Your father can teach us an important lesson about relationships.
Think about how hard it can be to give your father a really good gift. If your dad is anything like mine, finding a good gift is tough. He doesn’t need a lot. He doesn’t ask for a lot. Sometimes you stumble upon a good gift, but most of the time you phone it in because you don’t really know what to give him.
This doesn’t mean you don’t love you dad. It just means you don’t know what to give him. He’s human, so he has needs. But he doesn’t communicate those needs, even if they are few, so of course you struggle when you want to show him you care.
We all can learn from this situation with our dad. If approached properly, our needs can be a gift we give others; we can give others a way to show us they care. This is a meaningful gift, as we know from the experience with our father, even if it also is a self-serving gift.
Before we talk about our needs as gift, though, let’s take a deeper look at needs in general and how they are created.
I spend a lot of time in monasteries, and one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from monks is that the less needs we have, the better. An unmet need causes us trouble because it makes us unhappy until we meet the need. It also makes us chase after it, controlling our life and keeping us from enjoying what we have in the present moment.
Fortunately, most of our needs are actually wants. What we need is very little, and we can count it on our hands: food, shelter, sleep, etc. The trouble is that we confuse needs with wants because we’ve grown accustomed to certain things and now consider them essential. So our needs become many, and we expand our “needs” by pampering ourselves and growing our list of essentials for a good life. This is another way of saying we are unhappy because of our expectations, not because of the world around us.
Monks actively abhor “wants” with this idea in mind, but most of us aren’t at that point. Even if we recognize that wanting more just makes us unhappy, we aren’t there yet—we still have “wants” that feel essential, and giving them up is painful and might even feel like more trouble than it is worth.
Regardless of our ultimate goals, we have needs today even if they are “wants” disguised as needs. Less is better, but each of us has a basket of needs and that won’t change in the foreseeable future.
Knowing the difference between wants and true needs is important. It helps us understand that we create most of our needs, and meeting those needs is dependent both on how many we create and how hard they are to meet. Unmet needs is not the fault of others or life in general, it is the fault of us cultivating too many “wants” that have become needs. Expectations and requirements for a happy life are easy to create, but they are not always easy to meet.
Even if we only have moderate needs, we should therefore not expect others to service them. It can be nice when friends, family or our partner helps us with a need, but it should not be something we expect; other people shouldn’t be on the hook for requirements we’ve arbitrarily created, and forcing or expecting them to meet our needs is a recipe for unhappiness and resentment all around.
So minimize your “needs” as much as possible, and don’t force the maintenance of those needs on others—even if that other person is your spouse.
Needs can be an amazing opportunity for our partner or others who love us, however. When we have needs that are clearly expressed, others have something they can give us. Those who love us will often want to give us gifts when they can, and a clearly expressed need is a great gift-giving opportunity. Think about your dad and how happy you would be if you knew plenty of things you could give him.
Now think about your dad but imagine what it would be like if he expected those gifts. Dads don’t typically talk about such things because they want to spare us this burden, but imagine for a minute that your dad wanted gifts and asked you for them often. This would not be good, and the joy from giving him gifts would fade fast.
Unfortunately, this is what many of us do. We ask for gifts when we demand that others meet our needs. Usually this comes in the form of a complaint, and the charge often is leveled at those who are most important to us. Instead of helping them love us, and giving them the thrill of knowing the perfect gift (a need of ours they can fulfill), we create acrimony, tension, resentment and a whole bunch of other bad things for our relationship. Inadvertently, of course.
A better approach is making the fulfillment of your needs an opportunity, not a demand.
If you need something and providing it is a requirement, the request becomes negative. It is a burden, a tax for being with you, a land mine for future arguments. There are repercussions for not meeting the need, and others know it. Things can get pretty bad, too, if you happen to have many of these “needs” that actually are “wants.”
On the other hand, you create something positive when meeting your needs is optional and not something others must fulfill; you are giving loved ones the gift of helping them love you. Even if they cannot meet all your needs, they will be happy to have many good gift-giving opportunities for when they have the resources or feel moved to give.
Moving from negative to positive needs fulfillment can often be as simple as changing the language we use, too. We just need to turn the complaint into a wish.
When you verbalize your needs, express it as a wish instead of a criticism or a demand directed at the other person. Shifting your language in this way creates an entirely different tone, one based on love and gift-giving instead of demand. This can have a big impact on the relationship—and it might even lead to the other person meeting more of your needs, although this should not be the goal.
By shifting our language, we also subtly shift our thinking over time. What might start as a tactic for better relations with our partner, for instance, will become an actual change in thinking as the practice takes hold. Expectations will shrink, needs will reduce, our relationship will get better. We will move from expecting needs fulfillment to enjoying it as a gift.
This shift is not as good as reducing our actual needs, of course. But it is a good start—and it can improve our most important relationships until that day comes when we have winnowed down our needs.
We already know that our father can teach us something about relationships and gift-giving. If shopping for your father is hard because he truly has few needs, not just because he isn’t expressing them, he might be able to teach us something even more profound. But that is a topic for another day and another web site.
Peter is founder of Kowalke Coaching. He also is founding director of the Philia Mission, a small charitable organization. Contact Peter.