Your Partner Shouldn’t Fulfill All Your Needs — Really
For one, it’s unlikely any one person will have all the skills for all of our needs (and we probably won’t have them for someone else).
Should your spouse be your everything and fulfill all your needs — be your best friend; passionate lover; devoted parent; soul mate; great communicator; romantic, and intellectual and professional equal who provides you with happiness, fulfillment, financial stability, intimacy, social status, fidelity … ? That’s what marriage has become, as my co-author and I detail in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, and what Eli J. Finkel addresses in his about-to-be released book, The All-Or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work.
That’s a lot to ask from a relationship. Can we do it?
Yes and no. But the better question is why do we want marriage to do that? It’s certainly not how marriages were throughout history, and while I’d be the last person to get all rose-colored glasses nostalgic over the way marriage was, there were historically some things that actually worked for couples — they relied on people other than their spouse to fulfill some of their needs.
I think it’s time to revisit that.
As we write in The New I Do:
Rather than expecting one person to meet all your needs, you might ask a spouse to meet a few, and you’d be encouraged to get other needs met in other ways or with other people or in some combination. Maybe you want to partner for the sole reason of having children and co-parenting, and have passion and sex outside the marriage. Maybe you prefer to partner for companionship instead of expecting a spouse to support you financially. Maybe you want to partner solely for financial security and enjoy social activities and vacations with family or friends.
Claire Dederer does. As the author of Love and Trouble writes in a recent Modern Love:
The world is divided into two places: home and away. At home, I’m married to my husband, Bruce. Away, I am married to Victoria. She’s my travel wife. … My husband and my travel wife are both generous: He lets me go; she lets me come along. I’m not sure I could have had one marriage without the other. There’s a lot of talk about open marriage and polyamory lately, but marriage can be customizable and nontraditional in ways that have nothing whatsoever to do with sex. Marriages can include other spouses who provide other functions. Maybe they need to.
Wow — “Marriages can include other spouses who provide other functions. Maybe they need to.” That’s exactly what we propose in the book (although we don’t call them “spouses”; it takes the pressure off your spouse — and you — to be the everything. And, by viewing a partnership that way, more people might be attractive to us as marriage material; we just won’t have as many demands on them as we do now.
What needs can be met by whom?
Finkel agrees with all of us. As he writes, we can break down our needs into three categories:
- needs that can only be met by our partner
- needs that we can meet through our partner, or with a “other significant other” (OSO), such as a friend or family member
- needs we can meet through our partner, an OSO or on or own
I love that! Why shouldn’t we turn to others, or ourselves, to make life better?
I gave up backpacking and camping when I got married the second time because my then-husband wasn’t an outdoors guy. I don’t live in regrets, yet at the same time there was no reason for me to give up something I loved just because my hubby wasn’t into it. So every year for the past six years, I go backpacking for a long weekend with a group of gals. I go whether I’ve been partnered or not, and I will continue to go as long as our bodies hold up. I look forward to the trip every year, and hold that time sacred — no romantic partner necessary.
Spreading the love
Why does it matter? For one, it’s unlikely any one person will have all the skills for all of our needs (and we probably won’t have them for someone else. Plus, as Finkel notes, our spouse may not always be available when we need him or her most. And that’s going to be problematic for us, and could lead to anger, frustrations and resentments down the road. Finally, if we’re so dependent on our partner, the times we’re stressed out will likely create stress for him or her, too — now both of you are depleted and emotionally distraught at a time when you might need someone to be strong enough to carry the load for a while.
In other words, spread the emotional and physical love around.
But, this takes a new way of thinking about our romantic relationships. Getting our needs met by others, emotionally close to someone else or spending a lot of time with others — especially of the opposite sex (if you’re hetero) — might feel like a betrayal. That’s a missed opportunity. Polyamorists often talk of “compersion” — a word coined in the poly community that explains the joy people feel when they see a loved one experiencing pleasure with someone else. It’s the opposite of jealousy. It isn’t just about sex — it’s just about wanting our partner to feel good by having his or her needs met — whatever those needs are (and at the same time, acknowledging we’re off the hook!).
Is this challenging? Probably. Does that mean we shouldn’t explore it? No; if anything, it might be the only way the all-or-nothing marriage Finkel describes can survive. And because it worked in the past, we know it can work again — with a few tweaks to fit who we are and how we live nowadays.
Want to learn how to have needs met outside a marriage? (Of course you do!) Then read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.