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

Telling 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

➡️ FREE! Get The 10 Laws of Boundaries eBook when you subscribe to the Boundaries Weekly email newsletter. Learn More


    • Rebecca says

      This actually makes complete sense. To be emotionally healthy one needs to have an honest awareness of oneself– a high emotional intelligence if you will. Only then can a person proceed to communicate in an authentic way. Study the “Boundaries” concepts and this will begin to unfold. It is all common sense and straight-forward in both theory and practice! 🙂

    • Bryn says

      You’re right Anna, but it happens often. People who have issues with self esteem, rejection and shame will use this “you need to read my mind” ploy to manipulate another persons behavior. The bigger issue is confronting them about it. They don’t know how to negotiate with out increased anxiety when they have a different opinion or idea. Every idea or thought they have ends up being deffered until one day they up and leave or explode (to us) out of no where about how they always “give in” to what the other person wants. It’s a really difficult to live with.

    • Alisa says

      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!

      • Sara says

        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!

    • Mel says

      This is a wonderful teaching.
      It pains me that I learned the exact opposite in the church and it has hamstrung my life for many, many years.
      This should be basic teaching, basic training for life.
      I hope this understanding pervades and transforms church norms.

  1. Stephanie says

    Assertiveness, everyone needs to learn it. I’m responsible for recognizing and communicating my needs, feelings and desires. I might look good to be easily satisfied … But if that’s not genuine it doesn’t help anyone and prevents intimacy.

    How to Have That Difficult Conversation … Began a journey for me.

    As a minister’s kid this book was a huge revelation. I was raised giving. I thought communicating needs, feelings and desires was selfish. That it conflicted with Christlike self sacrifice. I was wrong and my relationships were suffering for it. This was life changing. I’m still learning to be assertive, not passive and making steady progress. Thanks Cloud and Townsend!

  2. says

    Great clarification about the “positive” side of setting boundaries….asking for what you want! I always love your info and share it with my friends often. Thank you!

  3. Liz Daniels says

    Actually, this made a lot of sense to me. It was interesting to hear Peter’s perspective. It seems to me that females seem to have a harder time asking for what they want. This website will hopefully help us to communicate better.

  4. Lynn says

    I love this as it is n point. The only thing I would add is hat when we come across someone who does not communicate their desires or someone who does not seek to come to some compromise or does not accept what we asking to set the boundary of walking away. As I believe this leads to abusive relationship the last part about freedom to love comes into effect. as you are no longer free if you are only doing what it takes to stay in a relationship or to allow another to limit what your desires or communicating your needs or wants. An abuser will listen to your wants and desire and during the honeymoon period go out of their way to accommodate to regain control. Set the boundary hold the boundary until the other individual demonstrates they understand will respect the boundary set. Do not hesitate if the other after being allowed in more begins again with harmful acts to reset a boundary . It is a learning experience.

  5. Renee says

    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.

  6. Janet says

    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.

  7. Christal says

    I love everything about this article! It reassures me of a some conclusions i recently came to. I also used to be horrible at saying what I wanted but not anymore. I need the book this was adopted from. So good!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *