If you have had any contact with the personal growth industry, you have heard some form of this advice: “Figure out what you need from your partner and clearly communicate those needs.”
This advice comes from a good place. You might be like others who believe that your partner should know you so well that you don’t have to tell them what you need. You have suffered in silence, longing for connection or help from their partner. Your partner doesn’t fill that need because they really don’t know. They assume your silence is a sign that everything is fine. Or they know there is a problem but can’t figure out what it is.
This advice emerged to counter this problem. Your partner can’t read your mind. So, they won’t accurately guess what is going wrong.
There is wisdom in the advice.
Here’s is where it goes wrong: It is to dictate exactly how a partner is supposed to behave, as if they are a robot. You spend time thinking about what will make you feel better in the situation and then you give them the list.
- I need you to take out the trash. When you don’t, I feel unloved.
- When you don’t call, it shows that you don’t care about me. I need to hear from you on your way home.
- When you grab my ass but don’t give me a hug, I don’t want to have sex with you.
These are clear statements of the speaker’s needs, so these should be good for the relationship, right?
These statements are more likely to close down communication and problem-solving. They are likely to trigger defensiveness and shutdown in your partner. Your partner hears a list of demands.
These statements present the solution, as it solves the problem for you.
These statements skip over the problem.
They shut down growth in your partner.
It lets them off the hook so they don’t have to think.
It puts more of a mental burden on you to fix everything.
When you give the solution rather than the problem, your partner is faced with two choices:
1. They can go along with what you ask for to keep the peace, even if they don’t agree. If they go along with it, they may comply but have a bad attitude. In the end, you will get the behavior, but it will not give you the feelings that you seek.
2. They can disagree or ignore your request. This leaves you feeling unloved, abandoned, unheard, or unvalued.
These are not good outcomes. They do not build your relationship. They shut down growth in the relationship. They send the message that your partner is unimportant and your needs take priority over theirs. That what they want, think, or need in the situation is unimportant.
There is a better way.
You need to bring the problem to your partner, not the solution. When you engage them in a discussion, you send the message that your partner has something valuable to offer. That you can work together to find a solution that you can both be happy with. Or at least a solution that both of you can live with.
It’s not enough to identify what will make you feel better. You need to identify what the deeper problem is. You can offer suggestions of how to fill the need, but it needs to be the beginning of a discussion.
Instead of: “I need you to take out the trash”
Talk about: The breakdown of household responsibilities.
Instead of: “Call me on your way home from work.”
Talk about: Feeling disconnected.
Talk about the right things with your partner. Your discussions will be more likely to open up many options to solve them. If you want good solutions, you will jointly look at many different ways of to solve the problem so you can choose one that you both like. It requires you to put aside your favorite solution and look for others.
You chose your partner because of who they are. When you give them a solution without getting their input, they think that you are trying to change them. When your partner knows that you value them and their opinions, they are more likely to follow through on the solution that you both agree to.
- My partner won’t talk to me about my needs.
- My partner won’t offer any solutions.
- We don’t act like that with one another.
- If they hear my need and don’t do it, I will feel too vulnerable. That will feel worse than not telling them at all.
- arguing about how the dishwasher is loaded,
- how fast do they return your texts, or
- why they won’t say thank you for the meal you prepared.
Arguing about these surface issues isn’t making your lives together better. You can still have good boundaries about what you will and will not live with if they won’t discuss the problem with you. This questionable advice cuts out real connection and good solutions in the relationship. Don’t accept a shallow substitution to having a truly great relationship.