Hanging back, dropping hints, and generally mousing around gets you nowhere and drives other people nuts. Here's what you should do instead.
"I want my husband to have more sex with me," a girlfriend remarks at lunch. "I feel like he rarely initiates it, and I want to do it more often."
"Did you tell him how you feel?" I ask, after the waiters have administered strong smelling salts and propped me back in my chair. "Don't you think that the first step might be saying that to him instead of me?"
"Honestly, I could never," she responds. "He would assume I was dissatisfied or accuse me of being a nag. But I've been buying lots of silk lingerie and sheer little nighties and making sure I look my best at bedtime, hoping to pique his interest. Besides, it's not like I necessarily want to have more sex per se, I just want him to want me to."
Right. So, she wants sex, but she doesn't want it. She merely wants her husband to want it so she can get what she wants—which, perversely, is something she doesn't particularly want. Wouldn't it cost less, both in mental and actual currency, if she were to sit out the dance, look him plain in the eye, and speak her mind? Why can't she say what she wants?
She's afraid that people will label her needy, bitchy, clingy, whiny. In other words, wanty. Wanty (known in Italy as volere, on New York's shrink-saturated Upper West Side as the id) is the hobgoblin who scrambles the signals so that wanting becomes a bad thing instead of a way to move forward. His cohorts are guilt and denial; his ace up the sleeve is fear of rejection.
What if I look stupid?
What if the answer is no?
What if, what if? So goes Wanty's refrain.
Wanty should not be confused with pure Want. Pure Want is the essence of living. It's the human condition, the slender quill that pricks the sectors of the soul, stimulating yearning or envy, desire or desperation. Nor should Wanty be mistaken for his cousin, Wishy, who pines for a more unattainable horizon and subsists on fountains glutted with coins, birthday candles, and the sternum bones of most poultry. Incidentally—spoiler alert—whoever grasps the wishbone higher up toward the joint will always win.
Wanty looks daggers at Wish and Want and shames them into silence. He flicks open the refrigerator door and slams it shut, thumbs through your credit card statements reproachfully, reaches out and shakes up your mind, juddering friendly old desires into unrecognizable enemies.
Do we even allow ourselves to know what we want?
"Where should we go for dinner?" I ask my husband.
"Wherever you want," he says.
I suggest a nice barbecue place around the corner. No, he says, he doesn't feel like barbecue. Chinese? No, he had Chinese food for lunch. Italian? No, too heavy. Thai? Too much like Chinese. Where, then, I repeat, does he want to go for dinner?
"I dunno. Wherever you want."
Kill me now.
It wasn't always this way.
In pioneer days, when times were hard and the average life span was 37 years, saying what you wanted was good. It was a requisite for survival. Settlers had to be focused, decisive, and make the right choices, just like the contestants on American Idol, except there was no video recap of your "journey" and the grand prize was a contract for 160 acres of Osage land.
Nowadays, with life expectancy exceeding 75, our lifestyle expectancy has soared as well. Higher expectations translate into serious want-flation. And with that, for some people—many of them women—comes guilt-flation. Certainly guilt-flation is a learned behavior. Small children have no compunctions about saying, even shrieking, what they want. At a critical point, though—third grade, fourth grade, fifth—the shame of wanting sets in.
An unusually wise friend with a teenager and a grade-schooler ponders the different want styles of her kids. "When we go shopping, my younger child knows exactly what he wants and is extremely vocal about it. But my older one can never say what she wants. How do I make her realize that you have to say what you want in order to receive it? When a person can articulate what she wants, it motivates others to give it to her."
Somewhere between the Homestead Act and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, articulating your wants went from being a wardrobe basic to an embarrassing accessory, like control-top underwear or Odor-Eaters. Plain Want evolved into Wanty.
Hence, we stifle yawp and dissent, ensuring unstirred pots, unsplintered peace. When a friend makes a plan to see a movie that conceivably patented the gag reflex, we decide not to make heavy weather of it. In candor's stead, we coax, cozen, and imply; we cloak our language in e-mail and conversation so we don't appear too blunt, too aggressive, too demanding. We either submerge our wants or present them in such a veiled, indirect fashion they confuse and annoy.
"Just for fun," says my visiting mother-in-law, a midcentury minimalist before she hit her mid-70s, that magical age when pastel birdhouses and gilt frames suddenly seem like a good idea, "let's throw out all your paperback books."
Wow, that doesn't sound very fun to me. We actually read our paperback books. It also sounds like a lot of work. Still, one would be prudent not to fly in the face of the filio mater too hastily. "Do you dislike the way they look?" I ask. "Do you want me to throw them out?"
"No, no—let's just see what happens," she replies. "I thought it would be a nice thing to do for you."
"So, does that mean you don't want me to throw them out?"
"No." And now the conversation takes a flinty turn. "As I said, I thought we could throw them out, just [pause] for [pause] fun."
If only she could come right out and exclaim, "Those shabby paperbacks are an embarrassment to the family name!" If only she would flatly state, "This isn't about you, it's about me and my aesthetic values and my desire to regulate my surroundings." If only she could chisel through the shale sheets of Anglo-Saxon breeding and skip the Cheever-ized buck-and-wing so we could have a straightforward conversation.
But who can blame her? Women who say what they want—generally successful, high-achieving people—are considered difficult. Divas. Witches. Sluts. Heaven forfend we should be seen as termagants. Nobody likes a troublemaker.
Last year my son's progressive private school in Greenwich Village held an election for a parent liaison to the board. Two mothers vied for the spot. The first, whom we'll call Helen, was the parent of three children, one of them in my son's class; the second, now dubbed Daphne, was a newer parent.
Helen campaigned aggressively; she sent out e-mails explaining why she was the more qualified candidate, she stood by the ballot box and importuned passers-by to vote for her. Daphne took a far less vigorous approach. So unvigorous that, one year later, I have yet to figure out who she is. It was a tight race; the vote tally was nearly too close to call. For a moment, it looked as though Helen would emerge the victor.
Complaints began rolling in that Helen had illegally tainted the process by standing by the ballot box and making doe eyes. She had strong-armed the parent body. She was competitive, pushy, undeserving. There was an elaborate revote and Daphne was declared the winner.
Understand: Helen is not an intimate of mine. We are like night and day, close only in the way that opposing poles on a horseshoe magnet acquire proximity through a random bend. As for Daphne, well, since I have no earthly idea who she is, I can only wish her well. I couldn't help noticing, however, that Helen's main transgression, the crime that stripped her of her post, was publicly wanting too much. She committed to wanting something and went after it.
In an ideal world, this approach should have been fine, admirable even. In a pink-sky world where kindergarten tuition costs $20,000, it was particularly wrong, naughty, bad. Consequently, Helen was punished by the Wanty mothers around her.
"I guess I learned a lesson from this," she said afterward. I didn't ask what the lesson was, nor did she elaborate. Yet my heart broke a little because I suspected that the lesson was to not want too much. To not try too hard. To not commit to a desire. How ironic that we women, so famous for craving commitment, bar ourselves from committing to self-fulfillment. "Anyway, it's not a big deal," Helen observed. "It's just a medium deal."
The logy middle ground is Wanty's wheelhouse. Certainly, there are times when you can instantly pinpoint what you want. You want health and happiness. You want a ham sandwich. Simple. Between the incredible and edible, though, somewhere between vast and speck, is where Wanty manufactures his dissolute brand of perfidy. Those medium deals are the ones that can break you. It's too tempting to fold up medium-size wants into neat little packets and tuck them away on a high shelf. Left unattended, they can go from hiccup to Hecate before you realize what boiled you alive.
"I wanted my husband to stop drinking, but I was afraid to confront him," an older female friend confides. Rather than risk fussing with the home fires, she had a baby in the hopes that he would sober up. He did—for a little while. Then he resumed drinking. She had another baby. Four children later, she was divorced. Her second husband was a devout philanderer. Obviously, the best way to restore his fidelity would be to get pregnant. Three more times. He continued to tomcat his way around town until he left her.
Perhaps she has a few tips for my friend whose husband won't initiate sex.
When the concept of standing up to your husband is more painful than the prospect of giving birth seven times, we're knee-deep in hot water and rags. Is it really worse to say, "Honey, you've had enough to drink" than to hear, a decade later, "It's a girl—again!" The whip of rejection leaves a deep lash; the fear it instills can cause us to drink too much, eat too little, stay too long. But better to sprain your sensibilities early than to find your life irrevocably fractured down the road. Speak now or forever sacrifice your peace.
This, I imagine, would be the perfect moment to provide a tidy formula for how to say what you want. No such formula exists. There's no script, no secret recipe for banishing Wanty and embracing Want. Just as wanting comes from within, so must the ability to convey it to the people around you. You might begin trying within your immediate circle, with a husband or sister or best friend, someone who's guaranteed not to belittle your requests. You might try having enough faith in others to have faith in yourself.
In any event, do try. Keep trying. Freedom to want is power steering, your trump card. It's what enables us to scan new constellations, fall in love or resolve to leave, find our way home. What you want isn't merely what you get. It's where you'll be. It's who you'll be.
"My wife is constantly attacking me," laments a former colleague who is having trouble at work. "She's constantly on me, tearing me apart. Everything is my fault. A lot of the time, she's probably right, but I can't take the misery. I'm afraid we're going to have to split up. I just want her to say, 'It's okay, I love you and no matter what happens, we'll be okay. No matter what happens, we'll still be standing.' If she only said that, I could endure anything."
"Why don't you tell her that?" I ask. "Isn't it better to be honest than to get a divorce? How could you not tell her?"
"It's too humiliating," he groans. "It sounds so weak. She would just think I'm pathetic. I can't just come out and say, 'Look, this is what I want.'"
Oh, but you can. You must.
Ellen Tien writes for the Styles section of The New York Times.