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What's the Difference Between Sexual Needs and Wants?

A more discerning way of thinking about unmet sexual needs and wants.

“You’re not meeting my sexual needs.”

Have you ever thought this about or said this to someone else? Has anyone ever said this to you?

I have heard, and most likely will continue to hear, clients say this in my office. Either in an individual session about their partner or in a couples session to their partner. In a couples session, it generally becomes a high-stress and high-stakes moment because so many people interpret this statement to have negative implications within the context of whatever is going on in their sexual relationship. For example, it may be used to: complain about what one partner perceives to be the other partner’s deficiencies; ask or threaten to open the relationship; justify the decision to have an affair; or end the relationship altogether.

This is a tough moment, no doubt about it. But in my opinion, this language is misleading, mainly due to folks not understanding themselves and having a consumeristic mindset. There are several things going on here, so settle in and let’s unpack it all.

First, a lack of self-understanding is a common issue that people come to therapy for. For example, just the other day I asked a client the question, “What was behind that decision you made? What was going on for you to make that particular decision?” The client said, “I don’t really know.” And my response was, “That’s OK, because that is what we are here to figure out!” So often people create really complicated sexual lives for themselves (and their partners) without examining their underlying motivation(s). Some folks have poor insight and struggle to make sense of their inner experience or are flat-out scared to examine themselves. So in therapy, we slow things down, get curious about what is going on within them, and identify the thoughts and feelings that may drive their choices. We also look for patterns in thoughts, feelings, and themes, to (a) see if there are any and (b) if there are, to see what they mean. You know, ‘know thyself’ type stuff.

The second issue is about needs and wants. Generally speaking, many people confuse the two. A need is a must-have, a requirement in order to live. Oxygen, food, water, shelter, safety, love, and companionship, things like that. When the need is not met, a person generally deteriorates. I like to think of a want as something that is added to or on top of a need. It falls into the category of “it would be nice to have.” For example, you need food because without it you will die; you want it to be tasty because that is pleasurable. Needs do not generally change over the course of your life; wants can and do change. That is part of what makes wants so interesting.

As I stated earlier, a problem in our complex 21st-century life is that it has become increasingly difficult for many to distinguish between some needs and some wants. I believe capitalism, advertising, and consumerism have played a big role in our confusion about wants and needs. Is a cell phone a want or a need? It could be argued that it is now a need. But that sexy, slick, and fun commercial you just saw tried to convince you that you need the newest and most expensive iPhone in order to stay in touch with others—which you do not. That new iPhone with all the fun and cutting-edge features is a want.

Third, where people, including mental health professionals, get confused is understanding an individual's reaction when a want is not met. Like I said, when a need goes unmet, a person generally deteriorates. However, when someone does not get what they want, they may become grumpy or angry, irritable or impatient, slip into a low mood, or feel deep emotional pain. This is not the same as decompensating.

Fourth, in addition to making many of us confused about our wants vs. needs, the culture of capitalism and consumerism has also turned much of our wants and needs into commodities, things that are bought and sold, things that are exchanged. Let’s say I need a vacuum cleaner: I do my research, think about my budget, and then buy the vacuum cleaner that fits my criteria. I use it for a while, but then it breaks. Since the vacuum cleaner stopped meeting my wants or needs, and these days it is cheaper to just buy another one versus get it repaired, I throw it away and purchase a new one.

When the very thing that meets a want or need has been commodified in this way, it is seen as only serving a function. Once it either serves its function or it breaks, it is time to move on. That want or need now has a transactional quality to it: I’m trading something (in this case of my vacuum cleaner, or money) for the want or need to be met. And this perpetuates the consumeristic mindset, commodifies our wants and needs, and, in my view, invites objectifying the things (and people) that we think can meet them and encourages throw-away culture. Yowza.

(By the way, my grandparents’ generation did not live in the same consumeristic culture — when their vacuum cleaner broke, they took it to get repaired at the vacuum cleaner repair store. They kept the vacuum cleaner and tried to fix it/make it better. Maybe there is a useful metaphor here.)

Also, consumerism creates feelings of entitlement—“I deserve that Tesla” is code for “I deserve to have my wants met.” Which on one level is true—I want all of us to get whatever it is that we want! Imagine that. But in the real world, there are plenty of times we do not get what we want, even when we want it really, really badly. And for many people that hurts and brings up all kinds of psychological issues.

This is not to say I am critical of wants in general or specifically sexual wants. Hardly. Getting what we want can be a means to personal growth, which I have written about before. I also firmly believe you have the right to want whatever you want, including in sex. What I want (ha!) you to do is own that it is a want, not a need. And also recognize that no one, including your partner, is required to meet your wants or needs. And to also not demand or threaten that they must meet your wants and needs… or else. Because your partner has agency and autonomy to make decisions about their life just like you do.

I can imagine someone reading this and thinking: “Well of course, Diane, I know that a new iPhone or Tesla is a want and not a need! But when it comes to my sex life, it’s different. If I do not get what I want sexually, it cuts so much deeper. It feels like my partner doesn't like me/has rejected me/has judged me/has shamed me.” And I have seen this happen for my clients. When partner A asks partner B for a sexual want and partner B judges or shames them for it or partner A perceives judgment or shaming, you bet it can just flatten partner A.

For many people, sex is an act of vulnerability, of revealing oneself to another, and risk-taking. So asking a partner to meet a sexual want is like divulging a personal secret; it can be so private and intimate and it feels like so much is on the line that if it does not go according to expectation, it is painful. But if your partner in fact judges or shames you for your sexual want, remember, that is about them, not you. And if your partner was not judging but you felt judged, you may be practicing a type of cognitive distortion called emotional reasoning: “It feels like you’re judging me so you must be judging me.”

It is precisely this heady and murky convergence of mental, emotional, and sexual elements that can lead a person to tell their partner, “You are not meeting my sexual needs." Because the pain is deep and the want is sincere it can easily be misunderstood if the person does not know themselves and they can default to certain socially created scripts. It can have the person believe it is a need when it is probably a want. They may feel that the want or need is a commodity to be traded in a transactional manner, and there is a sense of entitlement behind it.

No wonder it is a high-stress and high-stakes moment for many couples—and their couples therapist. It is a rabbit hole that individuals and couples can easily fall down into. And in my experience, if they hold tight to these damaging ways of thinking and relating, it is impossible to climb out of that rabbit hole without harming each other and the relationship. Remember, your partner/relationship is not a vacuum cleaner, something you have in your life to serve a function and then get rid of when it stops working.

The way through this moment is to make the conversation about the deeper experiences underneath the pain. The conversations and accusations need to shift to being about assumptions (“Even though we never talked about it, I just assumed you would do this for me”), disappointment and grief (“I’m disappointed and sad because my want is not being met”), and fear (“I’m afraid what will happen for me if I do not get my want”). The conversation needs to also be about how that partner copes when they feel disappointed, sad, or afraid. That comes back to the “know thyself” part.

This is a multi-layered process: taking responsibility for your part (the assumptions, your feelings of disappointment, grief, sadness, and fear, and how you coped with them); then fully recognizing your partner has choice in the matter. When you ask for them to meet your sexual want, they will decide if they want to do it. And once you can do these things, it becomes about practicing empathy for the both of you, acceptance of the both of you for wherever you are at, and understanding more deeply the existential issues inherent in the interpersonal dynamics of sexual relationships. And doing all this will probably bring up even more stuff.

Welcome to therapy.

© 2020 Diane Gleim

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