After my divorce, I told my counselor that I’m the kind of person who needs to be in a relationship. “You know,” he said. “There’s a difference between wanting and needing a relationship.” Huh? I’d heard others make that statement before and I didn’t get it.

Want – need – they’re two words that mean the same thing, right? Man, it’s irritating to have someone, especially someone I’m paying, parse my words! If I say “I want dessert” or “I need dessert” at a restaurant, the wait staff should bring me dessert. How hard can it be?

The difference between wanting and needing a relationship

I must have had a confused look on my face because my counselor explained further. Wanting a relationship, he said, is saying that’s our preference. Needing one, in contrast, is like saying we can’t live without it. We need food to survive. We want the turtle-fudge cheesecake we saw on the dessert menu.

Okay, I get it. I used the wrong word. Clearly, I’m not going to die if I’m not in a relationship, so I should say I want a relationship. The distinction still seemed like the kind of petty stuff my teacher used to take off points for back in seventh grade.

What do we believe?

My counselor was onto something, however. He was pointing out more than my poor choice of words—he was reflecting back to me what he saw in my belief system. Deep down, I believed that I needed a partner to be whole.

The idea of being single, if I was honest with myself, scared me. I thought I’d be lost without this source of validation. It wasn’t a conscious idea, but rather one that took some digging (with my counselor’s help) to uncover. My history of quickly jumping from one relationship to the next supported his assessment.

Why it matters if we want vs. need a relationship

The difference between wanting and needing a relationship began to come into focus. Wanting a relationship is fine. We’re wired to be in relationships with others. There are wonderful physical, psychological, and social benefits that can come from being bonded to another. Relationships can be a source of great joy and meaning in our lives.

Needing, on the other hand, has a dark side. When we view a particular relationship as essential, we fight to protect ourselves like our lives depend on it. We’re constantly and excessively trying to control the relationship’s course, sometimes leading us into becoming violent or abusive in that effort.

Problems arose when I didn’t get what I thought I needed from my partner. Criticism wasn’t just feedback – I saw it as a stinging condemnation of me as a person. Even the smallest slights screamed that I was unlovable because my partner rejected me. I needed my mate to act and say the right things at the right time to maintain a positive sense of myself.

Here’s another way to think about it. No one would argue that being needy is an attractive, or healthy, way to engage in a relationship. Needy people are, at best, annoying. At their worst, they suck the energy and joy out of everyone and everything around them. You and I don’t want to be needy.

Why am I so needy?

My counselor was right. As much as I wished it wasn’t true, I showed up in my relationships more needy than not. I needed someone in my life to love and adore me. Now that I’d discovered the difference between wanting and needing a relationship and why it mattered, I wanted to stop being such a needy dweeb.

I’m not talking about developing some form of self-bravado, either. Sticking out our chest, walking with our nose in the air, and strutting through a crowd like we own the place is not self-esteem. In fact, it’s likely we’re acting that way because we need others to notice (validate) us. That’s just neediness coming out in a different way.

Breaking free of neediness

The cure was to change the source of my self-worth. Rather than looking to my partner, I needed to believe I was a good, worthy, and lovable person.

Self-esteem is a quiet, solid confidence about our own worthiness. I recently wrote a blog post about how to develop a positive identity, so I won’t repeat those points here. The bottom line is, when we have it, we need to look no further than inside ourselves for proof of our value. We don’t need others to provide it.

Showing up for a relationship with a positive self-esteem looks far different than being needy. We can enjoy the time and attention our partner gives. However, if they are busy, distracted, or even critical and rejecting, our core beliefs about ourself remain unchanged.

Stay single or get into a relationship?

Having a solid self-esteem also changes how we view being single. We can choose to pair up, especially if we see that person as someone who will contribute to a healthy and mutually beneficial partnership. However, we can also avoid partners who will create chaos and trauma in our lives.

When being alone is no longer scary, desperately clinging to a bad relationship becomes unthinkable. Attaching ourselves to the first person who shows interest in us becomes unnecessary. The difference between wanting and needing a relationship is we have the superpower to engage when it’s good and disengage when it’s not.

As a divorced single guy, I had the opportunity to test this concept and practice diminishing my neediness. I spent time just being single—not in a relationship or dating—and I discovered I still felt good about myself. Finally, I could see the difference between wanting and needing a relationship.

When I did date, I could quickly discern people who were not good matches. Most were fine potential partners for someone, just not for me. A few showed the warning signs of a future toxic relationship. Not needing a relationship helped me take a pass on these prospects until I met someone that fit my criteria.

I met Lynn after 4+ years of being single. She checked all the boxes of what I was looking for (yes I had a pre-determined, 16-item list). I saw the character, good relationship skills, and emotionally healthy qualities of a great partner. Because I’d been working to develop those myself, she also saw them in me. We’ve now been married for over four years and our relationship continues to get better and better.

Faith note

personal relationship with God makes a huge difference between wanting and needing a relationship.

First, when we experience loneliness, we can be confident that we are never truly alone. God promises to be with those who trust him and have first cultivated a relationship with him. Even though people will reject and abandon us, God never does. He’s always available to comfort us and give us hope.

Second, God loves you unconditionally. This is no small matter, because this love comes from the all-knowing, all-powerful, creator of the universe. Believing him and accepting his love fills us like nothing and no one else in this world can. It’s an unchanging, unending source of worthiness. If God says you’re valuable (and he does!), you’re valuable. There’s no doubt about it.

Finally, God blesses us regardless of our relationship status. God calls some people to marry and some to remain single—one is not better than the other. In fact, remaining single frees us to focus more on God’s purpose in our lives without the distraction of a relationship. Jeremiah, Paul, and Jesus are notable singles from the Bible. We won’t miss out on life’s good stuff when we’re single.