I first spotted my husband across a crowded room at a party. He was everything I was looking for—smart, athletic, confident. I was smitten. But, during a late-night walk along the Thames River in London, Ontario, a few weeks later, he almost blew it. He told me he loved me—but we had barely started dating. This was the “wrong” thing to say.
My friend Ali’s love interest almost “flunked” too. Ali, who is 38 and divorced, met Ben online. Before too long, they were seeing each other several times a week. Ali thought she had found her perfect match. Two months into the relationship, Ben cancelled one of their dates at the last minute, and then another. This was the “wrong” thing to do.
Ali and I are not the first women on the planet, dreamily floating on Cloud 9, only to be zapped back to earth because a romantic interest failed an important relationship test by saying or doing the wrong thing.
Deciding to invest in a relationship or to move on, after a letdown, is one of the most agonizing decisions known to mankind. Is there a way to “test” whether someone is “the one”?
Testing Your Partner Is A Bad Idea
Toronto relationship therapist Susan Valentine doesn’t encourage people to “test” their partners by manufacturing situations to see how they perform. (Note: I was guilty of this. I used to tell my husband not to make a fuss on my birthday but was really testing to see whether he would call my bluff. Because he took me at my word, I would pout for three weeks and he didn’t have a clue as to what he had done wrong. For years I thought he was the one who had failed.)
Rather, Valentine advises, “You should be ‘testing’ your own reactions to a situation, as opportunities arise organically. How did the situation make you feel? Becoming attuned to your emotions is the first step in being able to express them to another person.”
Testing Your Emotions Is A Good Idea
Luckily, both Ali and I were able to pinpoint what felt “off” in our early encounters with our romantic partners.
For a commitment-phobe like me, hearing “I love you” after such a short time set off alarm bells. How could I trust someone who thought he knew me well enough—only after a few dates—to profess his love? As the child of divorced parents, I had a yin-yang association with commitment. While I thought I wanted a boyfriend, I also needed to feel that I had emotional space and room to breathe. Someone getting too close too quickly made me want to bolt.
Ali’s triggers were the opposite of mine. She needed to feel that she was a priority in someone’s life. She had emerged from her marriage feeling like she was an afterthought, that her needs rarely came first, and that she was constantly accommodating her husband’s schedule. When Ben canceled their date, she felt like she was being pushed down the bench.
The Biggest Test of All is Our Partner’s Response
Getting in touch with our feelings, when a love interest does something disappointing, is important but “the bigger test is how a person responds when you are upset or express a need,” says Valentine.
In my case and in Ali’s, the way our boyfriends responded to our concerns was what saved the day—and laid a solid foundation for the future of our relationships.
I was reluctant to express my concerns at first. In the past, I had been mocked for being too uptight when men wanted to get too close. But this time I felt safe enough to take a chance and confess, “I get scared when things move too fast.”
My boyfriend’s response hit the jackpot. He said, “We will take this as slow as you need to.” For the first time in my life I didn’t feel trapped or suffocated. I didn’t run away. Now decades later, we still walk hand-in-hand along rivers.
What about Ali? After Ben canceled their date, she stewed for a while. But then she calmly told him, “You said you were looking for a serious relationship, but if you just want to date casually then you don’t owe me an explanation when you cancel our date. But if you’re interested in pursuing our relationship more seriously, then being reliable is important to me.” She suggested that he take some time to think about what he really wants.
Ben did just that, and then admitted, “I’ve been single for so long, and haven’t had to explain myself before. You’re right. You’re a priority and more important than my other plans.” While Ali and Ben are still relatively early in their relationship (not decades in like me and my husband), I’ve never seen her so happy and optimistic.
Our Partners Aren’t Perfect—But Their Response To Our Concerns Can Be
Inevitably, our partners will consciously or inadvertently say or do things that disturb or hurt us. Valentine says, “how a person responds to your need or concern early in your relationship is a good indication of how they will respond later on. If someone responds by being defensive, verbally abusive, withdrawn or dismissive, it is probably an embedded response, and it will be challenging for them to change. People can develop empathy and the ability to apologize, but it will take work if those skills are not already in place.”
Our partners are human. They are not perfect. They won’t always say or do the right thing (and neither will we). But gauging how “perfect” their responses are when we tell them that they did something that upset us, is the best test of all.