or failure of a relationship, you might want to try searches on "relational dialectics," "relationship stability," and "relationship dissolution." There are a lot of academic studies on these topics which are now available online.

Having a grand total of 3 real relationships my whole life, there has been a degree of relational differences in our needs, but never a deal breaker, at least not for them...it must be something more in which lies the rub, but simply alludes me.

The failure of a relationship is a complicated thing, so it can be difficult or impossible to isolate a single factor that was responsible. Unmet relational needs aren't, of course, the only contributors to the demise of a relationship, but they sure won't help a troubled couple either.