Vetting your wants and desires

It's about explaining not justifying what you want

Posted Jul 15, 2019

“Vetting”—Making a careful and critical examination

“I would like to go to the movies Saturday night to see __________” is a simple request that I might make of my husband.

It turns out to be more complicated than you think. What is it that I want? What is important to me about going to the movie with my husband on a particular night? How attached am I to seeing this particular movie? Is it about getting out of the house? Is it a distraction from a bad day at work? Is it that I want to be with my husband, Joe?

It turns out that it is important to “vet,” or examine, what it means to me to go to this movie, at this time, with my husband. And, it often turns out to be a mixture of things.

To want or prefer something is an expression of who I am; it is an expression of what I believe is important to live well, to have a good life. From my perspective, my wants (and associated preferences) are the best expression of who I am so long as they are vetted—i.e., carefully and critically examined.

My wants come from my values, my desire to flourish, my gender, my experiences in life, and my interests. It’s important that my wants and preferences be acknowledged. At the same time, they are not demands that must be catered to, pronto. Wants or preferences are things that you value but are willing to negotiate about, in good faith, with your spouse, partner, friend, etc.

Wants vs Needs

The concept of need became popular in psychology during the middle of the twentieth century, and refers to a motivating force that compels action for its satisfaction. It is an expression of the more general idea that we are all motivated primarily (or only) by self-interest. This view is not new; in fact, it has been the dominant view in psychology and in much of Western thought in general for decades.

When the psychological concept of “needs” is used in personal relationships, it translates into the idea that we must fulfill each other’s self-identified individual needs. (I say “self-identified” needs because there really is no way to identify a list of needs that is universally accepted.) Thus, in this view of things, we can call anything we want or prefer a need, without having to examine it.

“I want,” as an expression of who you are, must be acknowledged in interpersonal relationships, but it cannot demand satisfaction. 

We must differentiate between the demand quality of needs and the negotiation quality of wants.

Back to the Movies

Joe historically has not been keen about going out to theaters to see movies. Because we have talked about this difference in what we like to do, I take the time to “vet” my wish to go out to the particular movie I have in mind. 

As I said, is it the movie I want to see? Am I willing to go with someone else to the movie? It may be that we haven’t been out together for quite a while and I want some time together with Joe outside the house. 

Once I suggest going out to a movie, Joe takes the time to think about it. He doesn’t automatically say no, which would be his automatic, non-vetted response. The “negotiation” we have need not be formal. We both explain our preferences and the strength of our preference, i.e. what’s important about this proposition or request to me and to Joe? 

Our negotiation about movies usually results in: (1) we go to the movie I suggested because we both want to see it; (2) We both like the movie but go on a day Joe prefers, i.e. a day when there are fewer people at the theatre, often a Tuesday; and (3) Joe doesn’t want to see that movie so we decide to do something else together because he also wants special time with me away from the house. 

In this process of negotiation, both Joe and I often get a more fine-tuned view of what is being suggested (we learn more about a specific activity, e.g.), and we both learn more about what is important to each of us.

Negotiations over everyday wishes and wants need not be overly formal—with experience, they become quite automatic. Negotiation, both informally and more formally, is the way to address all kinds of issues, wants. and preferences. Here are a few examples of things that can be negotiated:

  • How do you want to be approached romantically?
  • Who is going to pick up the children today?
  • I want to take the new job I have been offered.
  • I don’t want to watch TV while we are eating.

Negotiation is About Interacting Not Transacting

Too often people, particularly couples, are told to resolve issues and differences in preferences in what is called a transactional manner—“You satisfy my need, I satisfy yours.” In this case, I would say to Joe, you go to this movie with me tonight and I will do something of your choosing. This notion of transaction comes from the business world where people do things for each other with the expectation of reciprocation. For example, in marriage, a husband “helps” out with vacuuming the house and his wife “helps” out by taking out the trash.

John Gottman, a well-known psychologist who studies marriage, says that a transactional approach to marriage requires you to keep a running tally of who did what for whom—keeping score—and breeds anger and resentment.[1]

Negotiating with your partner, spouse, friend, etc. is about interacting, not transactingYou don’t trade preferences; you vet wants and preferences and negotiate a win-win outcome. (See my blog on interacting, not transacting in marriage Interact, Don't Transact with Your Spouse)


  • We don’t usually think we need to “vet” our wishes, wants, or preferences
  • Vetting is about explaining not justifying what we want
  • Wants are not the same thing as “needs”
  • It is vital to differentiate between the demand quality of needs and the negotiation quality of wants and preferences
  • To negotiate in good faith, you need to “vet” your wants and wishes
  • The process of negotiation leads to a better understanding and awareness of what is important to each of you.
  • You both benefit from negotiating your wishes, wants, and preferences. 


1. Gottman, John.  (1999).  The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.  Crown Publishers, Inc.