“I liked your piece about testing self-beliefs instead of accepting or rejecting them outright,” she says.
“Thanks,” I say. “It’s something that’s always been hard for me to articulate, but it was really the only way to move through my divorce without steering off too hard in either direction. I had to learn moderation more intentionally; it’s not something that came easily to me. Normally, I’d be more likely to decide that someone is right about something awful they said about me than anything else. Because I’d try to reject it but feel that nagging doubt. That maybe they’re right and I’m missing an important lesson.”
“Well, he wasn’t right,” she says.
“Maybe he was right, but if he was, it was only about him,” I say. “It didn’t meant that everyone else would see me the same way.”
“I have to admit that I was kind of amused to see you talking about testing in the context of a relationship,” she says.
“Well, it’s just that you’re normally always really anti-relationship testing.”
I laugh. “Oh yeah, for sure.”
“And I know that means something else entirely,” she says.
Relationship testing involves forcing a partner to demonstrate their love. It can vary widely in severity. In the most destructive relationship tests, partners set up dilemmas in which they are pitted against something vital to their partner, to see if they “win.” This is the partner that says, “If you really loved me, you’d give up your friends for me.” Or who will attempt a dramatic gesture, such as an intentional overdose, so that their partner has to come in and save them, proving their love.
It can also manifest in very small, subtle ways in which people insert hidden challenges in their conversations with other people designed to test how much others care for them.
I grew up with a mother who did this to everyone who was close to her — which of course included her children. And I married someone who had ex-girlfriends test him constantly, building conversational and emotional tricks and traps into everyday life.
So I frankly hate the behavior. And also have had to intentionally reassure my partner constantly that I am not doing that to him. Even things that aren’t intended as tricks or traps can sometimes sound like them. That’s the devious bit of relationship testing; it can sound innocent and like harmless talk when it isn’t — and only turn dangerous or troubling after the person “fails” the test they didn’t know they were taking.
So people who have been subjected to this behavior will often see relationship tests when they aren’t there — which can make it quite difficult to make them feel safe and secure.
Difficult but not impossible. I’ve had good luck with my partner over the years, due to my commitment to not relationship testing and also being prepared to be willing to explain or defend my words and actions and my intent around them, when they’re misinterpreted as hostile. And likely work that he does on his end that I never see, as he’s not a person who talks through his thought processes aloud much to others (if this sounds like a lot of work to you, you’re right; however, my partner and our relationship are more than worth it).
Anyway, as I talk to my friend about testing yourself appropriately when you’re in a relationship (by carefully examining and testing difficult feedback and how you interact with others), it occurs to me that there is definitely a place for testing within a relationship.
But you need to be careful who it is you’re testing.
And I’ve found that, generally speaking, if you want better relationships, you should test yourself more and test your partner less.
Does that mean that every relationship you ever have works out in the end? No. Absolutely not. Sometimes you are a bad fit for someone else. It happens.
But what it does mean is that you learn the right lessons from whatever experiences you do have. And that helps you have the best relationship you can possibly have when you do meet someone who is right for you.