Relationship Tests and How to Respond

I want to try to point at and describe a particular phenomenon I’ve often seen in relationships: testing. While I’m more familiar with the ways women test men, and I would never claim the testing is on average totally symmetrical, certainly men test women as well. This post will be about the ways that most women seem to test most men.

By my standards, I’d say that a “communication” strategy qualifies as a test if the tester is exerting any optimization power in the direction of confusing her partner. Asking for one thing with words and a separate thing with body language and context is a very broad description of how testing often works.

Taking the request at face value and granting it may be a quite unsatisfactory response.

A classic test that the PUA community likes to talk about is one where a girl will ask a guy to hold her purse, but in fact respect him a bit less if he complies. An example that sees very central to me is that a woman will hit on, by accident, an emotion of hers that seems to throw her boyfriend off-balance, and then keep serving it up to him, basically looking to get a different, less reactive response.

Perhaps testing is the wrong word. These tests are usually at best semi-conscious. But I’m sticking with the word because it feels descriptive, it lands with me, and it’s landed with other woman that I’ve talked to. Empathy and introspection will reveal that no resolution that precludes the guy learning a new skill feels satisfying.

I spent some time this past week trying to pin down a particular dance move one guy I was talking to was missing. I tried unsuccessfully for a while to describe non-reactive compassion, but I’ll take a stab at it here too.

When we humans are suffering, typically there’s some tangle of meta-emotions. Single emotions are negative affect, but they rarely last long on their own. But add some shame into the mix and they become much harder to sort out. If I were overstating my claim a bit, I’d say that all extended triggers involve shame of some sort.

Luckily, this diagnosis suggests a solution. As a listener, if we can manage to communicate that we are as close as possible to fully aware of what’s going on with the other person AND we’re okay with it, it goes a long way. Curiosity, openness, reflecting back emotions and needs verbally and, more importantly, nonverbally, will show the awareness.

A calm, somewhat compassionate, perhaps even affectionately amused face will communicate that we’re okay with it. And building the muscle of being okay with ever more and weirder twisted human social/emotional strategies is one of the easiest ways to better the lives of those around us.

Note: If the suggestion that you’re testing your partner lands at all with you, I highly recommend acceptance and conscious strategy. For me at least, testing seems to be a pretty fundamental drive, for better or for worse. I can tell an ev-psych story that makes me okay with it an a naturalistic way, and once I’ve stopped feeling shame about it (see above), I can usually make sure the channel the drive in useful ways. Tests he can pass are fine. If he repeatedly doesn’t pass, I need to either make it easier and gradually ramp up the intensity to build the skill, or coach him somehow. Coaching in the moment or at different time are both workable.

  • Paul Crowley

    I don’t feel like I’m entirely grasping this article. What I’d find really useful would be examples, the more the better – example tests, with some idea of what passing looks like and what failing looks like. Thanks :)

    • Let me try! I’m a bit worried these aren’t central examples, but they’re examples, anyway:

      1. He asks how I’m doing and I say “fine” in an upset voice. Passing could be noticing that I’m actually upset, and failing would be continuing to go on talking as though everything is fine.

      2. I ask him to buy me a pony (insert more relevant expensive item). Passing could be laughing. Failing could be distress that he couldn’t afford it or anger that I would suggest such an insane idea.

      Note that “passing” responses would depend on the person. If I were currently working on being direct and he knew that, passing #1 could look more like noticing the incongruity, but not responding empathetically until I said what I actually meant. Complicated :-).

      Does that help at all? I can give more.

      • Paul Crowley

        Yes, that definitely helps – thanks!

  • Aaron

    Control-mastery theory claims that testing similar to what you mention here is not just a way for us to train others, but also to learn optimal responses ourselves.

    • Interesting stuff! Thanks for the link.

      That definitely lines up with my experience, so it’s good to have that as an explicit part of my model.