Managing relationship disappointment
Psychotherapists who work with couples tend to see them as a system made up of two interacting parts: two partners. They also view the couple from a circular rather than a linear or cause and effect perspective: partners take turns reacting to each other’s behavior and create a circular dynamic. And so, patterns are very important to a couple’s therapist in understanding the relational dynamic of a couple and the symptoms it may produce. One such circular pattern that I have written on extensively is commonly referred to as the pursuer-distancer (p-d) dynamic (Betchen, 2005). The p-d dynamic consists of a one partner pursuing and one partner distancing. The more the pursuing partner pursues the more the distancing partner distances and vice versa. Hetherington and Kelly (2003) conducted one of the largest studies on divorce in the United States and found that the p-d dynamic was the pattern most responsible for the dissolution of a marriage. These results were reported in their book, For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered. Nearly everyone who practices couples therapy has heard of the p-d dynamic, but the lesser known pattern I’m about to address can be just as potent. I’ll refer to it as the test-fail pattern. I do not pretend to have discovered this dynamic but I have seen, first-hand, the damage it can do to a couple if not treated.
The Test-Fail Dynamic Defined
The test-fail pattern consists of one partner presenting the other with an objective that they cannot seem to achieve. They may be limited in some way, or simply reject the challenge out of anger or indignation. The task could be as little as completing chores or a bit more complicated like making more money. Quite often the resistance towards reaching the objective is unconscious.
Beth, 36, wanted her husband Tim, 41, to love her more than he demonstrated. In an effort to secure his attention, Beth would get herself into provocative situations that often required Tim’s help. On one occasion Beth took a medication that she knew she was allergic to. Following a bad reaction, she begged Tim to take her to the ER and hold her hand into the wee hours of the night. Other times she would fight with neighbors or flirt with co-workers who would in turn cross boundaries and make her feel uncomfortable. Each incident was constructed to engage Tim in her world. But Tim saw Beth as a nuisance—a needy irritant. As a consequence, he refused to take her to the ER. And he would never support her in a fight with the neighbors. In anger, Tim told Beth that if she did not want men to bother her at work she should stop flirting with them. Tim’s repeated failures to respond to Beth’s testing only served to increase her tenacity. At times this couple’s test-fail dynamic morphed into a sado/masochistic process.
Failure is often inevitable in the test-fail process because, as alluded to, the person being tested might not have the skill set or ability that is required to achieve the tester’s objective. Here are two examples:
Jane, 57, a single woman from New Jersey met Bob, 64, on a popular online dating site approximately two years ago. Bob commuted from his hometown of Buffalo, New York to date Jane—no small feat. One particular weekend a snow storm in Buffalo made it impossible for Bob to make it to New Jersey. Instead of being understanding, Jane used the snow storm as an opportunity to test Bob’s love and commitment. She saw Bob’s inability to achieve the impossible as evidence that he was not dedicated enough to her. Simply put, Bob failed Jane’s test. Bob did want to see Jane—he was very disappointed that the storm had interfered with his plans to come to New Jersey. But this admission, genuine as it was, failed to appease Jane.
Barbara, 33, was extremely upset with her husband Seth, 35, because he was not earning the kind of money she believed a lawyer in a big city firm should. To make matters worse, Barbara oftentimes compared Seth unfavorably to his more successful law partners. Seth did well, but not by his wife’s standards. When I questioned how much money Barbara thought was appropriate, she responded that it was not as much about money as it was Seth’s refusal to live up to his capabilities. I believed that Barbara had a point.Truth be told, Seth never liked his job. He admitted that he went to law school to pacify his father. Because of his lack of passion and dedication to his legal career, Seth did not possess enough of the qualities to move up in his firm and earn more money. Nevertheless, in response to his performance Barbara continued to push him to become more successful by overspending. The more she spent the angrier Seth became, and the less effort he put into his career.
The Consistency of the Test-Fail Dynamic
The test-fail dynamic is usually constant. And while some couples may appear to put the dynamic on pause, this respite is usually temporary. It can also be a setup for the dynamic to return…re-charged.
Joan, 57, was anxious about money ever since her father, a gambler, spent the family’s savings and forced them into bankruptcy. Peter, 56, was here free-spending husband. While Joan would generally keep Peter in check, on special occasions she would encourage him to buy something for himself. True to form, Peter would take full advantage of his wife’s offer by overspending which in turn would enable her to attack him. Even when Peter did manage to appropriately control his spending Joan would criticize him for buying something she felt her did not need. Joan’s inconsistency was reflective of an internalized risk versus security conflict which she dealt with by testing to see how much Peter was like her father. If Peter passed her tests she believed that she would then feel more secure in knowing that he thought of her welfare, not just his own needs. But Peter continued to support his wife’s anxiety with his failed attempts to curtail his spending habits.
The Origin of the Test-Fail Dynamic
Relational patterns such as the test-fail dynamic can usually be traced back to each partner’s family of origin. Some people replicate their parent’s test-fail dynamic; others may have had demanding, perfectionist or generally hard to please parents. In the latter case they may have developed a conflict around satisfying a significant other: one side of them wants to please and the other side does not. Any rebelliousness is usually born out of a lack of unconditional love.
I believe that an individual is prone to one type (tester) or the other (failing partner) but has a little bit of each inside. For example, there lies inside every tester a tendency to fail, and in every failing partner to test. This makes sense if you consider that both types let each other down. The dominant tester always seems to be asking the question: “How far will you go to show me that you love me?” The individual who consistently fails begs the question: “Will you love me unconditionally…especially if I keep letting you down?”
Treating the Test-Failure Dynamic: What to Do About a Most Challenging Pattern?
The first step is to recognize the dynamic. Couples oftentimes fail to see their circular patterns and as a consequence, they keep repeating them with disastrous effects. Couples need to ask themselves if they seem to have the same type of argument time and again. Most couples have one major process-oriented problem that shows itself across many different contexts. For example, couples can test-fail about sex, money, or children, to name a few. To many couples, it seems as if they have several problems when in reality they have one feisty test-fail process that follows them wherever they go.
After recognizing the test-fail dynamic, it is vital that each partner take individual responsibility for his/her roles. While it may help if only one admits culpability, the other might continue to drag the healthier partner back into the dynamic with even greater force.
And finally, each partner must do their part to adjust the intensity and frequency of their roles. Perhaps with quick recognition the tester can learn to block a test. A failing partner might learn to give the tester what he/she wants on occasion. Unfortunately this is all easier said than done. It might take connecting the dynamic—as soon as possible—to one’s family of origin. But in the end, what is called for is a strong desire in each partner to stop frustrating and disappointing one another and to mend their dynamic. If all else fails, professional help should be sought.
All couples test-fail at times. What I have addressed herein is the couple who does so repeatedly and with great intensity. A continuous pattern of letting one another down can produce anxiety, depression, frustration, and low self-worth in both partners. Most of us want our partners to challenge us in ways that makes us better…not worse.