One of the big upsides of polyamory folks often point out is that you have the option of getting your emotional and relational needs met from more than one source - you don’t need to force one relationship to be all things to you at once, or be all things to any of your partners. But, what is an emotional or relationship need? What is a need versus a want? Does that distinction matter to us?
There’s a theory of needs (seen here, and often, in a pyramid-shaped diagram), Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that says that you have to build on certain kinds of needs to be able to fulfill others. Most of these are needs we meet in relationships. The bottom level, physiological, we mostly meet on our own, but safety, the second level, is partly met by self and partly emotionally with society and partners - emotional safety is notably important to move up to the next level. Then we start meeting the “love and belonging needs” where relationships naturally fall - where friendships and intimate relationships reside and help us go up to the next level up. When we’ve met those needs we can meet the needs of the fourth level in this theory, esteem, which is divided into inward-facing and reciprocal esteem for both self and those we’re in personal relationships with.
The basic theory calls all the rest of one’s needs “self-actualization” or “growth” - but it’s all of these needs that we generally mean when we mean “relationship needs” beyond love and respect - which are certainly important, but are likely involved in most of our polyamorous relationships, so let’s look in some more detail at what these other needs might be.
The theory combines all the rest of them because there’s no specific order the rest of these need to happen in - all your growth needs can happen in whatever order you and your circumstances allow. If you are no longer meeting those four levels prior, you may have to address that before you can move forward to these “growth” needs
The beginning of these growth needs are “cognitive growth” - knowledge and understanding, predictablitity, ritual, meaning, curiosity, and exploration. You might wonder what that has to do with a partner or partners - and, well, that depends on what you want it to have to do with them. For many people, the feeling of knowing and being known is a growing and changing thing in relationships that is a valuable and needed quality; for others, a person to take those exploratory journeys in different directions and into different topics with is a need. Some people consider these wants rather than needs - or rather, the need is to have partners who are supportive of their curiosity in general, and particulars about specific topics are wants. Routine building of all kinds, like having “your show” or a Sunday afternoon walk, interestingly, feeds the same parts of our security and growth as exploring new things - it’s a matter of personal preference, and our brains need both routines and novelty.
Next, there are aesthetic needs - seeking in art and nature for form, balance and beauty. This one is hugely dependent on preference again and can combine with that exploration we were talking about a minute ago easily. It doesn’t have to be a big formal trip to a museum or an art appreciation course - but do you and a partner both like clothes and shopping? Play with proportions and lengths of items for an afternoon. Do you like crafts? Paint together, try something new like painting rocks, or if one of you has different skills than the other collaborate on a project. Go for a walk and revel in what trees or the ocean look like - it’s worth it!
Then we get on to the Big Concepts, the supporting-one-another-in-reaching-your-potential, self-actualization, entirely individualized things. These are things we do for ourselves, but the support we give partners, receive from partners, want, or don’t want is changeable and varies between relationships. I know in my long term relationships, I enjoy sharing my projects with partners when they’re close to complete, and if my partners are interested in the subjects, I can go a little overboard sharing my creative process earlier on. I’m happy to get this from people I’m seeing, too. I find it to be a great bonding experience to see their passions and projects. It doesn’t only apply to creative work, but also to professional satisfaction and generally with being mentally flexible as a result of these projects and endeavors. Some people like to have a little more distance between partners and their work or only want to share the finished product though - my ex-husband was a singer who didn’t like me to listen to him rehearsing, usually, for example, so I’d be more surprised at performances, having heard only bits and pieces of shows.
The last level is a sort of addition on self-actualization made up of a version of any of these growth levels you personally find to be a transcendent experience. Maslow anticipated that many people would find that in spiritual/religious practice or service or art - but it could be in just about anything you find meaningful and moving, and it could be a shared experience with a partner or a solo one, or something you both do that one of you experiences differently than the other.
In this theory, all of these are termed needs. In common everyday conversation, some people might call some of them “wants.” We might only want to do some art with our partner - it might be more of a need that they devote some quality time to another relationship they haven’t had enough time with lately, because that’s in that first four levels we glossed over. Those basic levels are foundational needs, and these growth needs are emotionally very important to us as humans, and are the thing that it’s great we can “spread out” to help ourselves meet through polyamory - with ourselves, with close friends, with multiple partners if and when we meet them. Whether we think of them as needs, or as wants, meeting these keeps us fulfilled and happy. The words are less important than whether we meet the goals. So we help our partners, and our partners help us, in the ways we mutually agree upon.
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