A: Do you have a good relationship with your ex-husband?

B: Define "good."

A: Can you talk to each other?

B: When we have/need to.

Are "When we have to" and "When we need to" interchangeable in the context? Are they equally natural?

  • Note that many if not most native speakers would pronounce it HAFF in B's final reply. And if they were talking about something that was necessary in the past, it's be HAT (not had). Effectively, this is a different verb that just looks the same as to have. Sep 20, 2020 at 11:29
  • It's probably safer to think of it as "have to" and "need to" being interchangeable (generally). The verb "have" has so many different uses that it'll help you to think of this as a construction with "have to", not just "have".
    – JonathanZ
    Sep 20, 2020 at 20:33

1 Answer 1


In this particular context, yes. The expressions mean almost the same.

Generally no. "I have a hat" and "I need a hat" are almost the opposite (I need a hat suggests that I don't have one). Moreover "You have to eat your beans" is a rule coming from me to you, but "You need to eat your beans" is an internal requirement.

So in the orginal example

"When we have to" means "when there is some external force that makes us talk" but "when we need to" means "where there is some internal requirement". "We have to talk, because the judge tells us to." but "we need to talk, because we both need to reach an agreement". Using "have to" implies that a really don't want to talk to my ex-husband.

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