One Key to Love — Differentiating Needs, Wants, and Desire
Words to help you know how you really feel
Editor’s Note: From the Flavors of Love Series of Essays
An eloquence of the heart can change a man’s life. Words help define and clarify his feelings. They direct his thought. They open him to emotional experiences that were unavailable without them.
I learned this through the journey of my own life in which a kind of emotional eloquence helped me break out of the cages of inarticulateness. Inside those cages, I did not know what I was feeling. I was crude. “I’m angry!” I might shout. Or, “I love you!” I might whisper. As if life were made of those two cages only.
Love and anger, however, have a multitude of flavors or shades. Not all love is the same, and not all anger is the same. I also realized that other large categories of feeling have similar differentiations — grief, for example, or shame, or even joy. Dreams, poetry, mythology, and art began to provide the language needed. That language enriched my life and helped me to feel and experience life more deeply, and with grace and strength.
At present, I am writing a series of essays on the flavors of love. I have completed those on captivation, endearment, infatuation, and sacred love. Differentiating these experiences help men know themselves better, and will help them avoid mistaking one kind of love for the other — an important discernment for men making decisions about relationships and life partners.
Robert Bly once said that men under 30 can tell you what they need, men between 30 and 50 can tell you what they want, and only men over 50 know what they desire. The age limits here are arbitrary, but the notion of differentiating need, want, and desire is fruitful.
Need Is Not Desire
Need is associated with survival. We think of water or food as necessary to survive, and therefore as needs. When we say we need a person in a relationship, or that the relationship or person is not meeting our needs, we are in fact questioning the survivability of the relationship. Emotional need is self-focused. It does not conjure love or attention to the other person, but rather to oneself. It is not that there is anything wrong with emotional needs or having them met, it’s just that the focus demonstrates the immaturity of the relationship. To have certain emotional and life needs met in a relationship is basic. If need becomes the focus, however, the relationship has descended into an emotional zero-sum game that neither person can win.
The experience of need in an emotional relationship is not very satisfying. Nor is having your needs met. Need is so basic that it cannot inspire us to greatness in ourselves or our relationship. The relationship becomes transactional, and if your needs are not being met, the relationship is doomed. In most cases, negotiating to have them met doesn’t work either. It is as if the other person and you cannot be a match because if you were, some of those needs would be met as an intrinsic aspect of your “match.”
Likewise, however, men and women can misinterpret their needs. Sometimes, needs have roots in psychological harm done in previous experiences of life. They cause us to say we need something from the other person because it would assuage our pain, but the reality is that the other person had nothing to do with the pain and cannot meet the need for healing it. Does that mean the relationship is doomed? Not necessarily. It may just mean that the expectation of having that person meet that need is incorrect or inappropriate. If you are over-focused on your needs, therapy may be a better solution than a relationship.
Ultimately, real needs are not negotiable. Either they get met or the relationship isn’t working. In some cases, the partner with the need has to meet that need elsewhere — such as in therapy or through friends or family. But he or she will have to get it met — it is, after all, a need. For men in particular, all too often, they bring their needs as unhealed pain from previous experiences — relationships, family, bad social experiences — and because they have not done the work to process them, they lay those needs at the feet of their partner. “I need this,” he will say. And it is true. It’s just that the partner, in all likelihood, cannot meet that need no matter how hard they try. The man must find his healing in something other than a relationship.
Want Is Not Desire
When basic emotional needs are met, relationships often elevate to a focus on wants. Like needs, wants turn the focus to oneself. “Here is what I want from you.” Wants can be extractive. They can also sound childish: “I want this! I want that!”
Being less existential, wants seem connected with a different place in the heart. Whereas needs conjure an existential desperation, wants attempt to express something that would make life better. When wants are fulfilled, life is better. When not, life is tolerable. Most wants seem to be affiliated with a surface-of-earth level of being. They are not about childish, unconscious needs, but there is also no sense of depth or ascension. Wants keep one on the flat plane of life. We can go wide and far on our wants, but we cannot go up to the heavens or down to the nether regions of the soul.
Individually, wants are usually about things — cars, houses, etc. — but in relationships, they are about things you do. Do this with me, do this for me, do this to me. Or, let me do that for you because I want to. People want a lifestyle with their partner. They want to take a trip together. They want to build a certain kind of life. All this affects the relationship, but it is very much on the worldly level.
Expressing and meeting wants can be lovely and generous, but they can also be manipulative. Relationally, wants tend to be extractive; they turn the focus onto oneself. “Here is what I want from you.” And it becomes a negotiation. A contract is made. “I will do what you want if you do what I want.” While this can be a healthy give and take, it is about relating, not about loving. Needs and wants are both important to tend to in relationships, and good, sustainable relationships meet the relational needs and wants of both partners. But when we talk about desire, needs and wants are not the main focus.
Desire as Experience
Desire is one of the most delicious flavors of love. When taken with desire, you feel alive. You feel expressive. It is joyful. Every cell of your body seems to resonate with love energy. That is the ecstasy of love. It comes in desire. It is the experience most of us seek when we are looking for love. What we really seek is to have our bodies consumed with desire. For here is where we fully experience the rapture of being alive.
Desire turns away from the self-focus of needs and wants to focus on the heart’s desire for another person. Whereas captivation and infatuation as flavors of love focus on the object of one’s love and treat the person in the imagination as an object, desire turns that person into a subject. Your person is a real person, a living heart, and a deep soul, and the more you see them, the more you desire to join with the being and body of that other person.
Desire stands on a connection that goes beyond the conscious choices we make in getting needs met or wants taken care of. At its core, desire arises from the body and the unconscious. The desire is to couple, not to extract, and there is no quenching desire’s thirst. Desire is the force that makes men ravenous and rapturous. It is a love of the deepest quality, one that holds the other person in the greatest esteem in their wholeness. It is physical, sexual, and bodily, and yet the entire conscious psyche is also taken with desire. In many ways, desire seems to be one of the more complete flavors of love. Desire governs the totality of one’s being. Desire is joyful, full, and complete.
When you are captured by desire, you tend to have a singularity of focus — the subject of your desire. Desire is different from infatuation because it does not involve that pedestal of perfection. No. Desire is clear-eyed about the other person. It sees their glory and it sees their imperfections and it does not care about either. It does not come from an image, but rather from an urge — an urge emanating from within the body. Desire is the body in ecstasy, and it is an incredible experience of love.
Desire is enhanced by deep intimacy and letting go of the longing for the perfect. Many men have mistaken infatuation for desire, usually with disastrous consequences. These two things — deep intimacy and letting go of the longing for the perfect — are the reasons Bly implied that desire is for more mature men. Deep intimacy takes time in a relationship and a man. Releasing the image of perfection occurs usually after one has lived life enough to realize that nothing is ever perfect, no matter how much you may deceive yourself. Life must be lived to learn these things, and that is what makes maturity valuable.
Needs and wants must be met. Desire must be experienced. Of the three, only desire is a flavor of love, and it is grand and beautiful.
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This essay is part of an ongoing project exploring the Eloquence of the Heart.