As a man, I regularly use the word "need." I ask for my needs to be met in life, in work and in friendships. While I may not often get my wants fulfilled, I am insistent that my needs be met. I don't hesitate to expect this.
But what about women? Do we, as a society, condition girls and young women to, at the very least, expect their needs to be met? Or are we making them feel guilty or nervous about everything related to the word "need?"
"My throat starts to close up every time I want to say it," Charity, a reader from Canada, told me.
Jane, a 39-year-old executive assistant, feels the same anxiety when it comes to asking for her needs to be met, and is equally anxious about the word "need" in general: "I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to tell my husband about what I need in our relationship, but something just stops me. I feel like I am being too pushy, too needy, that it's not the right time."
Some of us have seen articles or reports about how women don't ask for what they need (or deserve) in the workplace as readily as men. But have we explored whether a woman's needs are fully expressed in other parts of her life?
Even women who don't hesitate to ask for what they need in other areas of life don't always hold the men they're in a relationship with as accountable as they should. Diana, a non-profit director in her late 20's, said she has no problem requiring that her needs be met at work, but it's a different story in her personal relationships: "I still hesitate to leave someone who has not met my needs."
Lisa, 42, said, "I'm constantly evaluating whether I am a burden to my friends, family and boyfriends based on asking for needs to be met. I am overwhelmed by not having my needs met and I'm being overwhelmed with everyone else's needs."
Women who feel uncomfortable with requesting that their needs be met are not simply dealing with this hurdle at work or in romance. The "need" issue is something that haunts them in almost every part of their lives, in every relationship (romantic or not). And a woman's hesitation about expressing her needs is a self-perpetuating cycle because, as a culture, we like to take, take, take from women and rarely, if ever, do we ask if they are giving too much away.
And what about the other "N" word? Needy.
"I spend my time not asking for things because it would kill me if I was seen as needy."
As a culture, we often remind women that being "needy" is a cardinal sin in relationships. No shortage of articles in women's magazines write about how being "needy" is a sure-fire way to end up single and lonely.
But what does this word, "needy," really mean anymore? Are we lumping together a woman's basic needs with the idea of "needy," which so often refers to someone displaying stalker-like behavior?
The needy descriptor also seems to be used against women when they are looking for clarification on the status of a romantic relationship.
Kari, 32, faced this scenario with her now ex-boyfriend. "We had been casually dating for 4 months, and I decided that I needed to understand where all this was headed. I am not getting any younger and I need more stability," Kari told me.
When Kari asked the guy she was with where he thought things were headed, he immediately responded, "What I do know is that I don't want a needy girlfriend."
Kari was left feeling frustrated. "I am in limbo -- in this borderless relationship and he got to make me feel like some desperate woman because I am interested in being an adult? It's ridiculous."
The word needy has been transformed into a slur, an insult we use to delegitimize women's needs and concerns, making them think twice before asking for what they need -- if they ask at all.
But why isn't the word "needy" ever really used against men? In my mind, it goes back to the start of this column: Men are conditioned to expect their needs to be met. So when a guy is demanding any sort of clarity about a relationship, we never see his demands as desperate or needy, because we think it's perfectly acceptable for a guy to expect his needs to be fulfilled.
What I have always found fascinating and ironic is how men reveal their actual vulnerability behind closed doors. The masculine shell so many men obsessively keep up in public is often shed when they're alone with their romantic partners at night.
"My husband totally fits the needy description, but only when we're about to go to bed. And then, all I hear about is the stuff I didn't do to show him attention, the way I made him feel. I wish people could see this, it would change how people see him," says Amanda (age 36), who has been married for four years.
The word "needy" has been used against women in relationships. We obsessively warn men to avoid appearing needy in public and more problematically, we discourage women from displaying any visible signs of expressing need -- of showing "neediness."
But have we, as a result, also encouraged women not to expect their basic needs to be met?
And when are we going to realize and acknowledge that men are just as needy as women, and some would argue, even more so?
It's remarkable, really, that men need and rely on women throughout their entire lives, starting with their mothers, just as women need and rely on men throughout their lives, starting with their fathers. There's nothing wrong with that. But somehow, at some point in their lives, women were cut off from having the ability to comfortably express their needs. Our culture deems it incredibly unattractive for women to do anything but serve men, so women avoid the accusation of being "needy" at all costs.
And as a result, too many women have nothing left for themselves.
Maybe it's time for these women to employ the other "N" word: "No."
This column was originally posted on The Current Conscience