What Do You Want From Me?

Determining what others want from you is part of relationship success.

Posted May 11, 2010

I am infatuated by Adam Lambert - or more specifically, with his hit song, "What do you want from me." It's so incredibly raw and visceral; it's a song I just really feel echoes deep inside. Many a time I've asked "What do you want from me" to various people in my life, although usually I've not said it aloud. I wonder what would happen if I went for a week actually asking people this question?

I'm sure we've all been in this place, which might explain why this song is so popular. (Mind you, Mr. Lambert has an impressive vocal ability and is also quite handsome, which helps his popularity, I'm sure.) What I find curious is that when we interact with people and it goes well, we tend to not ask this question. When things begin to sour, or we begin to wonder where it's all going, this seems to be one of the first questions that pops into our minds. Why is that? Let me back up before I try to address this issue.

I think that the two parts of this song that speak to me the most are: "I need a second to breathe," which represents the act of contemplation in a relationship, and the sad-angry "What do you want from me." The two sentiments go hand-in-hand for me.

When pushed against a wall of some sort, it is often wise to step back, contemplate, and then decide what to do. Decisions involving interpersonal relationships, whether they be sexual, romantic, familial, friends or co-workers, are some of the most complex tasks for our brain. There are simply so many factors to consider, such as what the other person is thinking, their intentions, whether they are behaving deliberately or unconsciously, and, of course, what they want from you.

What sort of wall might you be against? It could be that the relationship is moving too quickly and you're trying to sort out what you want. Or it could be falling apart fast and you're trying to salvage what's left. Maybe you are trying to decide between two or more potential alternatives. Maybe someone let you down, or you feel you let someone down. You might even be excited to have a chance to strut your stuff and see how someone will react. There are a huge number of reasons why you might be feeling like this, but the core is the same: you probably feel that you need some space to make a decision. You just need to sort things out, and mull through the options, or maybe just let time heal some wounds (and it almost always does it seems).

I think that we underestimate the necessity for space in relationships, or how important it is to give someone space to sort out their thoughts. I searched the scientific interpersonal relationship literature and didn't find much on this topic, so it seems to be in need of study. What I can say, based on personal experience, is that if you're in a relationship where the other person has asked for space, you might be feeling insulted or frustrated - you just want to have an answer and move ahead. Take some advice from Mr. Lambert and give that person a second to breathe.

As for the "What do you want from me" part, I think that's more complicated. I hear it as a sad phrase, as in it represents frustration and a giving-up of some sort, but I also hear it as angry, as in "Geeez, what did you expect? What the heck do you want me to do?" Regardless of which emotion it conveys, it's definitely a sign that the relationship isn't sailing along smoothly; perhaps the people involved are now seeing each other as they are, rather than through rose-coloured glasses. A friend of mine calls this the end of the honeymoon period - and she uses this to describe all her interpersonal relationships. What she means is that once the novelty of the relationship or the person has worn off, you begin to see the person for who they really are, and sometimes that is disappointing.

All of this relates to expectations. I published a paper on this topic a while ago with regards to how people search for information. It turns out that when we get what we want, we're satisfied. When we expect something mediocre and our expectations are met or exceeded, we're satisfied. The problem is when we expect something decent and we don't get it - we end up dissatisfied.

One way around this mess is to simply lower our expectations, but is this actually reasonable for interpersonal relationships? For example, let's take a romantic relationship - as it progresses, you can try to protect yourself and keep your emotions in reserve, not falling for the person. But at some point, you'll probably develop loving feelings whether you mean to or not. That's the irony - you can have the best of intentions when entering a relationship, thinking you'll keep it light and fluffy, and boom, like a cannon ball in the gut, you're in love.

Enter Mr. Lambert. In my opinion, trying to figure out what the person wants from you is really all about sorting out expectations and how satisfied, or dissatisfied, everyone will be. And sometimes, that takes space - or a second to breathe.