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Big difference between what we want and truly need

Updated: March 27, 2012 11:04AM



My mother liked to help me distinguish between “needs” and “wants” when I was a kid. “You do not need Calvin Klein jeans.” “You do need to brush your teeth.” That kind of thing.

I do the same with my own children. “You do not need an iPhone. You want it.” Fair enough. At least, from my perspective.

Of course, this isn’t just about kids. Many times, we think in terms of the “needs-vs.-wants” discussion framed around a political or policy debate, whether it’s health care or housing.

Well, it’s time for this discussion to get more personal. How often are we guilty in our relationships of turning our desires into our needs? I heard a pastor friend speak wisely about this very thing lately in connection to our relationship with God.

But what about in our relationship to each other?

“I need you to listen to me on this.”

“I need him to be more sensitive to me.”

“I need more time/space from you.”

“I need you to have sex with me.”

And on it goes.

I would bet a whole lot of money that we use the term “need” in our relation to others a good bit more than was the case a few generations ago.

I also would bet we don’t realize how destructive this can be.

Almost anytime we turn a desire — even a good and legitimate one — into a need it’s something that typically and quickly becomes an entitlement, in our minds. And that means we have the right to demand it of someone else. Or demand that society approve of it. To make matters worse, when we refer to something we think we need, we tend to think we have no control over the situation.

And so, for instance, “I need to be in a marriage that makes me happy in the moment” really means: “I am entitled to leave my marriage to be with someone who meets my needs. In fact, I can’t really help doing so, and you have no right to judge me.”

“I need to have sex” suggests that I am inexorably mastered by the impulse, while “I desire to have sex” suggests, rightly, that it’s something I can master.

This all has implications for how we interact with others. For the minute my want becomes a need, in my thinking, it trumps you, your desires and, often, even your legitimate rights. Like the right to have someone keep his or her promises made in marriage vows.

Yet this mindset is everywhere. The self-esteem culture is practically built on the foundation of learning to assertively communicate our desires as needs. But naturally, the more we are trained by our increasingly self-obsessed culture to frame our wants as something we are entitled to, the more conflict ensues.

The respected Peacemaker Ministries — a Christian-oriented organization based in Billings, Mont., that assists in conflict resolution around the world — puts it this way on its website:

“The more we want something, the more we think of it as something we need and deserve. And the more we think we are entitled to it, the more convinced we are that we cannot be happy and secure without it. ... Even if the initial desire was not inherently wrong, it has grown so strong that it begins to control our thoughts and behavior.”

Sure, there may be occasions for expressing a want as a need to convey importance. “I need those papers on my desk by 5 p.m.” or “I need you to care more about our kids” may make clear the significance of the matter at hand. Understood.

But if we were typically much more thoughtful about expressing our desires in our relationships as exactly what they are — wants, not needs — I bet we would think more clearly about ourselves, our relations to each other and even our ability to master and not be mastered by our passions.

Funny how the older I get the wiser, it’s clear, my mother was.

Scripps Howard



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