There’s a scene in 28 Weeks Later when a husband and wife find themselves caught in a bedroom with half a dozen zombies. While his wife begs for help, the husband slips from the room, slamming the door.
“You’d never do that to me, right?” I asked my girlfriend at the time. “Lock me in a room with zombies? Save yourself instead?”
“No such thing as zombies,” she hedged.
“Say there were.” I’d expected an easy, “Of course not.”
“Who can say how they’ll react in a stressful situation?”
“Take a guess.” I folded my arms.
“Do you know what you’d do?”
“I’d try to help you!” I said.
“How can you know that?” She felt her pockets for cigarettes.
“At the very least, I wouldn’t slam the door!”
We dive into relationships with strangers, people who grew up with different frames of reference, divergent definitions of love. No matter, we expect them to instinctively understand and support us. When inevitably they don’t, we feel disappointed, unloved, betrayed.
Throughout our relationship, I fixated on that conversation. “Remember the time you told me you’d abandon me to the zombies?” I’d ask.
But just what was it about my ex’s response that galled me? What need had she neglected to fulfill? I didn’t know the answer, because I’d never thought to pose the question: what do I want from my partner?
Sure, I’ve thought through the generalities: emotional support, a sense of humor, or my personal favorite, muscles for days, but I’ve never identified the specific actions which to me represent love. Curious as to whether others grapple with this, I asked some friends what made them feel cared for.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many of my friends’ needs crystalize around coffee and food. Jill, Lauren and Kelly all cite some variation of being brought coffee, whether in bed or, in Lauren’s case, in the shower. M. Shelly puts it simply: “Fix me breakfast and I’ll never go away.”
Candice and Bob both appreciate assistance with daily tasks. “I love to cook,” Candice said, “but I hate doing dishes. Only the most awesome friends/lovers notice and jump in, and only the best partner could pick this as their life long chore.” Bob likes it when his husband “remembers to DVR the series I forgot to DVR before I left the house.”
For Diana and Lindsey, it comes down to basic affection from their respective partners. “I go to bed first,” says Lindsey. “He tucks me in and kisses me and before he goes back in the living room asks “do you have everything you need?” (I really do have everything I need.).” Diana says, “for me, the simple act of rubbing my back in a loving way, not just sexually, means more than someone buying me a gift.”
But let’s not malign gift-giving. For Vincent, nothing says love like “random, non-holiday-related gifts. Got a banjo once out of the blue, and it was like a Kennedy assassination. I still know exactly where I was when it was revealed.”
Although specific examples differ, the underlying commonalities here seem to be thoughtfulness born of attention to detail; we value partners who understand us enough to predict our needs. In fact, several friends come out and say this directly. For example, Kathryn says, “I feel most taken care of when she anticipates my needs before I do. That is like crack magic to me.”
But how can someone anticipate your needs if you don’t understand them? Looking back on the infamous zombie conversation, I think maybe I wanted my ex to lie; to feign confidence when what she really felt was uncertainty. But is that really something you can request? If not, then maybe a good starting point is simply knowing what you want: rather than focusing on the sting of hurt feelings, consciously plumbing your depths for their source. Maybe if I’d understood myself well enough to comprehend why her response upset me, I could have taken it in stride.
Inspired by my friends, I tried to conjure a list of my own specific relationship wants. Honestly, I had to fight not to defend, apologize for, or qualify every item. Forget about actually sharing them. Still, I encourage you to make your own list. Let it be ridiculous. Then hone it. Decide what you truly need. The next step is asking for it. Maybe I’ll take that step soon.