Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The 51% rule (aka: keep your needs on the table)

I dedicate this blog entry to my therapist, Curt. Though I'd love to take credit for the insights that follow, clearly had I actually had them as insights, I would not be seeing a therapist!

Did you know that the way to evaluate a healthy relationship is to ask if 51% of your needs are being met? I missed that chapter. Must be because I skip numbers when I read. So I asked Curt: "How do you know? What does 51% feel like? Look like?"

He reframed it: "No one person meets all of our needs. But for a deep connection, for intimacy to grow, both partners need to feel that they are getting more than they put in. 51% is a way to ask yourself if you are getting more than you give."

Talk about a mind flip. I've spent endless hours refining my skills of "need suppression." Love, in my mind, meant figuring out what the other person needed and supplying it, selflessly, endlessly, even when tired and cranky, even when I gave away chunks of my soul, even when I didn't want to. And yes, I was proud of that proclivity.

I practiced my version of empathy with friends, kids, husband, the lady at Kroger's, my dog, telemarketers, other people's kids, neighbors, and clients. Giving, sermons told me, was its own reward. In intimate relationships, giving equaled love and "should" provoke reciprocity (the recipient will be so moved by the gift of your giving, s/he will be humbled and give back). Even without reciprocity, suppressing one's needs in the name of giving meant high standards of behavior and should create well-being in me anyway, since "it is better to give than to receive." Right?

The expression: If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy was patently false, according to my way of thinking. My credo: If you're not happy (whoever you are), how could I possibly be?

So this idea—this odd assertion that a healthy relationship meant that I was getting 51% of my needs met felt wrong, backwards, upside down. If Curt had said that both of people in the relationship were supposed to focus on meeting 51% of each other's needs, I would have nodded along. That's how I thought it was supposed to work. (Though it didn't. But I hadn't stopped my "need suppression" long enough to notice.)

What healthy people do is express their needs. They put them on the table. As Curt said to me, "Julie, your needs are never off the table." And he meant it. If my significant other got cancer, was depressed, unemployed, moody, tired, broke, out of town, hungry, mad, needed sex... you name it—none of those conditions were reasons why my needs stopped mattering, stopped being important. They were, quite simply, my needs—not judgments against me or impositions on others.

The only way I could know if the other person would/could meet my needs would be to express them. That person might not be able to (legitimately or selfishly), but there is no chance of their being met if the "needs" stay hidden and suppressed against the "some day" of the future when my partner woke up and thought, "Gee, I wonder if Julie has a need. I am now ready to meet it." Not only that, there's no way to evaluate whether or not the partnership is a good one if one of the people in it hides the very ways the partner can express love. Moreover, needs fill the space. So if yours aren't in the mix, other people's needs will take up all the space and time you have. That's just how it works.

Of course, I got so good at need suppression, I had forgotten what mine were! In fact, I became expert at feeling other people's needs, feeling other people's happiness! I didn't have my own nearly as often as I borrowed from someone else (someone I had helped become happy). There are a few notable times in my life where I remember feeling purely, singly happy (college, and especially graduate school, are two such times of unadorned personal happiness). But largely, I've depended on making those around me happy so I could finally relax and feel a little of their ease or peace—a version of well-being.

Expressing my needs into a room of other needs felt like lunacy! If you have unhappy people around you, adding your unhappiness is like volunteering to start a whirlpool and then jumping into the center. You're all going down! To drown! So, like the good worker bee that I am, I would set about fixing the unhappiness around me, against some future date when peace would reign and I could finally take a moment to figure out what I wanted. I also secretly hoped that someone would ask.

Fast forward to today: I'm aware that if a relationship has the power to sustain itself, both people have to repeatedly keep their needs on the table no matter what the circumstances are. It's never anyone else's responsibility to meet those needs (ever—they're your needs; get them met). But in a relationship, if you put your needs out there, you then get to see if the other person can meet them or not. Over time, you discover if this is a person that can reliably support you and help to meet your needs. (And yes, there is another version of this issue—the chronic need-pusher who expresses every need and expects others to anticipate and take care of them rather than taking responsibility for them.... but that's another post.)

Bottom line: It's still up to me to get my needs met... however I can. If enough of the kinds of needs I have in an intimate relationship can't be met by, let's say, the man in my life? That tells me about the quality of the relationship, not who is more giving or loving or that someone is too needy. And we're only talking 51%—not ALL needs are to be met by your main squeeze. Just a little more than half of them. Good relationships are a match (not a boxing match, not a lit match, not a personality match from match.com). They are a match between two people who have the resources to meet 51% of each other's needs... that are on the table, for all to see, all the time, no matter what.