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.

12 comments:

HippieLunatic said...

This is a mandatory lesson for me to understand, but I admit fully, that it is not one I have a great success with.

Everyone who loves me tells me that I have to be open about my needs, but it feels selfish and cold to me to focus any attention on myself.

I think what is most important for me to try to take away, though, is that I need to own my needs. I am the one with full control of how and when they get met, and I need to start making myself a priority to me.

Thank you for sharing that I am not alone with this challenge in my life.

Inanna said...

Good stuff. It is challenging to identify one's own needs. Do you (or Curt) have any strategies for doing this?

Like you, my partner learned to try to anticipate and fulfill others' needs as a way of being loved. As his partner, I often find it challenging to meet his needs because neither he nor I are always clear about what they are! (And I never know what to buy him for gift-giving holidays.)

I learned something a little different, but equally as mystifying. I learned to hope someone (not me) would figure out, anticipate, and meet my needs, and then I would be loved. This is a kind of learned passivity. The most important thing for me is to learn to identify my needs and to take responsibility for getting them met. Sometimes taking responsibility means asking my partner for what I need; it doesn't mean I have to do everything for myself.

Note that the patterns we learned, though different, both contain a set-up for NOT getting our needs met.

Very interesting and crucially important grist for the relationship mill.

~paganmama

Susan said...

In my past life I could have written these two chapters, verbatim:


"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."

In my current life, when I notice myself falling into this mode I first stop to NOTICE and then try not to go that route. It's an ingrained way of being and I often find myself going two steps forward and one step back, as I slowly form new paths in my being. I am making progress in healthy thinking and the by product is learning to live what makes me happy.
Great post, Julie!

julieunplugged said...

Hippie, thanks for you comments. I relate.

Paganmama, what a great comment. I think one of the sub-texts to women in romantic relationships is that we know the men care if they can guess our needs without telling them. Have to break that pattern! I also agree that asking for what I need from my partner is part of taking responsibility for that need.

To identify one's own needs means paying better attention to how I feel in the moment. So for instance, let's say you are married to someone who has cancer. Over time, you feel like you are living out the cancer lifestyle, except you don't have it! But you feel guilty saying you need a vacation or time away or time off—after all, you are cancer free! Recognizing your needs would be to say: I need a break even while I want to be there for my partner. Then you have to follow through with the courage to say it to your partner and see how that need can be met.

For me, it's all about honestly admitting that my needs sometimes seem selfish or unreasonable... but they are real and must be openly faced--not ignored.

Bilbo said...

Great blog entry Julie!...While I don't like putting a percentage on getting our needs met I do like and agree with much of what is said here Julie...and...would add that the "primary roles" we take on in adult life should be seriously considered when taking into account what we need. For those those whose primary role is a caretaker, as you have stated and implied here, they need to be, imo, more intentional about stating their needs and not simply always defer to others...and...caretakers also need to be not so easily satisfied with the crumbs from the table which is often a potential problem...Just my two cents.

jo(e) said...

That's a great blog post for all of us caretakers. I think I grew up thinking that expressing my needs was "selfish" and instead had to learn the hard way that it's actually essential, since it's not fair to expect my partner to be a mind-reader.

I think reciprocity is important in all adult relationships -- friends, grown children, relatives. Too often I've been sucked into caretaker mode, and I usually end up regretting that pattern.

debbiep said...

What a wonderful post! It is so hard to break old habits and begin to express my needs. I agree that it is hard to identify them once you have suppressed them for so long. Also difficult is how to figure out what 51% looks/feels like.
All I can say for sure is that when I started it expressing them, it felt like freedom!

julieunplugged said...

I sent Curt to the blog entry to read it (and modify my understanding if I got the nuance wrong). Here's what he wrote:

"The 51% rule means that in an overall energetic fashion the relationship needs to bring more to your life than it takes. Cheers, C."

I like that: "more to my life than it takes."

jo(e) said...

That makes sense. I read somewhere that the song of the caretaker is, "Give, give, give ... resent!"

The nice thing about a reciprocal relationship is that you don't get to the resentment stage.

Kansas Bob said...

"the relationship needs to bring more to your life than it takes"

Simply excellent! The older I get the more I understand the truth of what you have said in this post Julie. Expectations, like needs, that are not communicated are rarely ever met.

Kathleen808 said...

Words for thought Julie. I like how you make me think. I've given a lot of thought to , "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." Thanks. Kathy

Ed G. said...

8^)