Dear Anna: As a 21-year-old straight female, I’ve been struggling lately to figure out the difference between having needs and being needy in relationships. I truly believe it’s important to express my emotions, desires and needs to my partner, but I worry about becoming too demanding or clingy. It’s particularly challenging because my last partner made me feel like I was overly dependent when I would bring up my concerns.
So, where exactly is the line between having needs and being needy? How can I navigate this without compromising my own emotional well-being while also being respectful toward my partner’s space and feelings? — Healthily Advocating Needs, Growth ONgoing
Dear HANGON: It’s never a wonderful feeling when someone tells us we’re needy or clingy. (I’ve been there and feel you.) Sometimes it’s not even justified — just a person’s defensiveness or avoidance leaking out. So how can we tell when we need to look deeper at ourselves and behavior? Let’s parse.
Needs vs. neediness is a tricky distinction, since we all are, to some extent, dependent on others to meet our needs.
Not just in relationships, but in every area. We don’t hunt or forage for our own food — other people take care of that. When we’re sick, we rely on other people to help us heal — doctors, nurses, family, friends and other caretakers. Many of us rely on public transportation to take us places, on garbage collectors to ferry our trash elsewhere, on firefighters to put out our fires (or save our cats), and so on.
In other words, we live in an interdependent world.
In a romantic relationship context, needs are the fundamental aspects of our lives that must be addressed for us to thrive — emotionally, mentally and physically. Communication, affection and space are examples of common needs within relationships. We might also need physical touch, validation/reassurance, companionship and emotional support.
The challenging part is that we’re all inherently “needy” by virtue of being human and alive.
That said, it’s also unreasonable to expect one person to fulfill all our needs, even though the cultural script says they should.
A partner is now expected to be a best friend, travel companion, caretaker, sexual servicer, roommate, financial helper, chore sharer, event plus-one, and on and on. It’s a lot. And when we don’t delegate some of these things to others, it can put a real strain on the relationship.
But back to your original question: Needs (healthy) start to become neediness (unhealthy) when we rely either solely or overwhelmingly on our partners to meet most/all of our desires.
In other words, neediness is when a person stops taking responsibility for their happiness and/or well-being and instead foists it on their partner.
For instance, here are some examples of expressing a need vs. expressing neediness.
Sharing an insecurity: It’s OK to share your insecurities, within reason — indeed, vulnerability is key in maintaining a healthy relationship. An example could be, “I felt a little insecure when you were talking to your ex at the party yesterday.”
Requesting reassurance: It’s also normal to occasionally seek reassurance from your partner when you feel a little uneasy. An example could be asking your partner to tell you how they feel about you or to discuss the strength of your connection, in a non-pressuring way. In the party example above, a simple follow-up could be, “Could you reassure me about where we stand now?”
Trust and open communication: Expressing a need for open communication and establishing trust with your partner are essential. You may want to set boundaries and share expectations For example: “I feel more secure in our relationship when we’re open and honest about our friendships with other people.”
Constant reassurance: Frequently expecting your partner to alleviate your insecurities, even if there is no apparent reason, verges on neediness. For instance, repeatedly asking your partner if they still love or care about you, or if they find someone else more attractive, can often stem from a place of insecurity and neediness.
Checking up: Needing to know your partner’s whereabouts every moment, monitoring their social media or constantly checking in on them to ensure they aren’t interacting with someone who sparks your jealousy can be seen as controlling and needy.
Limiting social interactions: Demanding that your partner distance themselves from certain people or situations because of your jealousy (without a logical reason) is needy behavior. Similarly, insisting on attending all social events with your partner to “keep an eye on them” is controlling and needy.
TLDR: The moment needs transform into neediness is when individuals expect their partners to consistently manage their feelings or desires without taking personal responsibility for them. While it’s totally normal to rely on others for support, expecting someone else to always meet our needs can create an unhealthy strain on relationships — plus, it hinders our personal growth and autonomy.
I won’t lie; taking charge of our needs and finding ways to meet them independently is hard. Because a lot of insecurity stems from past traumas or attachment issues, it’s not easy to just snap out of it.
Here are some of my favorite books that provide practical advice and techniques to decrease neediness, increase self-confidence and foster healthy relationships:
“Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love” by Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller. This book provides a very insightful look into different attachment types and how they can affect our relationships.
“Insecure in Love: How Anxious Attachment Can Make You Feel Jealous, Needy, and Worried and What You Can Do About It” by Leslie Becker-Phelps. This book helps readers understand why they might feel anxious in relationships, feel needy or jealous, or constantly crave reassurance.
“Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself” by Melody Beattie. It’s a classic self-help book that teaches you how not to be overly dependent on others.
“The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are” by Brené Brown. Brown encourages self-love and self-acceptance, which can help decrease neediness.
“Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life” by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. This book provides useful techniques for setting boundaries, an important part of decreasing neediness.
As the renowned author Janet Fitch once said, “The phoenix must burn to emerge,” so embrace the challenge of balancing needs and independence for a brighter and more fulfilling future.
Anna Pulley is a syndicated Tribune Content Agency columnist answering reader questions. Send your questions via email (anonymity guaranteed) to firstname.lastname@example.org.