What we need (from each other)

Or: How I learned to stop being so “accommodating” that I was actually being an asshole

If you’ve spent any time talking to nonmonogamous people, you’ll have heard some variation of “I just think it’s unreasonable/unethical/impractical to expect one person to fulfill all of my needs.” For many of us, it’s a liberating realization. We cling to it like a talisman, holding it aloft to ward off the pressures and assumptions of a culture of presumed monogamy.

And it’s certainly true, as far as it goes, that looking to any one person to meet all of your needs is setting them up for failure and you for disappointment. But something I’ve seen happen too often in nonmonogamous relationships, including in my own, is that the pendulum swings too far in the other direction: to “You’re not responsible for any of my needs” at the self-abnegating extreme or, more often, to “You’re not responsible for this need, so I should go have it met elsewhere.” And this is a problem, because it can interfere with the kinds of vulnerability that are instrumental in forming intimate bonds.

It’s an unfortunate fact that the overapplication of rules is part of the process of learning them. If there’s one thing that can be said for the you-are-my-everything model of relationships, it’s this: when I have a need I know whom to look to, and when my partner has a need I know I’m responsible for attending to it. Once you abandon this, you have to be nuanced and intentional in thinking about your and your partners’ needs, or else you risk limiting your relationships to the superficial.

What does it mean to be nuanced and intentional in thinking about our needs? Well, the main thing I wish someone had told me a decade ago is that “I need X” and “I need X from you” are different things, and both are valid, and it can be real dang hard to tell the difference when you’re coming from a framework in which they’re coextensive. In Default Monogamy Narrative Land, after all, to need a thing is to need it from your partner.

In my experience, nonmonogamous folks are pretty good about identifying needs related to time and communication: “I need to see you at least once a week,” “I need you to let me know 24 hours in advance of any plans,” “I need you to offer me some reassurance after you go on a date with a shiny new person,” etc. But when it comes to needs related to activities, we tend to be… pretty clueless.

Take me and my ex, for example. She’s a bit of a homebody, but not a complete shut-in like I tend to be when left to my own devices. She likes to sit back and enjoy a scotch, while I’m a teetotaler. When she brought these things up during our end-of-relationship conversation, I was bewildered, at first. I’d known, of course, that she liked to go out on occasion or share a drink with a friend, and I’d encouraged her to find people to do those things with. But she didn’t need to go out or have a drink — she needed to go out with me, to share a drink with me, and I had failed to hear her when she articulated those needs. We had agreed that neither of us was responsible for all of the other’s needs, and by the end of our 7+ years together, I had overapplied that principle to the point that I basically responded to every expression of a need I didn’t naturally, inherently satisfy with an “I encourage you to get that need met elsewhere.” Which was real shitty of me. Don’t do that.

And not only can this tendency lead us to do a disservice to our partners, it can lead us to do a real disservice to ourselves. I responded to a widening libido gap (a real shocker given the previous paragraph, I know) by reassuring myself that I could get those needs met elsewhere. I never really did anything about it, of course: I’m a shut-in and people are scary and dating is hard, after all. But knowing I had the option allowed me to not think too hard about my own needs and to put off addressing the underlying causes — including my own behaviors — of those needs remaining unmet.

I’d like to think that I’ve learned from this experience, and that I’m doing a better job now of thinking through my own needs — including identifying which are general and which are partner-specific — and of hearing my partners when they tell me what they need from me. What does that look like?

Whenever I’m establishing a new relationship or renegotiating an existing one, these are some of the things I’m bearing in mind:

  • What do I need from this specific partner?
  • What do I need from any partner of this sort? (For example, I need all of my sex partners to have a commitment to safer sex practices… but I don’t necessarily need all of my romantic partners to also be sex partners.)
  • What do I generally need? Are these needs already being met, or is there some deficit I need to account for? If the latter, is it reasonable and fair to ask this specific partner to fill that deficit?
  • What does this specific partner need generally? What do they need from a relationship of the sort we have or are forming? What do they need from me specifically? Am I willing and able to satisfy those needs?

Certainly this a lot more meta-work than just having a single you-are-my-everything partner, but it’s been a useful checklist for me. There’s one related thing that’s super important to introspect about (and to ask your partners about):

  • What are the consequences of my needs, whether general or specific, going unmet? How willing am I to make allowances for exigencies in my partners’ lives, and for how long? How willing am I to meet partners’ needs for which I’m not responsible, and for how long? Which of my needs, if left unmet, make me less able to meet my partners’ needs?

To be clear, I don’t think that there’s really a right answer to any of these questions, and this is hardly an exhaustive list. But they’re important questions to grapple with, and to make sure that you and your partners are answering in similar or complementary ways.

After all, the more we know about our own needs and our partners’, the better equipped we are to be kind to ourselves and to each other.

Lawyer and translator of legalese into plain English. Also a cishet white dude trying to unlearn a bunch of baggage.

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