Need, Want, Love

Need Want LoveWriting about love twice in just over a week — perhaps it’s a sign of the times. I’m learning to spend more time observing people, and sometimes what I’m discovering is a bit unnerving. I’m more convinced than ever that we’re suffering from a collective madness caused by too much crowding, too much psychological imprisonment, and too much stress. Love is not meant to be a coping mechanism for such madness, but often it is pressed into service for that purpose. The result, I think, is unreasonable expectations from a single relationship, and unreasonable demands and pressure on those we presume to love.

What we call ‘love’ is really a combination of three states:

  • a physical and emotional need, based on dependency,
  • a physical and emotional want, based on desire, and
  • an intellectual and emotional attachment (what we call ‘love‘ in later years), based on respect, gratefulness and admiration.

These three states can exist together or in isolation, as shown in the diagram above, and they can be profound or shallow. None is stronger or more important or nobler than the others, and we can be driven to the ends of the earth for any of them, even in the absence of the other two. Most of what we do in life is driven by these three states, for a reason: Behaviours based on profound needs, wants, and love for others tend to lead to protection, procreation and survival of the species.
If you observe or study emotional relationships of wild animals, they tend to follow the migration path shown in green on the diagram: In infancy, there is great need, which evolves into love as the animal matures. Then relationships change from parent-child to peer-to-peer, and become driven by a combination of love (a learned social emotion) and want (an instinctive, biological emotion). This is what a mature relationship is all about: the weaning from need to an independent emotional relationship. The need in animal societies manifests itself at the community level: Most creatures are profoundly social, and need the companionship of their group or tribe or flock. But they don’t need any individual in that community (that’s not to say that they don’t grieve the loss of an individual — the loss of one we love or want intensely is as overwhelming as the loss of one we need, perhaps even more so.

Our emotional relationship with domesticated animals follows the first part of this natural green migration path, from the kitten or puppy’s need for care, to a need/love relationship, but then it stalls — we have bred animal companion species to never grow up and outgrow their need for us, so that relationship never really matures.

In modern human society, we’ve messed up this emotional migration path thoroughly, so that it looks more like the red path above than the green one: Our infant dependency is quickly followed by rebellion and declarations of independence, until at puberty they are supplanted by peer-to-peer relationships that are almost pure want (adoration, lust, longing). The painful tumult of adolescence and young adulthood quickly morphs these relationships into co-dependent ones, where we cocoon ourselves away from hurts inflicted by those outside. As we grow older, the intensity of that want for a single person usually diminishes, and a love based on respect, gratefulness and admiration takes its place. But the emotional dependency continues, and eventually as we lose our mental faculties in very old age the need (physical, emotional and intellectual) increases and becomes not dissimilar to the situation in which we began life. We never really reach the ‘mature’ relationship at the endpoint of the natural (green) migration path, where we love and want other individuals but do not depend on them.

That is probably a very jaundiced view of human nature and the nature of our emotional relationships, but that’s what I have, with few exceptions, observed. The fact that we need other individuals so much and so relentlessly for so much of our lives puts incredible strain and demands on such relationships. That is why I believe that human societies, like those of our cousins the bonobos, are naturally polyamory, and that monogamous love, while possible and perhaps even admirable, is unnatural. When couples break up it usually means (in the absence of abuse or extreme external stress) that one or both parties have broken the chain of co-dependency — their want or need for someone else exceeds their love and need for the person they were in an exclusive relationship with.

In fact many of the enduring relationships of adults I know (and I confess that, when I look closely, few adult relationships today are enduring well) seem to be those where the couple love but no longer need or (really) want each other — the relationships of our grandparents. You reach that stage, you’re no longer really in the market for new relationships driven by passionate wants, and you’ve learned (with luck) that neediness is debilitating and unbecoming. You still want, but only in your dreams and fantasies, and don’t expect those wants to be reciprocated. That’s modern human maturity, I guess. Better than nothing, but less than ideal, and less than natural.

Meanwhile, we instinctively share the need of other creatures for the companionship of community, for collective social activity and belonging. The isolation of individuals in the nuclear family, in ‘single family dwellings’, in transient neighbourhoods that offer none of the qualities of true community, forces us to sublimate that need and try (in vain) to satisfy it through individual relationships with friends, lovers, spouses. That puts an enormous burden on these individual relationships, which is inversely proportional to the amount of time we have left in our busy lives to invest in those relationships, and the number of those relationships: If you’ve ever been someone’s only ‘real friend’ or had someone unburden themselves on you suddenly and awkwardly to an extent not really warranted by how close that person was to you before their crisis, you know what what I mean.

But we fumble along as best we can, trying to reconcile the needs, wants and loves that drive us (and have driven all life on Earth since it began) with the realities, pressures and scant opportunities of modern civilization. The result is not pretty, and often ghastly. If we’re wise, we learn to laugh about it, because the only alternative, too often, is to rage or weep. Inlove, as in all things, we do what we must.

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5 Responses to Need, Want, Love

  1. Dave Pollard says:

    The comments server seems to be down. I’ve sent a note to Radio Userland. Sorry for the inconvenience; you’ll have to e-mail me until it’s fixed. Life seems more and more about finding workarounds: The pragmatist’s alternative to let-self-change.

  2. Pearl says:

    Here’s something. Some of my students from Iran and Kuwait, Libya and Morocco separately shared their theory of Canada and the US and our “unnatural” attachment to pets as furry children. (This does come to relate.) Because we tend to be in nuclear family and are culturally choosing lower touch rates, we still need to touch. Pets come to replace tight bonds. //Males, particularly, here have traditionally touched less than good for body regulation. We tend, worldwide, to become more urban cash and migrant sort of communities that leads to shorter-term relationships and greater number of shallower relationships.// Some people (and subcultures such as evangelical Christians and gay village men) sidestep this and are huggers and get into tight bonds across gender and within. //Dependancy takes a hit with each of us being economically autonomous and each person being “complete” with self-sustaining life skills. We can get intellectual and emotional attachments but without any formal forever sort of promises as when you live your whole life in a community of extended family who you can’t get away from. When anyone can opt out and completely disappear from your life, there’s an inherent insecurity option; there can be a reluctance to express or permit admission of deep emotions.

  3. Pearl says:

    Not to overtalk here, but link on Goodall you might like: from

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Fascinating link, Pearl. The reviewer concludes “Her resilience and optimism are remarkable; they reminded me of how many times I have been content to adopt a convenient pessimism in the face of the terrible environmental damage taking place, and made me ashamed of it.” Somehow reading this had the opposite effect on me, making me terribly depressed and wondering whether optimism like Goodall’s is a form of madness.

  5. Ranjan says:

    Hey DaveGreat post!So much fascinated i am by this post that I am putting it in my blog… I hope that you dont mind :)RegardsRanjan

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