communication, wants, needs, desire

Why We Don’t Ask for What We Want

Just the other day, I finished up my workout at the gym. Red-faced and sweaty, I stepped into the sauna to relax a few minutes before showering and going to work. When I entered, there were three other women sitting in the spa, already deep in conversation. The youngest in the bunch (maybe she was 25) was complaining about how her husband never does the dinner dishes. One of her friends replied, “just let the dishes pile up until he notices them. Then say, ‘Oh, I thought you were going to wash them since I do all the cooking.'”

I was stunned at her suggestion. I suddenly felt sorry for the husband who would be blindsided by this passive aggressive approach to communication. I felt sorry for the woman too, struggling for a solution, not knowing what else to do. I thought the suggestion a pretty ineffective way to set up open, loving lines of communication in a young marriage.

In relationship, we often think that if our partner is wise enough and cares about us, that they “should” know what we want. Developing the ability to predict our wishes would prove they really love us and care about us. Right? But the trouble is, others can rarely see what we want or need. They are too focused on what they want or need. Often, I hear people say, “I shouldn’t have to ask,” as if asking might let someone off the hook for caring.

Why do we expect others to read our minds and then lambast them when they don’t? Why do we have so many judgments and superstitions around communicating desire in our relationships? Why does simply asking for what we want seem so hard?

Are there reasons we don’t ask for what we want?

Usually. We avoid asking for what we want because we’re convinced we won’t get it anyway. We believe that our needs are “too much to ask.” So we pretend that it’s not important, even when it is. When we believe we’re unworthy to receive the best in life, then we resign ourselves to accepting the least. We don’t ask because then not getting what we truly want seems to hurt a little less. Our denial of our desire works as a safety mechanism to save us from disappointment. 

Instead we use tricks and temptations to manipulate people into doing what we want. Like letting dishes stack up to prove a point; it’s as if we need to train our loved ones to behave. If that is the case, then we might as well just get a cat or a dog. At least our expectations for responsiveness will be equal to the effort we want to spend.

Sometimes, the issue goes even deeper. If and when we look close enough we may discover that we’re actually using our unspoken or unrequested needs to manipulate and control others. We don’t ask, and then get mad when they don’t know. We do it, oddly enough to confirm and enhance our ongoing victim story. In essence, “See, this (lack of knowing what I want) proves it, that he or she doesn’t love me. Maybe no one can love me.” Denying others the opportunity to meet our needs by not asking sets them up for failure. It sets the relationship up for failure – or a lot of painful nights!

It’s important to be honest with ourselves about the reasons we don’t ask for what we want.

Asking for what you really want and need takes guts.

First, we have to love ourselves enough to recognize and affirm that our needs matter. Beyond right and wrong, fair and unfair, our needs just are, so stop trying to decide if they are fair or just. Judgement causes us to deny our feelings and desires when they don’t fit the normal patterns – patterns that actually don’t exist, except in our imagination of what others want and need.

Getting what we need out in the open so we can be taken care of is how we build self-esteem. We do this by demonstrating self-respect and honoring our desire. Asking for normal things, like a clean and healthy kitchen space, or help with putting the kids to bed demonstrates how we want to be cared for and treated. It demonstrates how we want to partner with others.

Where things can go astray: Do not attach right or wrong to the fact you are asking for help. For example, if I need to ask someone to wipe up dirty footprints they tracked into the house, it doesn’t make them bad, just responsible for the cleanup. If we take the judgment out, people become more open to learning new ways of doing things, like taking off their wet boots and shoes at the door.

Before you speak, feel the energy you have behind asking. If it feels self-righteous or frustrated, tone it down. That strong feeling is just your fear about worthiness and your right to have what you want. Honor your need to ask and then honor the other person’s true desire to help.

My policy when it comes to needs has become one of asking for them and then shutting up. Don’t follow up the asking with all the reasons why you’re asking, or why the other person should do something. Justifying our needs is another way of trying to convince ourselves that they’re valid and okay. I can tell you now they are, so:

Just ask and shut up.

Would you please do ______________. Then walk away. Don’t oversee. Get busy with something else. Trust the other person to be responsive. If they say they want to do it later, ask for a time and then let it go. Trust more. Trust that others want to fulfill our needs and do their best by us. If this is a big change for you and your partner, you may need to explain (one time) that you’re trying to ask more for what you need so that he/she is better aware of how to help you.

Communication is a team effort. We have to be willing to both ask and receive. Otherwise neither takes place and we enter the stagnant zone that can turn good relationships sour. Communication takes a willingness to hear the word “no” and not take it personally. It takes a willingness to negotiate more and listen to what others want and need as well.

Knowing you can and should ask for what you want starts with believing that your needs and desires matter. And then believing that other person we’ve chosen wants us to be happy.

It’s not too much to ask.

communication, wants, needs, desire


  1. Michelle

    Tracy — Great post. It took me years to figure this out — well, actually I am still working on actually asking for what I need/want, but I am getting better about it. It is so true — how can we be angry with someone for not being able to read our minds??!!

    Love your blog — keep it up.

  2. Thanks Michelle. It also took me a long time. Thanks for the support.

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