Can one person meet all of your needs?

Image by the lovely Stuart F Taylor

I have a lot of friends who embrace nonmonogamy – i.e. relationships where you are both open to the idea of forming romantic/sexual bonds with more than one person – as opposed to monogamy, where you pair off with one person, avoid shagging anyone else, then eventually cement your bond with matching clogs and a National Trust membership. Naturally, as someone who moves in sex-positive circles, I run into loads of people who have taken the traditional ‘scripts’ we’re taught we should follow when it comes to relationships, and torn them up in favour of writing their own. I love this, and I think the more people who do it the better. However, when I talk to other people about different relationship styles there’s one argument for nonmonogamy that rubs me up the wrong way.

Update Sep 2022: In this piece I use the term ‘ethical nonmonogamy (ENM)’ to describe relationships where people are all aware that their partners can have other partners too. I’ve subsequently read some really useful stuff that explains why ENM isn’t a great way to describe this relationship style, so I won’t be using it in future. But here’s a link to the problems with the term ENM in case you’d like to find out more.

Before I launch into it, I need you to know that I’m not criticising nonmonogamy. I think it’s fucking brilliant. I also think monogamy is brilliant, if that works for you. I am a huge fan of people arranging their lives in ways that suit them best, then gleefully shouting about it so other people can make choices in full knowledge that there are other options out there. I am, technically(?) nonmonogamous at the moment, because I shag people but I don’t have a regular partner. I’m enjoying not only sampling the delights of varied company, but also delightful new joys like encouraging those people in their dating escapades and cheering them on from the sidelines. This burst of nonmonogamy might not last for me, for reasons it would take a whole other blog post to explore, so it’s worth noting that at least part of my thinking here is shaped by conversations with people who try to persuade me that I should be (or am) nonmonogamous, and I’m stubborn and hate being told how I should live my life. So please adjust your set for a level of bias before we begin.

But as a baseline: nonmonogamy is great! If you like it, you should embrace it! But I don’t think it’s the only ‘right’ way to be, and it’s especially not ‘right’ for this reason…

“No one person can ever meet all of your needs.”

Can one person meet all of your needs?

The statement above is 100% true. No one person can ever meet all of your needs and it would be ludicrous to expect them to. You can’t demand the same person be able to throw you parties, take you on fun holidays, listen to all of your woes, shag you senseless, make you feel loved enough, enjoy the same films/bands, bring you gossip and fix your car and paint your nails and meet your family. Humans are complex and weird and brilliant and we are very rarely going to be satisfied with the company of only one person.

However. That’s why we also have friends… right? That’s why we form relationships with people whose junk we don’t also wish to lick. It’s why we nurture relationships with family, and work colleagues, and others who bring our lives meaning and fulfilment. I wouldn’t expect a romantic partner to be able to comfort me when I was down in the same way my mate Claire would. I’d never expect him to! She is a uniquely wise, kind, and insightful person. I also wouldn’t expect a romantic partner – especially in the early stages of a relationship – to be able to give me the kind of stern nudges I’d expect from other friends if I was haring off down the wrong path. I don’t need a romantic partner to be able to come out on the piss with me and my best mate because… well… I have my best mate for that! We don’t need a chaperone.

If I’m with someone seriously, I want him to be involved in my life. But I think it’s reasonable for me to have ‘be involved’ as a need I want met – I’d have that need no matter how many serious partners I had. It doesn’t mean my boyfriend/husband/fuckbutler has to be in the pub with me all the time, or listen to every single one of my stories. He just has to join in with enough that I know he gives a shit. The rest of the absolutely backbreaking labour that is ‘making GOTN feel fulfilled’ can be shared out liberally amongst others who give a shit too.

Getting the wrong end of the stick

This week Novara published an article entitled ‘monogamy is cool, actually‘ which (understandably) rubbed quite a few ethically nonmonogamous people up the wrong way. The piece discusses relationship styles in very political terms, and argues against viewing ethical nonmonogamy (ENM) as political praxis: embracing a nontraditional relationship structure does not inherently make you a good lefty.

Full disclosure: I do not fully understand all of it because my political knowledge is fuzzy. The article also says a lot of stuff about Engels, but despite having been tasked to read him for my Philosophy degree, I’m a lazy, horny shit so my Engels knowledge is limited to telling you that the hot guy from my course who I used to bang between lectures is a far better person to ask.

I take massive umbrage at the idea that monogamy is inherently ‘better’ – the article describes it as ‘a dedication to something bigger than yourself’, which it certainly can be, but very rarely is, and either way who’s to say that dedication to a romantic partnership is inherently virtuous? Blergh. But although I didn’t agree with all of it, one of the things that stood out to me was this:

“The benefits of being in a polycule are often framed in utilitarian terms, where the ideal romantic arrangement produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Instead of seeking out one ideal partner, you relax your expectations and take the best bits from multiple partners. If your polycule provides you with hot sex with one person, intellectual sparring with another and tell-all intimacy with a third, then congratulations – you’ve grabbed a deal. In this bargain hunt, any product found to be defective can be easily exchanged for a better one.”

Now. The vast majority of people I know are far too thoughtful and caring to frame their relationship style in such stark, aggressively individualistic terms. But I still found myself nodding along. I’ve heard this argument – or similar ones – quite often. I think it’s hard to say ‘no one person can meet all of your needs!’ without giving some people what they feel is permission to take this stark approach.

In reality, humans are complex, and we do not have relationships with them purely to ‘get our needs met.’ A healthy relationship (whether ENM, monogamous, sex-related, friendship, collegial or whatever) will always involve some give and take. Self-sacrifice or work or whatever you’d like to call it. Despite this, when advocating for ENM, some people will dip into uncomfortable self-centredness – encouraging us to act like humans are pic n mix at the cinema. As I say, not all ENM people (or even most) would say this. The argument tends to mostly be used by bad actors: often straight, cis men who see ENM as a shortcut to sexual novelty but who aren’t willing to do any of the work that’s involved in maintaining relationships. If you’re a man I know and you’re worried I mean you: I don’t. You wouldn’t be my friend if I thought this was where you were coming from.

Understandably, friends of mine who are into ENM would probably say ‘oh but GOTN, you can’t just use the most toxic examples to make your point! Why would you focus on the worst interpretation?’ which is correct, and it leads me neatly back to the original point…

Toxic monogamy!

My issue with the ‘one person can’t meet all of your needs’ argument is that so often it’s deployed as a counterpoint to monogamy. As if monogamous relationships necessarily involve two people constantly attempting to meet all of each others’ needs without the support of friends and family. But that’s pretty much my textbook definition of an unhealthy monogamous relationship.

When someone tells me “ah but you can’t expect one person to meet all of your needs,” my response is always a kind of flabbergasted: “of course not. That’s why I have friends!”

The passage quoted above depicts an unrepresentative (and unethical) ENM practitioner, a bad actor who upends what genuinely ‘ethical’ nonmonogamy might look like. It’s not actually an argument against arranging your relationship this way, just as pointing to partners who lie or dismiss people’s feelings or treat polyamory as a sexual free-for-all wouldn’t be a nail in the coffin of ENM either. Every relationship style has its twats, because twats seek love and sex too. But just as it wouldn’t be right to say ‘ENM objectively sucks because some people use it as an excuse to treat people like pic n mix!’ so it’s also wrong (I think) to build a straw-man argument against monogamy based on problems that – while common – aren’t inherent to the structure. These problems are important and deserve attention, but if they’re dismissed with ‘pah! Monogamy is toxic! What you gonna do?’ then we cannot accurately name what’s going on, and therefore try to tackle it.

The gendered problem with monogamy

The idea that “no one person can meet all of your needs” is true, and it’s important. It’s important to me especially because I am straight, and straight men (not ALL straight men, but a significant enough number that it’s a noted problem) often abandon their social lives when they get with a partner. Forgetting to text their friends, relying on their girlfriend/wife to be the ‘keeper of the calendar’ and do the relationship maintenance for them, and generally relaxing into a life where they expect her to be their ‘one and only’.

Sorry, straight dudes, this is true. It’s not true of all of you, but it’s true of enough of you that divorced and widowed men have far higher rates of depression and suicide, in part because when they lose their partner, they also lose the social life she brought. Mentioning it isn’t my way of having a go at you, it’s a useful vehicle for me to tell you that I’m worried about you.

Edited to add – in response to this piece somebody sent me a link to this essay on men & friendship, it’s amazing and explores this from a different perspective – pls do have a read. 

I once met a guy who was very new to nonmonogamy. When I asked him how he and his long-term partner had come to the decision to open up their relationship, he explained that she was quite introverted and enjoyed her time alone. As he unfurled the full story, it became fairly clear (and he then said explicitly) that one of the main reasons she’d agreed to let him date other people was because she wanted him out of the house sometimes. I couldn’t glean from our discussion whether she was genuinely happy for him to be with me, trying to bone, or whether she’d have preferred for him to just have a few friends who he went out with from time-to-time. We did not bone.

When the ‘one person can’t meet all of your needs’ argument is deployed, it is often to persuade people that there’s something inherently unsatisfying about monogamy, and that ethical nonmonogamy is the solution. It may be the solution to some struggles, for sure, but it isn’t a panacea. If the problem is ‘relying too heavily on one person to meet all of your needs’, simply adding more people is not going to tackle the issue. The dude above will still struggle in the absence of friendship, he’ll just be distracted by the sex he’s trying to have at the same time.

“One person can’t meet all of your needs,” sure. But I really want to add this too: “it is unhealthy to expect all of your needs to be met by people you’re romantically/sexually involved with.”

I haven’t met any guys who will outright say ‘I’m nonmonogamous because I suck at maintaining friendships’, but I have met guys whose friends are suspiciously absent, and whose social lives revolve almost entirely around people they might want to bang. I am not throwing shade on them, I promise: it’s really fucking hard maintaining friendships. It takes time and work and effort and thought. What’s more, you lot are generally not trained to do it in the same way that women are. Much as I despise gender norms, and the way society tells us we have to act, there are some ‘women-coded’ things that I’m very grateful to have been taught: the art of maintaining friends is one of them. If you’ve been raised a dude in this society, you likely haven’t been given the kind of top-quality friendship-maintenance toolset that your women friends have, so you’ll have to work extra hard if you want to reap the same friendly rewards.

But they’re worth working for. They’re the best. Friends are the fucking best.

Do what works for you

So when nonmonogamy comes up in conversation, and someone tries to tell me that “one person can never meet all of your needs,” I’m wary. They’re right, of course, and what they’re saying is important. But I’m not sure that this focus on ‘getting all your needs met’ is the best way of framing the benefits of any particular relationship style. Apart from anything else, as a single person, I’m kinda hoping I can get all my needs met even if I never have any boyfriends ever, ever again! That’s the dream, people. That’s the prize I’ll ask for from the wizard when I reach the end of this spunk-puddled, fucked-up rollercoaster of a yellow brick road.

I don’t think there’s any one type of relationship that’s inherently ‘right’ or (eww eww) ‘natural’ – only relationships that work for you and your partners. Your ideal relationship style could be radically different to mine, and each of ours might change over time, too. You don’t even have to pick a side and stick to it forever! It may be that right now nonmonogamy is your jam, but later in life you encounter someone who meets all the needs you’d like them to, and each of you have a powerful and kickass team of friends, colleagues, neighbours and family who mop up the rest. It might be that you’re monogamous now but decide to explore ENM and immediately kick yourself for not trying it sooner. It could be that you don’t know yet – or ever – and that’s OK too. Life’s an absolute funhouse of fucking surprises: you do not need to have it all worked out right here and now.

One person can never meet all of your needs, it’s true. But your needs don’t all have to be met by people you’re sexually or romantically involved with. Monogamy can sometimes mean you’re performing a worthy and selfless act, dedicating yourself to joint ventures rather than individualism. But it might also mean that you’re lazily hoping this one other person can make it so you never have to bother making friends. Either of these structures might fail to meet your needs, even as they give powerful satisfaction to others. And although it’s human nature to try and tell others why our way is ‘the best’, there’s no such thing as the ‘best’ relationship, only what works for you.



  • JamesInWI says:

    Thanks GOTN! You provided lot’s of clever insight that I rarely seen discussed in this topic.

    AND, oh by the way, I love the way you bluntly state: “That’s why we form relationships with people whose junk we don’t also wish to lick.”

  • Llencelyn says:

    I’ve learned a lot from this, ma’am. Thanks!

    Like the part of dedication to a single partner being inherently virtuous? I can finally put words to mistakes I’ve done, among many.

    And being the sort of person that abandons all other relationships and relaxing into a life where she’s the one and only? …definitely guilty. Not proud of it. Though I’ll add that turning someone into my one and only…it’s not something I did because I ‘relaxed’ into it. Rather, I thought it was expected of me to be her everything and vice versa (man-coding?). I felt…tense at all times. It was a cruel burden to place on a relationship. Makes the ideal of said relationship more important than the people involved. Disproportionately more important than anything else even.

    I was lucky enough, I think, to retain a good friendship with my then partner, as well as forge new friendships. I only hope I can move past these mistakes in future relationships. Maybe I can make new mistakes. Until then, I enjoy being single and mildly shouty.

  • EuphemiseThis says:

    You are 100% spot on with this… “Every relationship style has its twats, because twats seek love and sex too.” And yes to everything about men who eschew friendships for monogamy/ENM. I thought I’d have loads to add in the comments, but you’ve actually said a lot of what I was thinking.

    I will add one thing that I’ve been pondering as I read and re-read the post. To me, one of the many benefits of nonmonogamy is that no single person can meet all my *sexual* needs/wants/desires. There are things I enjoy doing that I wouldn’t want a partner to do with me purely because I enjoy it, as a lot of the fun comes from them being into it too. Also, there are sexual sides of me that it’s easier to share with someone I haven’t lived with for two decades. But, ultimately, I get a lot of what I need emotionally from my amazing friends, so I guess I don’t really *need* other partners. Hmm… think I’ll be pondering this for a while.

    • Girl on the net says:

      “I get a lot of what I need emotionally from my amazing friends, so I guess I don’t really *need* other partners.” OOOOH this I think touches partly on why the ‘needs met’ narrative doesn’t feel like the best one for me (or at the very least, doesn’t feel complete on its own). I think it’s valid to have all your needs met in one way, yet still have desires that fall elsewhere. Needs-only seems like a limited frame through which to view relationships (of any kind), because joy is usually about far more than just needs, and joy is one of the key things that relationships provide.

      Totally see what you mean re: no single person meeting all your sexual needs too, and I wonder if my own heart/cunt is gonna be an outlier on this because my desire tends to be extremely responsive to what other people want. This isn’t the best example, but in my last relationship we did not do much kink, and so my lust tended more towards just extreme, brutal fucking (no complaints, it was exceptional and I miss it hugely). Although I did occasionally get a hankering for the spanky shit, it didn’t feel like a huge loss to me as I know it would to some of my more spankily-inclined pals, because by that point my horn had adjusted to fit what was on offer, and I’d started to fetishise that. Maybe a better example is from the other direction: I don’t tend to be particularly domly, but recently I have been shagging a dude who has some specific (and detailed) dominant fantasies. The more we talk about what he likes in this area, the more my brain fires off ‘ooh yeah’ vibes to domme ideas, so I think my horn is readjusting there too. And I know most people’s horn changes throughout their lives, but I suspect there are some for whom certain things are more vital and fixed, and if there are two people together whose fixed things are different, then pursuing those elsewhere feels a lot more important than it might feel to me. Having said that, maybe I’m just used to shaping my desires by reflecting back what men want, because patriarchy. More research required ;-)

      Thank you so much for joining in ET! When I posted this I was really hoping you might have some thoughts on it too! I appreciate your wisdom and your approach, and when I hit ‘publish’ I was hoping you might come and school me if I’d made any egregious sweeping statements or what have you.

  • EuphemiseThis says:

    Yeah, so many people seem to get needs confused with wants/desires when it comes to all kinds of relationships. I have done it in the past, and maybe still do as I’m not sure whether my ‘need’ to have people to chat to about trashy TV shows (currently Drag Race UK vs The World) is actually a need or just something that brings me a lot of joy. As you quite rightly say, “joy is usually about far more than just needs.”

    Regarding sex/kink, I used to think that my desire was responsive to what other people want (as I always seemed to be incredibly happy with whatever a particular partner was providing), but as I’ve got older I’ve realised there are certain things I really miss if they’re not there. So that may indeed have been patriarchy schooling me to meet my partner’s sexual needs to the point that I wasn’t even sure what my own were. Actually… I was really nervous before fucking my most recent girlfriend for the first time, as she’s lesbian and I was worried my bi skills wouldn’t be good enough. Turns out, my absolute love of going down on people with vulvas is more than good enough!!! That relationship and my most recent dating adventures have shown me a few things that are very high on my list of desires, so I’m realising that I’m maybe not as much about ‘going with the flow’ as I first thought. Definitely still am when it comes to kink though :)

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