Ellen was sobbing as she told me her story. She was confused. She said she knew she wanted to leave Andrew, but she felt guilty.
“He kept saying how much he loves me,” Ellen said through tears. “Mostly he talked about how much he needs me and counts on me. He said, ‘Can’t you see how much I need you?’ over and over again.”
I’ve heard this story before from Ellen, because she’s gone through this more than once with the man she’s married to. Andrew ignores her and treats her badly. He’s more interested in spending time with his friends than in building any family life with her. He’s disdainful and critical of Ellen, openly mocking her in front of friends and family.
Being treated this way kills Ellen inside.
She married Andrew because he swept her off her feet and he treated her like a queen in the beginning. But his behavior was erratic. He gave her attention when her devotion to him waned, but he pulled away as soon as she was committed again. This happened several times. She broke their engagement once, but Andrew talked her into going ahead with the wedding. He kept telling her how much he needed her — and Ellen found intense comfort in having a man need her that much.
This week, she told him she was leaving. After spending weeks in counseling — something he refused to be part of — she got up the courage to tell him she was walking away. But now, once more, Andrew was putting on a charming and emotional show for her — and the centerpiece of it all is how much he needs her.
Ellen feels stuck. She doesn’t love Andrew anymore — she admits that — but how can she leave someone who needs her that much? His need must mean he loves her as much as he says he does — even though his actions don’t show it. How could he need her so much if he didn’t love her?
What Ellen doesn’t realize is that there’s a big difference between loving someone and needing someone. You should be very wary and very skeptical of the person who needs you but who doesn’t care about meeting your own expressed needs.
Andrew is an emotional vampire. The world is full of them. Their victims are those who desperately need love and desperately need to feel needed and wanted. The victims have trouble walking away, because at the moment they get the courage to leave, the vampire hands them just a small taste of the emotional satisfaction they crave — and that’s frequently enough to hold them where they are, stuck in the same cycle of constant disappointment punctuated by being made to feel (every now and then) loved and needed.
A vampire will take from you — in a greedy and uncaring way — when he needs something. When he doesn’t need you for the moment, he goes off on his own, ignoring your needs and desires completely. If you try to leave this one-sided relationship, he screams in pain at the potential loss of his source of emotional supply.
“You can’t leave me!” he will wail. “I need you. I’m counting on you. Can’t you see how much I love you?!”
And that’s just it. He thinks he loves you.
But an emotional vampire might not even know what love is — and if you’re willing to accept this relationship and be bound by its dysfunction — you might not know what healthy love is, either.
Talking with Ellen this week has left me thinking again about the complicated relationship between love and need. It’s something I’ve worried about for myself. When I need someone so badly, is it because I love her? Or is it because of something I can get from her? I wrote last year about my realization that the words “I love you” can frequently be very selfish because what the person can mean is, “Please love me. I’m desperate.”
I need to be needed. I crave it. Being needed makes me feel important to someone. It makes me feel as though I have more worth. Being needed makes me happy.
But what I really need is love — that mutual state of commitment to one another, with each striving to give to the other what he or she needs, not just to get what he or she wants.
The way I resolved the issue for myself is simple. I ask this question: “Do I want to give her what she needs and wants just as much as I crave something from her?” If my need is actually love, I will want to find ways to meet her needs — the things she wants and needs as she defines them. If I merely want what I can get from her, that’s selfish. That’s the mark of an emotional vampire.
Being needed feels good. I’ll always crave that. But it’s no substitute for being loved by someone who’s just as committed to me as I am to her. Being needed isn’t enough — and it never will be.
Genuine two-way relationships can be complicated and hard to find. There has to be a match between what the two people each want. If one wants and needs mutual love from the other — but the other isn’t willing to give what the first needs — the relationship can’t work. It has to end, because one person is going to end up giving and trying to earn something which can’t be earned.
Vampires need the emotional supply they can get from someone else. Vampires crave that emotional supply. But vampires don’t know how to give in healthy ways — and they suck out of you the love you could otherwise be giving to someone who’s ready to love in a healthy, mutual way.
The vampire doesn’t care about giving you what you need. The vampire cares only about giving you whatever it takes to keep you from leaving.
Ellen isn’t leaving Andrew for now. I doubt she ever will. He’s treating her well at the moment. He’s giving her the attention this weekend that he’s been denying her for months. Ellen seems certain he’s really changing this time.
She says she believes me when I tell her what’s going on. Her rational brain gets it. But her need to be needed keeps her locked into a relationship with a vampire — someone who will keep taking from her as much he can get.
Andrew will continue to give just enough to keep her from leaving — and he will continue to suck all the life and happiness out of Ellen.
Note: Actual names have been changed.