I “Need” Versus I “Want”

Mama’s Needs

Candace wanted Mama feeling upbeat before beginning their hard work. She wanted to remind Mama of the wedding commitments that she and Papa had made and of their positive intentions before trying to identify Mama’s goals. She was sure Mama’s goals would be more principled that way. “High-minded” was the word.

Why? Mama’s earlier off-hand comments (“I want the home” and “The kids’ll live with me”) would not get their negotiating divorce team far and had already caused Papa distress; they were positions…, demands, rather than interests. The trick was to create a safe stress-free environment in which Mama could articulate the true needs underlying those positions.

Candace began soothingly, “Visualize how you felt when you two first met, when you were dating. How did that feel?”

Remembering the Good Times

Mama took a deep breath, remembering. “Before the kids? That’s not hard. I was so in love with him, this mysterious stranger who deigned to share his innermost self with me. I was flattered and intrigued. The more time we spent together, the more time I craved with him.”

“Even after you married?”

“Oh, yes, even more.”

“How did he keep the romance alive? He seems so private.” Candace observed.

“Oh, I know; he always has been,” Mama acknowledged, “but he loved me that much.” She seemed surprised by that conclusion. “It was out of character, but he started by inviting me on his walks. I felt complimented that he would share his valuable time with me.”

She paused, immersed in her memories. “We were so in love.” She sighed, happily. “We spent that quality time together well into our marriage, going for walks, picnicking, eating out….” Her voice trailed off. Then she added, “even just sitting on the porch at night, chatting.”

When Mama finally looked up expectantly, Candace asked, “Did Ronan change that?”

“Well, of course he did,” Mama scoffed gently. “We suddenly had a baby. By then, we had moved into our own home. We were both working and caregiving for Ronan, when he wasn’t in daycare. We’d take turns cooking, doing dishes, changing diapers. Spending time with each other vanished when Ronan was born. And it was worse when Camille came.”

She sounded incensed that their private time had been appropriated, but then looked appalled. “Don’t get me wrong! I love our kids and would never have had it any other way.” She hesitated, then concluded forlornly. “But it does seem like they’re the reason we’ve pulled apart, why we don’t communicate anymore.”

“Do you still love him?” Candace inquired.

“Of course.” Mama replied, heatedly. “He’s my best friend.” Then she paused. “I just can’t live with him anymore. He’s a wonderful father. He’s always been there for our kids. Just not for me. I need more than he can give me.”

Identifying Needs

“So, let’s talk about what you need to take away from your marriage.” Candace shifted. “You don’t wish to damage your relationship with Papa. So, the types of goals I have in mind are less concrete than ‘I want the house.’ I’m thinking more profound outcomes. Call them ‘core interests.’

“Can you give me some examples?”

Candace was pleased she had prepared for this. “Sure.” —She listed them on her fingertips— “I can give you three …

  • A fair and equitable outcome for both of us.
  • For us both to be role models for our kids.
  • To maintain my relationships with Papa’s family.

Do those sound worthwhile?”

Mama considered. “Those are good, but I have others, too.”

Candace picked up her pen.

When Mama finished, they had added the following goals to those Candace proposed:

  • To communicate better with Papa.
  • To maintain a realistic and positive focus during the divorce.
  • To effectively co-parent our kids.
  • To preserve my financial stability.
  • To protect the kids emotionally from the stress of the divorce.

Papa’s Needs

Papa, meanwhile, had spent his afternoon mulling over Mama’s off-handed remarks, becoming more and more upset. But Papa was not normally an angry person; he was usually able to see another person’s point of view, so Candace easily persuaded him that Mama had simply not understood her question, “What do you want from this divorce?”

Then the real work started. Candace first encouraged Papa to share what mattered to him, aside from the kids. Now that she knew more about him, she could probe his deeply felt interests with questions about his breathtaking watercolors and his other artwork.

Envisioning the Future

Once he was ensconced in the safe place to which these reveries brought him, Candace urged Papa to focus on life after the divorce. Candace intended Papa to separate his immediate, short-term goals (his “wants”) from his critical, long-term goals (his “needs”), so she asked, “What does your life look like three years from now? Where are you living? What are you doing for fun? What will matter to you?”

When he looked puzzled, she steered him more directly. “Imagine your life in your new home. You live alone. I’m guessing you have a studio right there, so you can paint whenever you like.” Candace suggested softly. “You don’t live far from the kids, do you? But I imagine they’re also not clamoring for attention every moment. You have more time to yourself. You don’t need excuses to spend time painting.”

As Candace described this life, a dreamy smile touched Papa’s lips, and his eyes unfocused. Papa’d been ridden by guilt for so long whenever he wanted, no, needed to spend time alone, that being free to indulge in these musings was bliss.

Papa’s Needs

Ultimately, many of Papa’s core interests closely resembled the ones that Mama had chosen. But he identified this one, as well:

  • To be friendly and cooperative with Mama when we’re divorced.

Separating Interests From Positions

Have you had to separate your needs from your wants? It’s imperative to do that in any divorce, or you might end up “winning,” but not really, not in the long term. I can’t tell you how many former clients have sadly informed me, years later, over a glass of wine, “You were right. I shouldn’t have kept the house. I couldn’t afford it. It was a stupid decision.”

But divorce is one of the most traumatic life events you can undergo. Discerning the difference between these two categories, especially in that stress-laden context, is not easy.

Distinguishing Needs From Wants

So let’s start with a scenario in which distinguishing needs from wants is less stressful than a divorce. How about your daily budget?

Let’s agree that a need is something necessary for you to live and function. And a want is something that improves your quality of life. Thus, you need food, clothing, shelter, and certain medical care, while your wants include everything else.

However, even in this outwardly simple context, some of the items fighting for priority on your list might seem to fit both categories. What then?

As I mentioned, time can be a great filter. When you let a little time go by, a need will grow stronger, while a want will become less “necessary.”

I learned this as an eight-year-old. I desperately needed a Mary Poppins doll. The doll cost $10 and my allowance was only a dime a week. Saving up took a long time, despite earning an occasional dollar for reading a book above my grade level. By the time I had accumulated enough to buy the doll, I was surprised to discover that I didn’t need her anymore.

I don’t think my mother was surprised one little bit.


Lists can help. (I love lists!) Start with needs; include the “necessities” (there’s a reason they’re called that!), food, shelter, and clothing. So include your monthly rent or mortgage payment, as well as other basics required for you to live and function, such as water, oil and gas, car or bus costs, and similar items.

Keep in mind that certain foods, for example, may not be “needs,” but rather “wants.” Cheesecake is one of those things, for me, at least.

If you get stuck, ask “Do I really need this to live and function? Is it possible to fill this need less expensively?” Think “wool coat,” versus “fur coat.” Would my life differ without this?

When you’ve finished your “needs” list, everything else is a “want.”


Now review your list of needs. Can anything be removed? Will you still need it a few years from now? Can anything be swapped for something cheaper? You may need a new car but does it have to be a Tesla? (Only if you’re my husband.)

Do the same for your wants. What is only there because of peer pressure? What is important today but unlikely to be in the near future?

Now that we’ve simplified the difference between needs and wants, working on your core interests for your divorce should be a bit easier. Remember to put yourself in a happy place before working on that list. Do you need the marital home or will something less expensive work as well? Perhaps a condo would be an even better option, especially with the kids transitioning to college. No yard to mow; no pool to upkeep.

Moving forward, you may have an easier time keeping your core interests top of mind, saving you from fighting for something you don’t really need and spending the money on legal fees to “win” something you’ll regret.

Separating your wants from your needs is the most challenging task of strategizing your divorce. But it can also be the most rewarding.

If you need help deciding whether to restructure your family, or, if so, how, visit us at Open Palm Law or email me at Joryn@OpenPalmLaw.com. We are here for you! As I have told my daughter more times than I can count, “Here’s the menu; choose all the things you like and then order the least expensive [sometimes I said “healthiest”] one.” We can help you plumb your core interests and find that kinder, gentler divorce.

Learn more about collaborative divorce. Follow Open Palm Law.

Need advice now? Contact Joryn!

About this week’s author, Joryn Jenkins.

Joryn, attorney and Open Palm Founder, began her own firm here in Tampa after a 14-year career in law, two of which she served as a professor of law at Stetson University. She is a recipient of the prestigious A. Sherman Christensen Award, an honor bestowed in the United States Supreme Court upon those who have provided exceptional leadership in the American Inns of Court Movement. For more information on Joryn’s professional experience, take a look at her resume.

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