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
Singletude: A Positive Blog for Singles
Sunday, February 24, 2008
Ah, those relational needs. Pesky critters, aren't they?