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What Anout Me?

In a relationship, asking for what you need can be a challenge—and an opportunity.

BY DEB SCHWARTZ

IN THE 1986 SMITHS SONG “ASK,” MORRISSEY SEDUCTIVELY SINGS “If there’s something you’d like to try/Ask me, I won’t say no, how could I?” It’s a tantalizing invitation but in non-musical, real-life romantic relationships many of us struggle to ask for what we most need. No matter how confident or competent we are at work or in our daily lives, voicing what we’d truly rather can be challenging. Mostly because relationships involve humans, and humans are complicated.

“In any relationship there are actually two parents raising two inner children,” says Benjamin Seaman, a couples therapist in New York. “Everyone has internal longings, fears, needs, and concerns. So if your inner child really desperately wants to move to another city, you’re going to have to find out what your partner’s inner child needs to survive that or to be able to say yes to it.” Such discussions can reveal a great deal, including the secret tallies many of us keep regarding who’s “getting more” in the relationship (as if it were a pie). Seaman himself recently had just such a moment with his husband, Tom Varney, when they were making a decision about a home renovation.

One response to this unsettling feeling is to take a firm stance. “A lot of times when we’re scared to ask for something we couch it as a demand or need,” says Seaman. “And I tell couples there are no needs in a relationship; there are just deep wants and longings. Mostly when I say ‘I need this to happen what I’m really saying is ‘I want this to happen and I’m scared you won’t agree to it’.”

Seaman suggests setting up the conversation in an intentional and mindful way. “Make sure your partner is available for a conversation,” says Seaman. “You could say ‘do you think tonight at dinner we could talk about X?’ It has to be OK to introduce a topic, but it also has to be OK to say ‘I can’t talk about that topic’ or ‘I can talk about it tomorrow and not today. There’s an art to bringing up a topic so you don’t sound like the boss ominously saying ‘see me in my office’.”

For the actual ask, Deborah Berman, LCSW, a relationship and family therapist in New York, suggests approaching it in a way that includes rather than excludes your partner. “Start by saying there is something that I feel that I really, really want and I really want to talk with you about this because it’s that important to me. How would you feel if we turned our relationship in this direction? I need your help to do this and I need your love and support."

It’s helpful to remember that it’s normal to ask your partner for things. “Asks are inevitable,” says Berman. “They have to happen or relationships die. And that doesn’t mean destruction. It’s actually a wonderful way for couples to grow together,” she says, then adds with a laugh, “I didn’t say it was an easy way for couples to grow together.”

“In any relationship there are actually two parents raising two inner children. Everyone has internal longings, fears, needs, and concerns.”

“I want you to have it go your way,” Seaman said to Varney, who replied “it’s about time it went my way for once in 15 years!” Seaman was stunned. “I couldn’t believe he thought that all the design choices have been mine this whole time. Because I feel like I’ve lost every battle. So obviously it’s like we’re in two different movies.” That you and your partner are digesting your experiences very differently goes a long way to explaining how a request that seems so reasonable to one party can be received as something else entirely by another. “The ask can land like ‘oh my God, here’s an amazing opportunity for me to do something for you’ to ‘this is a completely outrageous display of entitlement’,” says Seaman.

Asking for something from one’s partner can make you feel really vulnerable—you are, after all, testing whether this person loves you enough to do something differently. There’s always the fear the answer will be no. Complicating matters is the fact that the thorniest requests in relationships often involve two subjects most people find difficult to discuss in general: sex and money.

Smart Money Tip: For committed couples, Seaman suggests shared finances. Couples can pool their funds and work out a budget whereby each person enjoys the same monthly allowance for personal spending and the rest— rent or mortgage payments, car and student loan payments, payments to relatives in need, rainy day and vacation spending, etc.—goes into a shared joint account. “This takes away the constant sense that one person is doing more or less than their share and puts both people on equal footing.” This real-world solution cuts through the tangle of emotions that surrounds disparate earners. “You can’t have the disparity be this overhanging resentment that’s triggered every time your partner frustrates you.” For more steps you and your family can take, visit “Life & Financial Planning” at lambdalegal.org/know-your-rights.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of the ask, remember that asking for something is an act of trust: they are announcing that they are vulnerable, that they have needs, and are relying on you to respond with care. “To make an ask is not easy and it may be years in the making before somebody feels safe enough within themselves, within their relationship, and within their identity to make an ask,” says Berman. When an ask happens it’s usually at the end of a very long period of self-doubt and longing.

So listen to your partner, try to feel out what’s beneath their request and when you do the asking, do it with the same attention. Gentleness is called for on both sides. And each time you access that gentleness, that awareness that each of you is filled to bursting with all sorts of ancient wants and alleged needs, the deeper your relationship becomes.

Agatha, 49, was working at a job she hated and taking classes at night toward the undergraduate degree she’d never completed. She learned she qualified for a financial package that would allow her to go to school full-time— if her partner, Emily, 51, was willing to support her. Agatha was also worried about the sacrifices Emily would have to make after working so hard to become a lawyer: there wouldn’t be vacations; spending would be curtailed. Agatha still had painful memories of her father offering to help her with her education, but then bailing when the time came. But Emily felt they could live on her income alone, and expressed confidence in Agatha, who decided to take the plunge. “We had some rough times while I was in school,” Agatha says. “Emily’s mom got very very ill and passed away.” Still, she got her undergraduate degree and then did two two-year graduate programs in the space of three years, graduating summa cum laude and winning a major prize. “Things ended up working out more than we might have imagined,” Emily says. “It was a turning point, both as a transition for her and for us: That she trusted me not to hold it over her head.”

Agatha says now her accomplishments are not hers alone. “If your partner says yes it becomes about the two of you and what you’re working on together.

“One of the most important pieces in the Jewish wedding contract is a line that says, ‘we allow ourselves to become who each of us is going to become,’” says Seaman. “When we get into relationships, we can expect that both people are going to change and their needs are going to change. And I think that where the divine lies in the relationship and where love really is, is in allowing for that to happen for each other.”

*Names of subjects have been changed.