You Can't Always Get What You Want, but You'd Better Try

How to Have That Difficult ConversationTelling other people what you want is key to feeling alive in a relationship and keeping things vibrant for both people. If only one person is getting his or her desires met, the relationship suffers. Unfortunately, many people do not get what they want in a relationship. But, they could if they knew how to communicate their desires.

For example, Peter began dating Marla. At first, he was in absolute heaven. She was so "easy to get along with," he said. About five months later, though, something happened. "I broke up with Marla," he said. "It just wasn't working out."

"What happened?" I (Dr. Cloud) asked.

"In the beginning, she was like a breath of fresh air," Peter replied. But as time went on, I noticed a couple of things. First, I could never figure out what she wanted. I would ask her what she wanted to do, or where she wanted to go, or how she felt about something, and she would always defer to me. Even though that felt good in the beginning, over time, I got bored with Marla's flexibility. There was something missing. I don't know exactly what it was.

Second, she wouldn't really pout, but she would be sad, or quiet, or something. I would feel like I had done something wrong, but I didn't know what it was. So I would ask. At first, she would say, 'Nothing,' but I knew that was bull. So I would have to pull it out of her, and then I would find out that she had wanted me to do something I hadn't done, or that she was bugged about something she hadn't told me about. I felt like I was letting her down, but I couldn't read her mind. I was frustrated not knowing when things were okay and when they weren't. I think I need someone more up front with what they are thinking and what they want."

Many people think of "boundaries" only as setting limits, saying no, or trying to stop something destructive from happening. But having good boundaries is more than stopping bad things from happening to you. It is also taking responsibility for the good things you want to happen.

When you take responsibility for your desires and communicate them well, a relationship has much more chemistry, connection, and mutual fulfillment. You know about and negotiate any issues; there is give and take. And no one is walking around resentful and depressed.

Think about Peter and Marla for a moment. She had desires she wanted fulfilled in her relationship with Peter. But she thought Peter was responsible for knowing what her desires were and for taking the first step toward fulfilling them. She shifted the responsibility for what she wanted from her to him; she thought her "wants" were his problem, not hers. When he did not solve her problem, when she felt sad or resentful, she saw it as Peter's responsibility to figure out what she was feeling and do something about it. Ultimately, this proved too much for him to do.

To have a relationship that works well, we should communicate our wants not outwardly, but inwardly. We should have a "responsibility" talk with ourselves before we have a "talk" with another person. Here are some of the things we will need to do:

  • Own our "want" — be honest about what we want and be aware that our desire is our responsibility.
  • Own the feelings that occur when our desire is not getting met — if we are sad, we needs to tell other people, not wait for them to figure it out.
  • Choose to communicate and move toward other people to let our wants be known.
  • Communicate desire, not demand.

We always have to look at ourselves first to make sure we are doing our part correctly. This is particularly true with wants and desires; others do not magically know what we want, and they need to be told in ways they can accept. So the first conversation has to take place inside.

Freedom is essential to a good relationship. If we're not free, we can't love. If people feel as though they can't say "no" to us and if they do things for us out of compulsion, guilt, or feelings of obligation, they will resent doing those things. If we ask for things we want in ways that make someone feel as though "no" is not okay with us, the relationship turns into a control battle. Freedom and love suffer, and even fulfilled desires can't fully satisfy because they are not given in love.


Adapted from How to Have That Difficult Conversation by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend

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  • Sara on

    I married the same man! Before marriage things were better- more “teamwork” and I felt we were moving in the same direction….
    now, he refuses to communicate with me about anything more than the weather.
    I have stayed married to this man because we got pregnant on the honeymoon and again 9 months later… I didn’t leave him because I didn’t want to put our kids thru a divorce. Our kids are now 16 & 17…. I have done extensive work on boundaries (thank God for Cloud & Townsend!), recovery and self-love. Our marriage is better than it was, but it is still exhausting.
    Thank you for your post!
    It was very encouraging!

  • SEA on

    Excellent analysis Bryn!

  • Alisa on

    Really? Why do you say that? Its important to communicate your wants and desires, what you don’t like, etc. I married a man who refused to communicate with me. This was after marrying him. He refused to answer questions also. He was a yes man, but those yes’s actually turned out to be no’s. I was expected to read his mind. I was expected to initiate everything, though before marrying him, we were going to do things like a team. He twisted everything I said to benefit himself. It was a very frustrating situation. He put all responsibility on me for everything and then was angry about it.

    What’s been written here makes total sense!

  • Janet on

    I found this helpful, though also a struggle. I have found that after I ask for what I need/want about 400 times, I lose interest in trying and I do become resentful and less willing and interested in communicating my needs & wants in future. Perhaps it is some of the foundational stuff I am missing – not the initial conversation with myself? not dealing with it before I hit 400 times? I also find that, as a child, I was trained into lower expectations, with responses like, “if you ask again, you’ll get nothing”. Whatever the origin, I do have difficulty here and I’m pretty sure that sometimes it is more than a failure to communicate on my side. This was still helpful and I have much to learn.

  • Renee on

    It’s a difficult situation when immediate family members are involved in triangulation and everyone is grown. Yet the person whose trying to get their point across is treated like a child because truth or judgement is the standard without unconditional love and acceptance or no grace. Setting boundaries can work however the retaliation is ever present sometimes therefore a rebuilding mode is constant. These books are great tools and my take away is keep searching for wisdom and understanding while learning to apply the principles of Jesus knowing perfection is Christ and He’s interceding on our behalf.

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