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What Do You Need?


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What Do You Need?

Respect your needs — even if you can't meet them.

By Bina Breitner

 

 

When you try not to need something — just because you can't have it — you set up a prolonged battle within yourself. The need has a mind of its own: If you need something, you need it. But when you can't satisfy it, you feel better diminishing it... so you bring out your arsenal of counter-arguments.

"What's the point?" you say. "It isn't available. I have to be realistic."

Or you remind yourself, "Count your blessings. Look at what you do have." That's a good idea, to recognize the many wonderful things life has brought you. "It could be so much worse" is probably true.

"Keep your face to the sunshine" was the favorite phrase of one client's mother. Whatever happened, she was expected to look for the gold underneath the dross.

"No one wants to hear about it" may also be true. Other people do have their own struggles, and there's a limit to how much you should (or can) impose on them. Life is hard enough — don't add to the difficulty with your own "whining."

Then there's the stoic approach: "Man up." "That's the way the cookie crumbles." "You have to face the music." And, "Be a grown-up."

With that barrage of instructions, which all translate into "Shut up," it's small wonder you do. Or you try to. But then you get the consequences....

I worked with a couple in which the wife had been sexually abused by her father. Her mother, who had also been abused (by her own father), went blank and didn't protect her. My client, whom we'll call Lillian, had stopped wanting sex with her husband, Ed, once the love-honeymoon was over. By the time I saw them, they hadn't had sex for a year, and she didn't even want to kiss Ed. She knew, and regretted, that this was lonely for him, but she couldn't change how she felt.

Ed had decided to accept the situation. He loved his wife, he sympathized with her sexual trauma, they had a young child, and he was committed to the marriage. He'd stopped expecting to have intercourse with her. In fact, he'd almost stopped hoping for any kind of sexual connection with her.

Then he went to a friend's Las Vegas wedding, which involved parties with strippers. He thought the whole business was crass and declined the lap-dance. But he was stopped in his tracks to hear his buddies say they didn't like the stripper thing either — it just made them want to go home to their wives.

Ed realized that when he went home to his wife, he would again, still, be sexually alone.

So he did what most people do (versions of "Shut up"). He told himself again that her suffering was greater than his, so he should be considerate and not ask or expect to have sex with her. He reminded himself there was no point to being angry or being sad, because that wouldn't change anything. He needed to be realistic and accept things as they were — after all, life isn't perfect, and a lot of what they had was good.

In the session, he said he'd "stopped thinking about it." It only hurt and frustrated him when he did think about it, so why bother?

For Lillian, sitting next to him, none of this was new. She felt guilty, and sad for him, but she was clear about how she felt and what she could (or couldn't) do. Because of her history, because she was exhausted by work and child-care, and because her hormones had "dried up" after the child was born, she was not interested.

They were getting through the days, but they weren't healthy: Ed was becoming increasingly irritable with her and with the child; he was depressed. Both he and Lillian were lonely, feeling angry and hopeless. It was time for a different approach.

 

We started by realizing they were both thinking in terms of "results" rather than "process." Each could define the way things should look. Lillian wanted to recover some interest in sex (for Ed's sake, and that of the marriage). Ed wanted to stop being angry and depressed about his sexual loneliness (for Lillian's sake, and that of the marriage).

Trying to change outcomes or results assumes that the way things are (or will be) is primary: You've got your eye on the goal, getting from here to there. We were going to start at the source of the impasse, the process. Each needed to explore how he or she really felt, because that was affecting their relationship. Not how they wanted to feel or should feel. How they did feel.

What if Ed were more sympathetic to himself, acknowledging how lonesome he was without sexual contact? He said the physical release was something he could take care of, but sex with his wife brought him a sense of connection, of being loved and welcomed, of approval, of contentment, of "home."

That is a lot to have given up — or to have been forced to give up. Of course he was angry. He immediately started taking care of Lillian again ("It's not her fault...."), but I stopped him. He was confusing action-decisions with recognition of his feelings. No one suggested he force his wife to have sex with him, just because he wanted sex. He did have to respect her feelings and anxieties. But weren't his feelings, anxieties and needs just as important? Or, perhaps, to him, even more important?

He needed to let Lillian work on figuring out how she'd been co-opted and traumatized by her history of incest. He couldn't change that. What he could change was how he treated himself.

 

Let's use the example of a child in the supermarket with his mom. He sees a candy bar at the checkout and wants it. Mom #1 is irritated: "You know you can't have candy in the middle of the afternoon!" The boy feels shamed, angry, frustrated, and then anxious because he may have alienated his mom.

Mom #2 says, "Oh, I know, those are good, aren't they? Maybe we'll get one another day. Right now we're going to check out and get you a [healthy] snack as soon as we get home." The boy is learning to postpone. His desire for a snack is valid; he'll get one shortly. There is nothing wrong with him for wanting the candy bar. His mom is trustworthy, so he can wait.

In other words, respecting someone's desires or needs (acknowledgement) is a different issue than giving them what they're asking for (action). The feelings are what they are — and valid because they simply "are." There's nothing wrong with the boy for wanting a candy bar (the market put it there precisely because they knew that when he saw it he'd want it).

Likewise, Ed's sexual and emotional needs aren't his to design. He can accept them sympathetically, or at least neutrally. Then he can make choices about how he behaves, without being "bad" for needing what he needs.

 

When I worked in Bolivia for two years (decades ago), I noticed that teenagers there didn't have an "adolescent crisis." They weren't rebelling against their parents. They gradually got more independent (not always obedient in their behavior, certainly), but they weren't angry. I thought this relatively smooth transition might be related to how aware of feelings all the adults were. The difference between children and adults seemed less about what they felt than about their degree of emotional discipline.

That is, children and adults weren't unlike each other. Children were not expected to be mini-adults. Adults were not expected to have "outgrown" all those "childish" feelings. They were expected to behave more responsibly and to know that behavior had consequences.

From what I see in my practice, people are often afraid of their feelings because they haven't separated feelings and action. They're scared that if they feel something, they'll act on it. If a husband acknowledges how mad he is at his wife, he'll scream at her. Since he doesn't want to act that way, he tries not to feel that way. Like Ed.

It sets up an endless internal war. ("I need X, or I feel Z." "That's bad! You shouldn't want that! You shouldn't feel that way!" "But I do want it and feel it!" Etc.) Telling yourself to shut up is unkind, lacking in compassion or empathy. It's disrespectful, because it makes the feelings "wrong," shameful, and tells you your needs and feelings don't matter. How much more disrespectful can you get?

Telling yourself to shut up is also useless. If you need something, you need it. That's not to say you can have it, or should have it. But there's nothing wrong with needing it or wanting it. When you deny your own emotional reality, you're lying to yourself and assuming you're immature, that you'll act on anything you feel. Presumably you have some "executive" part of yourself who can make informed decisions about your actions (well, most of the time). There's no need to insult your hopes and needs.

 

Ed admitted that underneath his "realistic" acceptance of Lillian's aversion and his consideration for her suffering lay a lot of anger, hurt and loneliness. In other words, all the times he'd disallowed his feelings, he'd simply shoved things down. They hadn't gone away. He still needed what he needed. Denying his own feelings had only caused conflict within him.

If he got acceptance and sympathy from himself, acknowledgement of his own deprivation and disappointment, he would be less angry. He would still have to accept Lillian's (current) limitations, but he wouldn't be a bad person any more for recognizing what he needed and deserved.

It was a "both/and" situation. He needed to have a sexual relationship with his wife, and he had to accept that, at least for the foreseeable future, he wouldn't have it. He hated that; it was unfair; it made him lonesome, and he didn't know how long he could put up with it. But at least his needs were no longer his adversary.

This kind of recognition also helps with boundaries. The more Ed could acknowledge the validity of his own needs, the less he was "taking care of" Lillian's feelings, trying to be what she needed instead of being himself.

The more he stopped taking care of her, no longer squashing his own truth, the more likely she was to begin grappling with her own sexual issues. She had a husband who stood up taller, respected himself, wasn't so angry any more, was trying to adjust to her but might not be able to — did she want to lose him?

She did not. So she began doing the same kind of work. What was the source of her aversion to sex? What did she remember, and how had she felt about it? Now her needs, and the validity of her feelings, came into focus. She was no longer trying to take care of Ed and getting into a battle within herself ("I should want to have sex, but I don't; I feel guilty, but I can't help it..."). She stopped bullying herself and started listening instead.

Her process took longer. Sexual abuse is hydra-headed. (In Greek mythology, the Hydra was a many-headed snake whose heads grew back again as they were cut off; it was eventually killed by Hercules.) But Ed was encouraged to see her working to extricate herself from it. She appreciated his support; with time and more sympathy for herself, she did begin to approach him physically.

It's a paradox: Togetherness does not come from merging. It comes from more of what Murray Bowen called differentiation. You are you, with your needs, and your partner is your partner, with his or hers. Two people. Different needs. Nobody is wrong. Once that's understood, each person can have needs and rhythms, sympathize with them, stop being angry, stop trying to shut themselves up, and be a worthy participant in the relationship.

The internal battle against your needs isn't necessary. It was never helpful. You need what you need. What you decide to do about it is a different question. Meantime, don't blame yourself for being yourself.

 

 

Bina Breitner is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT)
in private practice at 808 W. 8th St. in Silver City. She can be reached at (575) 538-4380.

 



 



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