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The Crane Wife and our relationship with need

The Crane Wife is a short story written by CJ Hauser, which I originally happened across in The Paris Review in 2019 (you can read it here). Since then, it’s a piece of writing that has consistently come into conversations in the therapy room, because it explores a particularly universal subject: our relationships with need. While the perspective from which the story is written may be a hetero- and cis-normative one, the experience it describes transcends those boundaries: we all have needs, and therefore all have a relationship with needs, along with all the judgement, biases and challenges that invokes. Perhaps the most blazingly visceral line that leaps out from this short story about wading-bird-fandom (highly relatable) and an abandoned engagement is this: ‘there is nothing more humiliating to me than my own desires.’ A line encapsulating a sentiment within which so many of us could read ourselves.  

Our relationships with our own needs can be complicated ones. As the narrator in The Crane Wife details, we may often think that having needs equates to being burdensome, nagging, difficult, incapable, weak. Sometimes, we can find ourselves doing our utmost to conceal that we have any needs at all – the last thing we want to be seen as is ‘needy’, despite the fact that needing others is one of the givens of human existence (we aren’t like baby deer who are born ready to run immediately: many of us well into our twenties and thirties may still ask a ‘grown-up’ to talk us through such fun everyday trials as bleeding a radiator, or understanding what exactly an ISA is). As the narrator of the story explores, we intrinsically understand that animals and their habitats have very important and delicate needs, and the devastating impact of these not being met – and yet, we can struggle to acknowledge a similar ecosystem within ourselves.

So, although to need is just human, we can see it as an expression of vulnerability. How our needs are responded to by the communities in which we grow up is highly influential in this. Let’s imagine a child sitting alone, crying: how might they be affected by an adult coming to them, giving them a hug, asking them what’s wrong, and how can they help? How might the child be affected by being ignored, or by being told to stop crying? Those early lessons in how people respond to our needs calcify into beliefs and behaviours that we carry through life. Someone whose needs were mostly met might feel secure in the belief that their needs are acceptable, feel comfortable expressing them, and assured they will be responded to well; someone whose needs were not might have developed ways of concealing their needs from others, and of avoiding the risk of sharing them. The first child can understand that freely expressing their needs creates a reciprocal and close relationship with someone; the second child may feel that their needs court rejection and abandonment.

Which brings us back to the narrator in The Crane Wife. When her needs were responded to with criticism, her reaction was, ‘I would not be a woman who needed these things, I decided. I would need less. And less.’ Need felt connected to identity for her – she did not want to be ‘the kind of nagging woman who might exist in a sit-com’ (that could bring to mind a whole different 'Crane wife', for any Frasier fans out there...!). She wanted to be ‘the cool girl’, to embody an archetype of being desirable through having no desires of her own. As the narrator puts it, ‘I convinced myself it was my lack of needs that made me worthy of love.’ Need would make her a difficult, unlovable person; lack of need would make her easy, lovable, safe.

As aforementioned, our context can influence how vulnerable we feel having needs makes us. Although this is not the story of the narrator in The Crane Wife, there are other ways in which we can try to protect ourselves from this perceived vulnerability. Sometimes, this could involve finding ourselves in relationships with others in which we spend a lot of time tending to their needs – always rescuing others, orienting ourselves around someone else’s life and challenges, going out of our way to regularly do things for others despite the costs to ourselves. Ironically, while having our own needs can feel risky, focussing on meeting someone else’s needs might feel like a means to security. If we are assured that someone ‘needs us’, we don’t have to worry about whether or not they want us. Here again, performing a lack of need might feel it lends itself to an identity: maybe this time of being a self-sacrificing ‘good guy’, who is ‘a rock’ to others around them. Much safer than being ‘needy’, and ‘weak’.

Of course, even if we adopt an identity of someone who doesn’t have needs, it doesn’t stop them from being present. Our needs remain, whether or not we choose to acknowledge them. Perhaps – as always – we can look to the example of the wading birds for some further thoughts about our relationship with needs. Like the birds, our needs – and those of others – are facts, not potential character flaws. They are an aspect of the ecosystem in which we live, not the whole story of what makes up who we are - our needs are part of what makes us human, but certainly not our whole identity. Keeping the ecosystem balanced is essential: it is important to express and see to our own needs, and to do the same for others. We cannot thrive where there is imbalance in this regard.

It may feel as if the gulf between our beliefs about needs being acceptable or not is as wide as that between our lives and those of cranes (could we ever hope to be quite as majestic as them?). However, perhaps it is helpful to be reminded of the fact that they are indeed just that – beliefs, not facts. The narrator believed her needs to be ‘humiliating’, but as the reader, we can see they’re not – we recognise her as a human needing to feel love, connection, respect and kindness, just like everyone else. At the end of the story, the narrator’s beliefs about needs are starting to change: ‘I realized it was not that remarkable for a person to understand what another person needed'.’ It is possible for our own beliefs about our needs to change, too - and when we are able to risk that change, there may well be someone there who is ready to hear us. They might even have a boat we could drive, too.  






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