In an ideal relationship, your partner always magically, borderline psychically knows what you want. If you have to ask, that means you’re needy or your partner is clueless — and that, bottom line, your love is not meant to be.

Right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!

A great relationship can feel like magic, but — as I’ve learned from my own years of marriage — great relationships are not fueled by magic. (Or, for that matter, psychic abilities.) At some point, yes, your partner will develop a kind of sixth sense about how to make you happy, but he or she is going to need some raw data first. And if you are never able to articulate what you want, you are not going to get it, says Mark White, Ph.D., professor of political science, economics and philosophy at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Dr. White sees this problem — a common one in relationships, especially as “needy” appears on many singles’ list of top 10 turn-offs — as a misunderstanding of the role and meaning of the word “selflessness” when you’re in love with someone.
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Why putting others first isn’t always a good thing
“Selflessness” sounds like a good quality to have… and when it comes to volunteering, feeling empathy, or the ability to feel connected to the world around you, it is good. But in love, White argues, there’s a limit. As he recently wrote in his
blog on PsychologyToday.com, White says that so-called “selfless love” — which again, sounds ideal — is really a paradox. Why?

“When you try too hard to be ‘selfless’ in a relationship, focusing exclusively on meeting the other person’s needs rather than getting your own needs met, you’re not letting the other person do what he or she wants to do,” says White. “You think it’s selfless to not express your needs, but it’s actually selfish, because your partner wants to know.”

Don’t we all want our needs met? Why would we stay silent? For Karen F., 40, of Washington D.C., it was her reluctance to appear dependent on a man’s attention. “I used to always tell my boyfriends that they didn’t need to call me all the time, since I didn’t want them to feel like I was pressuring them or putting too many demands on their time,” she says. “Then, when I started dating my boyfriend, I said the same thing, and he replied, ‘OK, do you not want me to call you?’ I realized how silly it sounded and figured out that it was all my own issues to work out.”

Don’t suppress your needs — communicate them
Other people may genuinely feel their needs are not important, or, again, believe that in a “good” relationship, they shouldn’t have to spell things out in the first place. Neither is a good strategy for a healthy relationship. “People aren’t very good at mind reading. They’re just not,” says W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D., head of the department of psychology at the University of Georgia. “We know that everything else in life takes work. But for some reason, we have trouble imagining that relationships take work,” and that can lead to damaging resentment. “If you do suppress your needs, you wind up resenting your partner — unfairly, of course — for not realizing and fulfilling them anyway,” says White. (This, in turn, can lead to the “blindside breakup” — where you end the relationship because your partner didn’t provide things he or she never knew were important to you in the first place.)

Selflessness… or sacrifice?
Experts stress that excessive “selflessness” can also lead to excessive sacrifice. We all give things up, large and small, to be in relationships; first and foremost, the fundamental freedom to date other people. From there, we might give up eating meat (for the love of a vegetarian), our pets (even the best partners have allergies!), or… sunlight. For example, Aliza S., who never thought she’d move anywhere “for a guy,” relocated — albeit reluctantly — to the Middle-of-Nowhere, Alaska (let’s just say winter temperatures can reach 60 below) for her fiancé. “It made sense, deep down,” she says. “His career — he’s a wildlife biologist — offers only certain options. And in the big picture, I wasn’t doing it for him; I was doing it for both of us.”

OK, so that’s the healthy kind of “give” that one expects to do while in a relationship (even considering that Aliza is from Honolulu, HI). Fluctuations in your level of give and take are also healthy: “Partners understand that on different days and at different times, they each have different needs. In a particular situation, the give/take ratio could be 70/30, but over time, the average should be closer to 50/50, where each partner is feeling heard and having his or her needs met,” says Renée A. Cohen, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and Hermosa Beach, CA.

So if you feel that, in your relationship — or relationships in general — your average is closer to the 70/30 mark than 50/50, ask yourself whether you’re drawn to overly demanding partners… and why you’re not sticking up for yourself. There is a healthy, satisfying, unselfish way to give to your partner and get what you need. Perhaps, as Dr. Campbell suggests, it’s best expressed by something he often heard his late colleague Caryl Rusbult, Ph.D. say: “Be loyal, but don’t be a doormat.”

Practice makes perfect in long-term relationships
Wondering how to find that balance? With practice, of course: “Don’t start out big,” says Dr. White. “Start with a little bit of self-disclosure, and you will soon discover that your partner is comfortable with it and even appreciates it. Then, gradually, you can move on to more serious needs that are even more important to the relationship.” After all, as Dr. Campbell notes, “People need to be needed.”

Lynn Harris (www.lynnharris.net) is co-creator, with Chris Kalb (www.chriskalb.com), of the award-winning website BreakupGirl.net. A longtime journalist, Lynn has written about dating, gender, and culture high and low for Glamour, Marie Claire, The New York Times, Salon.com, Nerve.com, and many others. She is currently the communications strategist for Breakthrough, a transnational organization that creates pop culture to promote human rights. Submit your dating questions for Ask Lynn via bg@breakupgirl.net.