There can be a lot of confusing language in relationships. We all approach partnerships with a unique set of expectations, and it can be challenging to explain what those expectations are to our loved ones. I find that sharing a common language for talking about what we expect from our partners helps tremendously. Understanding the difference between needs, wants, and desires can simplify communication in your relationships. I call these three terms the trio of expectations.
Defining the Trio of Terms
Make sure you and your partner share a common understanding of the trio of terms. A need is a necessity. Needs are critical, mandatory expectations that are necessary for your emotional survival in a given relationship. Needs are non-negotiable. For people involved with BDSM, needs are equivalent to a “hard limit” in terms of play activities. They could include having sufficient time with children or family members, freedom to practice your spiritual beliefs without judgment, or the ability to keep a beloved pet during a move into a shared residence.
Different from needs, wants are things that add happiness and depth to life and relationships. We can survive without having all of our wants met, but we may not be terribly happy over the long term. While the needs of both partners should always be respected, even in a relationship involving dominance and submission, the rules can be a bit muddier regarding wants. In some D/s relationships, partners may agree to meet each other’s wants in asymmetrical ways. In BDSM terms, wants could be analogous to “soft limits” in some circumstances. Common examples of wants in relationships could include dinner dates, frequent sexual intimacy, or shared vanilla hobbies.
Desires are the third category of the expectation trio. Desires are icing on the relationship cake. Desires are fun, often unexpected things that can quickly refill your emotional fuel tank. In BDSM terms, desires are excellent items to use as rewards. Unlike needs or wants, desires can be fanciful or impractical to obtain. I think of desires as interpersonal wish list items. We can be quite happy and functional without fulfilling our desires for long periods of time, though life would be much less fun. Some examples of desires include fine dining, romantic vacations, or prolonged BDSM scenes that push all of our kinky buttons.
I’ll share a food analogy to further clarify. We need basic sustenance, involving a set number of daily calories. Technically, our food needs can be met with prison food (I dare you to do an internet search for “nutraloaf” and try not to gag or laugh!). However, we want something better than bare bones, preferably a diet of varied and tasty foods. Additionally, we desire decadent treats like Belgian chocolate and gourmet teas, but we get along just fine if we only have these treats on occasion. All three categories in the trio (needs, wants, and desires) can refer to a wide variety of things: actions, feelings, D/s dynamics, hobbies, tangibles, etc. The trio of expectations can be quite varied.
Be clear with yourself about your own trio of expectations before trying to move forward with a partner discussion. If you aren’t being completely honest with yourself about what you crave, you can’t be honest with your partner. Once you have a clear understanding of your trio of expectations, and your partner has done the same, plan a time to share your trio with each other. Articulate your trio to your partner. Be prepared to listen to your partner’s trio and make understanding theirs a priority. Often, couples are amazed at how different their partner’s expectations are from their own. Unless you’ve sat down and had a similar discussion previously, you may have gone years without knowing your partner was being unintentionally neglected, or vice versa. It’s important to understand that that urgency, priority, and frequency are all highly personal factors. Nobody’s trio of expectations is inherently wrong. Some are merely more compatible with yours than others.
Each aspect of the expectation trio provides unique challenges to relationships. If you recognize the prospective hazards of each type of expectation, you and your partner will have a healthier relationship. Needs are long term and often constant, thus easy to take for granted. Needs require frequent maintenance. Establishing patterns that enable you and your partners to meet each other’s needs is critical for healthy relationship functioning. Without these patterns, emotional erosion takes place, breaking down your relationship in a slow disintegration.
Wants often fall prey to the “relationship barter” problem. In this situation, one partner fulfills the other’s wants because they expect similar fulfillment in return. Creating systems of emotional exchange, when partners trade wants like currency, can be problematic. Don’t give if you are only interested in taking. It’s inauthentic and undermines honesty. Over the long term, if enough of a partner’s wants are being unfulfilled, the scale will tip towards dysfunction and unhappiness. This is generally when relationships fail.
Although desires are less critical for interpersonal happiness, they can still pose challenges in a relationship. When was the last time you treated your partner to something joyous? Because desires occupy a smaller component of our mental energies, they are easy to overlook. Desires are easily forgotten by partners when there isn’t a reminder, or when the desires are kept secret out of shame or concern about being too needy. Granted, you can be perfectly happy (and functional) without having your desires met, but greater fulfillment is always an excellent relationship goal.
Lady Elizabeth has been involved in BDSM her entire adult life, both as a passion and a topic for academic research. She holds a PhD in linguistic anthropology from an Ivy League university, specializing in gender and sexuality. A professional dominant since 2000, she particularly enjoys teaching novices about the diverse world of BDSM.