There it was, right there on my Instagram feed. “The smartest thing a woman can do is to never need a man.” It had 272 likes.
This brand of shallow feminism is more than annoying and disappointing to me; it’s representative of an increasingly alarming trend I see popping up among millennial women, both in my private psychotherapy practice (which caters to women in their 20s and 30s) and in my role as an in-house therapist at Google.
Yes, the idea of not needing a man was once an empowering, necessary message in its specific context of financial autonomy. But now, it’s been generalized into an isolating directive that comes with the steep price tag of abdicating one of the most fundamental, basic human needs: The need for love.
And who exactly is paying this emotional tax?
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If a man talks about how much his happiness and ability to succeed in this world rests on the steady love he receives from his wife, it’s romantic.
If your 76-year-old grandma decides that her life just isn’t complete without a romantic partner and she wants to dedicate the majority of her time to finding that connection, it’s brave.
If a woman declares her need for purposeful work, close friendships, creative pursuits, money, sex, more sleep, adventure, etc., she can expect to receive support. It’s considered completely O.K. to honor your needs for all the aforementioned endeavors—in fact, not just O.K., but essential to your holistic health. If you neglected one of these needs, like purposeful work, for example, it goes without saying that you’d likely be less happy and you’d probably walk around with a chronic sense that something was missing.
But if a woman declares her need for a man and says that, until she finds the right relationship, she’s likely going to be less happy and will probably walk around with a chronic feeling that something is missing from her life? She might be encouraged to take some alone time and learn how to make herself happy.
The message is clear: It’s O.K. to feel a void if you don’t have a job you love, but it’s not okay to feel a void if you don’t have a man you love—because healthy, successful women shouldn’t need men.
This myopic view of independence pathologizes romantic love for heterosexual women. The pathology is internalized, leaving so many women thinking there’s something wrong with them for feeling like they need to give and receive love. It’s a reversed and repackaged version of the ’60s feminine mystique. Same old flavor, brand new look!
(Side note: It’s outside of the scope of this post to dig deeply into the sweeping derogatory generalizations this message perpetuates about men—that they’re disposable, one-dimensional, untrustworthy and vaguely dangerous. So for now, let’s just ask how can we honestly expect men to meaningfully engage in the feminist movement when they’re swimming against the undercurrent of this kind of predatory social reputation?)
Of course, not every woman needs deep, committed intimacy and romantic partnership, but for the ones who do, feeling balanced can be a tremendous (and tremendously unnecessary) struggle.
Here are some common vignettes I hear in my practice that illustrate what I mean:
“Well, things are good for the most part. I love my job and friends, and I’m really proud that I’ve done X, Y and Z, but I still feel lonely sometimes, I can’t help it. If I’m being totally honest, I’d really love to be in a relationship. I guess I need more hobbies.”
“I know I should be happy alone, but I’m just not. I think about getting married and starting a family a lot—all the time actually.”
“The problem is I’ll be on a date, and within the first 20 minutes, I start imagining him as my future husband. What kind of dad he might be, that kind of thing.”
And then comes some version of a shame statement parade: “I know, I know, it’s psycho,” followed by, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” Often topped off with the ever-popular, “I hate that I’m that girl.”
If I say something like, “I don’t see anything wrong with imaging that. It’s your brain and your private imagination; what stops you from using it however it pleases you?” I can expect a cricket symphony/blank stare combo.
Yet, let’s imagine that, within the first 20 minutes of talking to a man she’s just met, a woman decides to entertain a hot sexual fantasy about that man. That doesn’t cause emotional dissonance because women are no longer pathologized for acknowledging their perfectly healthy need for sexual gratification. Imagining hot sex with a virtual stranger isn’t psycho or bad or silly at all. It’s your brain and your private imagination—and you can use it however it pleases you. Right?
Or is this where we get to the extra tiny writing at the bottom of our feminist contracts?
Need is not a four letter word.
Let’s reserve our shame spiraling for how much we’ll be Netflix bingeing this weekend, not for needing love.
Love is natural, healthy, beautiful and, perhaps above all, liberating. The need for love is also all of these things.
How can you tell when a connection becomes toxic? Relationships built on healthy pillars of vulnerability and interdependence don’t include manipulations or exploitations of power differentials. Very simply, healthy love feels good. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you if you want to love and be loved (i.e., enjoy interdependence) with a best friend, your parents, your children, your pets and, yes, your partner who happens to be a man.
Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t extract your primary fulfillment from a romantic relationship. It’s O.K. if travel or your work or your children or your art or your friends or your own self are the most important points of focus in your life. Often, there’s a fluidity to all these hierarchies; being an independent, empowered woman is about regularly communing with yourself in some way to check in on the ever-changing and highly personalized structure of who you are.
Whatever your needs may be, there is deep power in honoring them, all of them.
Every time I hear a complaint about how entitled millennials are, I think to myself, “I wish that were true.” I wish millennial women felt entitled to stake claim and work toward all that they want in this life—not just want but, dare I say, need.