Being Needy in a Relationship Is Actually a Great Idea

Emma Roberts in <em>Palo Alto</em>
Emma Roberts in Palo Alto Photo: RabbitBandini Productions

I’m not just a bundle of needs. I’m a dam-come-undone of needs so ferocious, and so unmeetable, that they threaten to drown us all.

This is why, for most of my life, I have not “done” needs. I simply didn’t see it as an option.

A little snapshot from my life: It is 1989, freshman year at my elite San Diego Catholic high school, and it’s my turn to give a presentation on the Vietnam War in front of the class. I attempt to form words, but nothing comes out.

Instead, I just … stand there, then suddenly begin sobbing uncontrollably as the stupid ‘60s music I picked out for my presentation plays. I’m holding up pictures from the war, near hyperventilating as a classroom filled with richer, blonder, more popular kids is staring back at me, horrified and entranced and (worst of all) pitying me, for 20 minutes straight.

I’m still that girl. The other day, I found myself so unable to deal with my overwhelming feelings and needs that I sat in front of a 12-step group and just apologized, weeping, unable to deal with the love coming my way, while everyone else was forced to watch a 40-year-old woman cry and regress and cry some more.

To my credit, at least I’ve always known how unseemly neediness is in polite company. So I developed a sense of humor. I developed an ability to write. I dyed my hair, lost a little weight, and learned to dress like a sorority girl. I developed an ability to read people and respond to their needs before they even knew they had them. That’s the great thing about not dealing with your own needs: It frees you up to tend to other people’s.

I developed a superficial stance toward relationships. And then I met my husband.

On our second date, I was still playing one of the dating archetypes that I had learned to embody. Not full-on Gillian Flynn “cool girl,” but some sickly variant thereof. Easy. Fun. Low-key awesome, high-key fun.

In other words, I didn’t go too deep. Like a sociopath who has learned to mimic normal human boundaries and emotions, I opened up some, but I knew not to show the neediness (and often anger) hidden in my heart. I mean, you don’t lead with that, right?

“You’re acting so weird,” my future husband said. I was cold, distant, dissociative, making sure not to go to that place of baby tears from the baby girl with the baby heart, who did not get the safety and love and consistency and whatever the fuck I needed when I was small.

“I’m just … I’m just …” I stammered and panicked and felt humiliated and had flashbacks to that Vietnam War presentation.

“What?” he said, holding my hand. “Tell me. Please.”

Oh fuck, the tears were coming.

“I just like you so much, and I know that is stupid, and I feel so stupid, and I don’t really know how to have a deep relationship because I kind of stopped doing that when I got divorced, and I pretty much gave up on that real, vulnerable, intense, life-partner kind of love. I’m too much. I know I’m too much, and I don’t want to do that to you …”

He looked at me, relieved.

“Oh, well, that,” he said. “Okay, that I can work with. That’s just you being real.”

Who. The. Fuck. Was. This. Guy? How dare he see through my bravado, bluster, and pain?

In just a few compassionate sentences, he had summoned the Needy Monster who was never full, who could never be satiated, who could not be stopped. And at the same time he was telling me there was no such thing.

“No one wants to be ‘needy,’” he told me later that night, keeping his hand on my knee as he rode the subway home with me at 4 a.m., to make sure I felt okay even though I insisted that I didn’t “need” him to. “To deny a need is to deny a fact. By definition, it’s an absolute requirement. Need, not ‘want.’ People never say, ‘You’re want-y.’ Like it or not, you have needs, and it’s important to know what they are.”

This response was a revelation. A game changer.

I finally began to examine what my needs were. And what came next was that I said I was afraid. I needed to know he wasn’t fucking with me. I had been toyed with too many times, and it hurt too much to have someone sell me the entire boyfriend song-and-dance, just to try to steal some little sliver of my soul, when honestly I would have been fine with only the sex part.

As I wrote this, I asked my husband what his current needs were (him: love, sex, connection, Internet, support, consistency, comfort, kindness; me: same), and I suddenly remembered this Tony Robbins retreat I attended with a friend a few years ago.

Believe it or not, Robbins has a doozy of a list of six core needs, which I found republished in Entrepreneur. It serves as a nice, broad-stroked categorization of the entire freaking human experience.

According to Robbins, the six human needs are:

  • Certainty/comfort: You want to know what you’re going to get. You want consistency.
  • Uncertainty/variety: You want to be thrilled and excited. You want new, different, more, next, better, worse, clean slate, everything. (This is a very addicty need, at least through an addict’s eyes.)
  • Significance: You want to be recognized for the good or even the bad: being richer, broker, sadder, happier, worse off, better off. Whatever. You want recognition — on any level.
  • Love and connection: You know this one. And of course, failing love, people will seek the “crumbs” of connection through sex, flirtation, cheating, emotional affairs, you name it.
  • Growth: To quote Annie Hall: “A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”
  • Contribution: You want to give. You want the high that comes from service. You want to do stuff that will go on and have an impact on other people’s lives, forever.

Robbins’s entire theory is that if you look at your primary two, three, or four needs, it allows you to be the “architect of your life.”

“So what do you think my needs are now?” I asked my husband, a year and some months after the date when the conversation first arose.

“I think you need to feel appreciated,” he said, and he was right: It’s a very important need I couldn’t even see myself, but when he fulfilled it, it made me feel seen, feel whole, feel validated, and, honestly, not feel fucked with or taken advantage of. “I think you need to be appreciated for specific qualities,” he went on. “Your talent, your intelligence.

“And I think you need to be sure that you’re not going to be abandoned,” he continued. “That’s a big one. You need to feel really safe in the fact that the love is going to be there.”

I could feel the tears start. Oh God, would this ever stop?

As soon as my tears came, my husband put his arms around me. He pulled me in close.

“Thank you,” I said. “I needed that.”

“I know,” he said.

Being Needy in a Relationship Is a Great Idea