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Gerald and Luke had met on a cruise and had been dating for six months. Gerald was a rich, charming, high-powered business consultant with a George Clooney smile, formerly a Wall Street broker, and Luke was a James Beard Award finalist. He dreamed of becoming a celebrity chef. With his well-nourished belly, tattoo sleeves, and inch-wide earspools, he looked the part. Although Gerald was two decades older than Luke, he had a boyish, playful energy about him.
Gerald shrugged when I asked them about their goals for therapy. “It was his idea.”
“I don’t think he knows how to love,” Luke said.
“Translation: I’m not a mind reader,” Gerald corrected him.
“Is there a recent situation that upset you?” I asked Luke.
“He never stops by my work.” Luke’s face reddened. “He never surprises me, visits, or shows any interest in my job. They had a party in my honor last week and he didn’t show up. People at work
think I’m single.”
“You never officially asked me to come to that event,” Gerald said. “How am I supposed to know it’s important and I’m expected to come if you don’t make it clear to me how much you want me there?”
“You should know it’s important,” Luke said. “But I don’t expect you to know.”
“Getting your needs met is going to involve doing three things,” I told Luke. “First, taking responsibility for your needs; second, expressing them; and third, receiving Gerald’s attempts to meet them as forms of love in and of themselves, even if his attempts miss the mark.”
“Don’t look so excited,” Gerald said when Luke continued to stare at me.
Too many “shoulds” in a relationship may indicate boundary problems. Boundaries are the invisible lines—or zones—that separate our own internal world from the world outside of us, including our partners.
In her book Facing Codependence, educator and bestselling author Pia Mellody describes two kinds of boundaries, internal and external, and subdivides each of these boundaries into serving three functions: 1) to prevent others from invading our space, 2) to prevent us from invading others’ space, and 3) to allow us to be who we are in our own right, distinct from people around us.
When Luke blamed Gerald for not intuiting and fulfilling his needs, and then subtly and repeatedly pressured or punished him with “shoulds,” Luke’s internal boundaries were failing him.
“Setting Gerald up for success means that you describe your needs clearly,” I encouraged Luke. “Describe the situation, your feelings, and what you need from him.”
“The situation always changes, but in this case, it’s at my restaurant. Honestly, I feel proud and important at work. I’m really a big deal now, but when you never come by and see me in that space, in my element, I feel hurt and ignored,” Luke said.
“Now take a moment and feel your need. Describe it if you can,” I said.
“I need to know I’m on your mind when I’m not with you. I never felt that growing up, in and out of foster care. Nobody showed up to my school events and graduations.”
“Oh, baby,” Gerald said with uncharacteristic warmth.
Luke wasn’t used to taking responsibility for what he needed and asking for it. Giving up his “shoulds” was a process that required ongoing boundary work. We began by looking at ways Luke could appreciate the steps Gerald was already taking to try to give him what he asked for, even though he “had to” ask for things, and even though Gerald’s attempts were imperfect.
Whether or not you buy into the theory that all humans long to reexperience life in the womb, everyone has felt a desire for easy, effortless, reliable comfort. At the same time, making sure we get our important needs consistently met as adults is no one’s job but our own. It’s also never guaranteed, even when we do the challenging work of recognizing and asking for what we want directly and respectfully. And yet asking in this way does improve our chances.
Satisfying our needs is a gift our partners give us. Being responsible calls for a willingness to ask clearly and vulnerably for what we want, and to tolerate disappointment.
The Speaker shares one of their “shoulds,” or assumptions, about “the right way to behave.” For example, “You should take care of me when I’m sick.”
Remake this “should” into a clear and responsible request. Here’s a formula for transforming “shoulds” into responsible requests.
“When I’m _____________ [your vulnerable situation], I feel [feelings], and I defend myself from these feelings by ______________ [defensive reaction]. I fear ______________ [interpersonal fear]. What I need is ______________ [interpersonal need or desire]. It would help me if you would _____________ [one specific, doable action].”
SPEAKER: When I’m lying in bed sick, I feel helpless and weak, and I act angry and irritable. I’m afraid you won’t love me as much when I’m not strong. What I really need is for you to bring me orange juice, take my hand and sit beside me for a minute, and say, “I’m here for you, sweetheart, I hope you feel better.”
LISTENER: Thank you for taking responsibility for your needs.
From No More Fighting: 20 Minutes a Week to a Stronger Relationship by Alicia Muñoz © 2018 by Alicia Muñoz. Reprinted in arrangement by Zephyros Press.
Alicia Muñoz, LPC, is a certified marriage counselor. She’s a contributor to Psychotherapy Networker, Counseling Today, GoodTherapy.com, YourTango, PsychCentral, and Medium.com.
Photo © Drazen/iStock