Of all the harmful myths we’re fed about dating and love, one of the most insidious is the belief that intense longing for love is a weakness, that we should be content on our own, whether single or coupled. For some of us, this may be true. For the rest of us, it’s a debilitating falsehood.
In my opinion, longing for love is not weakness. It’s wisdom. Numbing our loneliness is a path to a despair that plagues our entire culture. We are not meant to be alone and self-sufficient. Without lives filled with love, we wither inside. Intimacy is oxygen. By and large, single people don’t need to transcend their hunger for love—even if it’s painful. Instead, they need to honor it.
In many ways, science backs this up. Eli Finkel, one of the most respected researchers in the field of relationships and attraction, states that the quality of your intimate relationship affects your happiness twice as much as your career, your friendships, and even your health.
Simply holding a loved one’s hand lowers blood pressure and reduces pain.
In many ways, need has been given a bad rap. We’re taught that need is a cringeworthy emotion, a source of shame. It’s certainly true that neediness isn’t an attractive quality, but usually, neediness comes from trying to suppress or transcend our authentic feelings of need. And that just never works. In the end, we just can’t keep holding our stomachs in, and our original needs, which might have been perfectly valid, come out in a form that’s manipulative, punishing, or passive aggressive. Our needs are a healthy and essential part of our humanity. When we suppress them, they fight harder by turning into neediness. Needs suppressed become neediness.
Or, perhaps even worse, they get pushed down so far that we lose access to them, and we become isolated and disconnected from our own humanity.
In my decades as a psychotherapist specializing in the wiser search for love, I’ve found that the people who most intensely need intimacy are the ones who are most likely to find it. Love—both the finding of it and the keeping it alive–takes hard work. All of us, single or coupled, fall into patterns of complacency. It’s those of us who can’t forget the importance of love who are willing to do that work, to struggle to get out of the gravity-zone of comfortable avoidance and reach out for connection, even when it’s hard.
For this reason, I invite my clients to see their longing as a gift, not a liability. It is those of us who experience the often-painful urgency of love who are willing to do the real work of intimacy.
Working with our needs in the context of a relationship is complicated. There are often no easy answers. The solution often lies in a level of mastery which takes time and practice to develop. Suppression rarely works–but neither does non-reflective, impulsive expression. Try this three step process the next time you’re experiencing a sense of need in your relationship:
First and foremost, begin by accepting, and dignifying your sense of need. Try to validate it. Finish the sentence “It makes sense that I feel this need because…” For example, “It makes sense that I am feeling needy for affection and validation because I really like this guy. We just saw our third movie together, and for the first time, we didn’t hold hands at all. Even after I took his hand, he seemed to find an excuse to pull away after just a few moments. So it makes sense that I’m feeling a need for validation.”
Second, without invalidating your own experience and feelings, try to imagine the perspective of the person you’re with. For example, “He’s been pretty consistently affectionate with me, so I probably shouldn’t over-worry here. Now that I think of it, he also seemed kind of preoccupied during dinner. I wonder what might be going on with him.”
The approach of bringing compassion to both parties—always beginning by dignifying your own feelings of need, and then reflecting on the experience of your partner—creates an environment that’s much more likely to lead to deeper intimacy. When we begin by shaming ourselves for our needs, it almost always ends badly. And unfortunately, our cultural fixation on appearing cool and confident chronically undermines our relationships.
The third step evolves out of the first two. Once we’ve taken the first two steps, we reflect on how we’d like to act. This step takes some reflection and it’s often immensely helpful to ask a friend for advice. Just be sure it’s a friend who won’t shame you for your “neediness.” This is a very personal step. For example, with ample reflection, one person might decide to say nothing and just wait to see how things progress. Another might ask his/her date if everything is ok, noting that he seemed preoccupied at dinner. For someone else, it might feel right to say s/he noticed her date didn’t want to hold hands, and ask if everything was alright. The main point is that in each of these cases, the person dignified instead of denigrated his or her needs, and spoke in a way that was kind.
Often, it’s the people who care the most deeply about connection who are most hurt when the sense of connection is damaged. These are often the people who most easily feel that something is wrong with them because they are so sensitive to the nuances of connection. In my experience, it is those very people who are often most capable of deep intimacy, once they learn to dignify their sensitivity, their need for bonding.
Learning to honor your needs instead of suppressing them can lead to a much richer, happier life. Those hard-work changes are at the heart of a life that’s filled with love.
© Ken Page, LCSW 2017. All rights reserved. For more information about my work, please visit KenPageLCSW.com