wo summers ago, a friend of mine was living with her boyfriend of three years in Brooklyn when their relationship started to disintegrate. They were having less sex, he was growing cold and distant, they began to fight constantly. Each time they fought, he’d surrender prematurely with the same excuse: I can’t be what you need. He’d say it wearily, sometimes accusing her of an unattainable standard. She kept asking him what, exactly, that meant. He never had an answer. “It seemed so hopeless,” she told me, “but also kind of unfounded.” She later found out he was cheating.
When she relayed this story to me, the phrase “I can’t be what you need” looped in my mind. Like the monotonous lyrics of a Meghan Trainor single, I couldn’t pinpoint where I initially heard it; then I remembered an ex had told me the same thing. I’d even said it myself. I wondered: Is “I can’t be what you need” becoming the new “it’s not you, it’s me”?
It would make sense. The language seems well-suited for social circles where the term “emotional labor” gets bandied around regularly, and hyper-awareness of personal shortcomings is its own form of social currency. In theory, acknowledging that the needs of someone you love exceed what you can meaningfully give is a noble thing. But in practice, could it really be that easy?
In search of answers, I turned to an expert in stale break-up platitudes: my friend Anna, who’s been gaslit by more than one partner in the past. According to her, the catchphrase is just another way of hiding bad intentions behind vague generalities. She sees “I can’t be what you need” as implying “I don’t want to give you emotional support” but without the decency of honesty. When her ex-girlfriend said it to her, the underlying suggestion was always that she was too much, too demanding. Like “it’s not you, it’s me,” the line “I can’t be what you need” expresses dissatisfaction under a patronizing guise of generosity — a seemingly humane method of saying “you’re not what I need,” without coming off like a jerk.
“I can’t be what you need” (ICBWYN, for short, and for fun) seems to function as an emergency brake for panicked individuals in search of an out. It allows them to shrug off relationships before they mean anything. When a former partner said it to me the night after we first kissed, ICBWYN meant, more or less, that he wasn’t ready to commit. At the time, it was true: He wasn’t ready. But I’m struck by how skittishness around claiming emotional responsibility feeds so easily—via ICBWYN—into the more mature narrative of assessing one’s own “readiness.”
In The Outline’s “Dear Fuck Up” series, Associate Editor Brandy Jensen responded to a male reader’s anxiety of being too messed up to commit to a relationship. “If you are sincere in your desire to love someone,” she advised, “grow the hell up.” While it may seem like a mature decision to delay commitment to “work on yourself,” she frames this as ultimately cowardly, like breaking up over text message or internet trolling. “You don’t have to be finished or complete unto yourself to be good to people,” she concludes. “We are rarely ready for the things we need.”
Her advice hit home for me, too. For the past few months, I’ve kept my relationships within the convenient and liminal territory between hook-up and partner, explaining, via a rigorously-constructed three-part framework, why my only serious commitments can be to Taylor Swift and 20th century German philosophy. I’m not ready, I say. I’m too flawed, too busy. The defense “I can’t be what you need” flickers in my head shamefully when I’m overwhelmed by someone’s affection, but struggle to pinpoint any overt character flaws in the person I’m seeing. My impulse to tiptoe along emotional borders, to insist upon measured gradations of intimacy, emerges from the belief that I have to be perfect. When a recent crush looked me in the eye and told me he wanted to be with me, my first thought was: Oh god, why?
ICBWYN feels like a break-up line fit for the 21st century—that is to say, an era of infinite options, in which we can tailor things more and more along the lines of our own individualized ambition: What do I want? What do I need? The language of need demands that someone fit with who we are right now, instead of who we could be, and vice versa. When we use ICBWYN against others, we also deny ourselves the ways in which we’re growing; we bar ourselves from the tender possibilities of becoming someone they could need. And if we don’t want that future, maybe we owe it to others (and ourselves) to be honest about that intention instead of framing it as a character flaw.
Cat Zhang is a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Collages by Madeline Montoya.