Next Installment: “Trading” Needs

This week I’m writing about having needs, because I’ve been examining all the ways I’m uncomfortable having needs in my relationships.

One of the most common ways I see couples handle having needs is by trading them in the unspoken marketplace of relationship. This can happens in a variety of ways—and often happens in so many ways, we aren’t even aware of it.

When I first began realizing how often I was bartering for attention, safety, favors, etc, I was blown away.

Here’s how it works:

I need something—let’s say it’s help around the house. Rather than asking for it directly, I begin to do something I think he wants in hopes of “earning” my need. He needs something—let’s say it’s money. Rather than asking for it directly, he starts to help around the house in an attempt to compensate for the fact that he’s low on cash right now.

This happens all the time in sex. He needs a blow job, so he goes down on her first in hopes of getting it. She needs sexual touch and connection, so she is sure to smile at him and laugh at his jokes in order to keep him interested.

I believed for a very long time that I had to “earn” my needs being met, mostly by being attractive, entertaining, or brilliant. Other friends and partners of mine have learned to “earn” their needs being met by being helpful, warm, or giving. Others by being low maintenance, easy going, and not asking for too much. Others by trading favors and keeping score of who’s done what for whom.

I used to trade smiles for favors (like changing my flat tire). I would trade being under my protection for friendship and loyalty. I would trade being subservient and dutiful for attention. I would trade sex for help with the kids.

All of this is just a cover up for the basic fact that we all have lots of needs. The reason we get into the “trading needs” business is twofold:

1. We’re uncomfortable having needs at all, so covertly exchanging them without talking about it can feel less awkward or terrifying.

2. We believe it’s selfish to get our needs met without also meeting our partners needs.

This second one, as you might imagine, is of great interest to me because of my radical views on receiving. (In a nutshell, receiving takes just as much work as giving, and this notion that the giver must be repaid by the receiver is misguided and rips both people off of true connection and intimacy.)

Here’s what I know to be true: when you have needs, it’s your job to get them met. And you getting your needs met is independent of your partner getting their needs met. They are not related in any way.

This comes up often when I teach about sex. We think sex has to be “even,” as if someone is keeping score. If he cums, she must, too. If he goes down on her, she has to go down on him.

One of the most liberating experiences I ever had sexually was receiving physical touch—and then not “giving anything back” in return. When I unpinned that my receiving had to be earned, my entire life changed. My relationships with men because much more fun and fulfilling, and I was able to enjoy a level of vulnerability I never had before.

While my man was packing up his house (to move in with me!), he was understandably bust and exerting a lot of effort. I started cooking for him, all his meals, because he was busting so much ass. I was very happy to do it.

However, near the end of the week we starting fighting. Now, there are several reasons the least of which not being we were moving in together and had been working all day and night to pack (after our two week road trip with the kids—yes, we both go full out on everything!).

I kept being curious about the source of tension, and one night I realized what it was: we both prefer the dynamic where he gives more to me than I give to him. I brought this up to him and he said, “Totally. I love it when you cook for me when I’m busy, and on the whole I am happier when I’m taking care of you more than when you take care of me.” What’s really neat is I like it better that way, too!

In the past, I NEVER would have allowed myself to say this, let alone experience it. I would have said, “That’s selfish. It needs to be fair. He must be lying to me. I should be more giving.”

Now, I can celebrate that we’re such a match because I know how fulfilling it is for him to give to me and for me to fully receive it. I watch him glow every time he makes me tea and I drink it. He feels purposeful when he helps me out. He LOVES it. It begs the question of who is doing who a “favor.”

The last time I was at acupuncture, the receptionist said, “You’re a fire sign, aren’t you?” I said, “Gosh, is it that obvious?” She said, “Yes it is. What sign is your partner?” I said he was a water sign. She said, “Oh that’s perfect! Because he has a lot of love to give and wants someone to give it to, and you are at your best when you’re receiving a lot of attention.” As if it was no big deal. As if she wasn’t touching upon the very thing I’ve struggled with my whole life in relationships! How to get all the attention I really want (and need).

So—in what way are you trying to trade for your needs? Are you willing to overtly get them met, because they are needs, rather than covertly trying to “earn” them?

Bez Stone

Bez Stone

Advocate for women's sexual fulfillment