Cathryn's Articles for Stepmom Issues and Relationships

Testing & Proving Love: A Damaging Response to Fear
Testing and Proving Love is a Hurtful Tactic: Want to make a more loving choice?

Isn’t it something how often people put pressure on their loved ones with the spoken or unspoken sentiment…”If you love me, you will do what I ask!”? I’m going to refer to this common practice in relationships as “testing & proving” love. The phrase is not original to me. It is however, a concise description of hurtful behaviors and the topic for this article. Below is a client situation as an example of this hurtful, but popular tactic.

Testing and Proving Example

“My girlfriend, of three years, likes to go out barhopping, dancing and staying out late with ‘the girls,’ often until 3 am. My girlfriend says she needs to dance to nurture her Soul. I would gladly go out dancing with her but she says she needs to ‘get out with her girlfriends’ and will continue to do so no matter how I feel about it.

“I hate this! I feel insecure, disrespected and jealous that she puts herself in tempting situations set up for men and women to meet. I have explained to her how I feel, how it tears me up. She has betrayed me before but says I have to trust her now. Do I have any options besides retaliating (I won't do that), breaking up with her, or suffering through this?”

What’s happening here?
This woman is testing her boyfriend’s love for her by expecting him to endure painful feelings as an intentional test of his love for her. “If you love me, you will prove it by letting me do whatever I want to do even if it’s something that makes you uncomfortable!” AND “I’m going to test your feelings for me by doing something that I know you disagree with. The more you suffer the more you show me you love me.”

This harsh sentiment has motivated people to do things against their wills and their instincts for eons. On the proving side, it’s a slightly different approach; one of enduring pain or suffering so one can say, “See how much I love you? Don’t you feel loved that I suffered for you?” So many times, the other person never actually asked their loved one to suffer. It’s usually a volunteer activity, one that often comes with an expectation of reward and the promise of punishment or guilt if not properly appreciated. This is a two-way dynamic that punishes both people involved and always hurts the relationship. This is a controlling behavior that stems from fear. There are other options. Let’s use this case study as our example.

What is damaging about this behavior?

Her actions demonstrate that she doesn’t care that the man she says she loves is hurt or upset. She is diminishing/denying the fact that her past actions (earlier betrayal) give him a valid reason to be worried. Her actions are activating his survival strategies and are motivating him to figure out ways to protect himself from her hurtful behavior. This doesn’t help bring a relationship closer. He feels the pressure because he knows he’s being tested and yet doesn’t see any healthy options.

His acknowledgement that retaliation is not going to accomplish anything positive speaks to his maturity. He’s being hurt by her actions AND choosing NOT to test her in return. Bravo to him! This age old manipulation strategy doesn’t help people feel safer, closer or more valued. It’s clearly a form of control. It erodes love, shreds trust and generates resentments that build over time.

What’s her tactic?

She’s hiding behind the pretense of self-care and boundaries while accusing him of trying to control her…implying that HE is wrong. In his willingness to try to find alternative solutions, he’s beginning to see the pattern. She’s making it seem that his concerns are unfounded and limiting to her.

Please note: People who are controlling and/or feeling like martyrs, often accuse others of exactly what they’re doing. When we learn she has a history of untrustworthiness, she asks him to prove his love, once again, by trusting her where trust is no longer appropriate. This is another test that disregards his feelings. This is very unloving behavior on her part. Can you see that? She has made several choices that are hurtful to the one she says she loves. Here’s a key point. When we are testing and proving love, we are NOT being loving.

Why would she do this?

There are any numbers of reasons. Most of them are initiated by the sense that some form of pressure is needed to get someone to do something or to allow something. It may be the fear (the belief) that we don’t have enough logic or reason to persuade them so we use manipulation. Some people do this kind of thing as a matter of course. They hold beliefs and/or were taught that this is just what you do in loving relationships. Some people can’t really trust love so they keep testing it to be sure it’s still there. Some people lack the self-esteem that enables them to believe they are lovable so they continually set up tests and ask for proof of love.

When “called to task” on this behavior, some will say, “everyone does this,” as if that excuse is supposed to make it OK or less hurtful. Sit coms and teenagers use this tactic frequently. They try to make someone jealous as a test of how much they care.

The concept of directly (and vulnerably) approaching someone we care about to tell them how we feel and to ask for what we want is considered “geeky” by some. How twisted (and well-used) is it that we look for and interpret people’s suffering as a demonstration of their love for us?! “Hey, I’m suffering for you, now show me you’re willing to be miserable too!” It would be funny if it weren’t so true and painfully part of so many relationships.

What are his choices?

Unlike so many people who give in to this pressure with an vengeful or self-pitying, “What choice do I have?” this fellow is looking for choices. Good for him. He’s seeking the “right thing to do.” Here are a few options:

1. Accept her decision and decide to trust her-one more time.

2. Accept this, out of “what choice do I have?” and suffer.

3. Get even and try to get her to feel as miserable as he does so they will both be miserable or then hopefully both stop.

4. Set a boundary and say, “Stop this hurtful behavior. It’s not OK with me. If you continue, I’m leaving because I don’t feel respected or loved.

5. Create a mutually agreeable compromise that honors both of their feelings and suits both of their needs.

Why do people put up with it?

Many times it’s because people just aren’t aware of this dynamic or they don’t think there’s any other way to get what you want in a loving relationship. He loves her AND wants to trust her but has experience and a valid reason to feel concerned. As he became conscious of what she was doing, he asked her to stop, he shared his true feelings and kept hoping that she would change to ease his fears. Often, when two people share the same beliefs and/or are doing the same thing, they’re more tolerant of each other’s behavior. However, if one person “steps out” of the a set of acceptable behaviors, it can become harder to overlook hurtful or annoying actions.

Becoming aware that something is not feeling good or not working well can be the catalyst for looking for other options. Sadly, it can also be the trigger for becoming even more controlling and therefore even less loving. You can’t have love without fear. That’s the nature of loving someone. However, you CAN make the choice to look to the love, instead of trying to numb the fear. This is the choice that takes consciousness and courage.

Courage required on both sides of this lesson. It takes courage to acknowledge that someone you love is choosing to manipulate and hurt you. When you realize that you’ve been hurting the one you love, it takes courage to acknowledge your impact, to apologize and seek a new way of behaving. Whether out of fear or unawareness, the behavior is still having negative impact. Not bad or wrong--hurtful.

The question becomes, “Do you want to continue the behavior or do something differently?” Ideally, hopefully, both people are willing to change. The love and trust in a relationship can deepen when a hurtful behavior is identified and reasonable changes are requested, agreed to and implemented. The good news is that as you become aware of, and give voice to this dynamic you’re halfway to changing it. The mere agreement to help each other stop this behavior works wonders for a relationship. It can mark the beginning of a whole new level of trust and love that’s possible when people realize they’re going to be safer and more valued by loved ones.

OK, what can I do differently?

As you become aware of this testing and proving behavior, the first thing you will want to do is, “PAUSE.” Stop yourself, even in mid-sentence if necessary, or gently point out to another that you’re feeling this pressure and ask two questions:

1. What is it that I (you) really want to create?

2. How can I (you) help each other without having negative impact on either of us?

Something very exciting can happen when you pause to ask these questions. It seems to interrupt a well-worn, predictable sequence of actions AND creates the space for all kinds of new possibilities to come to mind. Breaking out of an old pattern takes energy, finding a new path involves being creative AND it can actually be fun, especially when both parties are willing to give it a good-faith effort. See how many choices you can generate. The more choices, the better you’ll both feel when you make the final decision.

An Alternative choice for the case study

If the young woman in this situation wanted to stay loving and get closer to her boyfriend AND believed it was possible to “have her cake and eat it too,” she could have imagined several other ways to “feed her Soul and be with her girlfriends” AND not put their relationship at such risk. He offered her several options; she didn’t bring one to the table. He was willing to make lots of effort to please her; she wasn’t going to budge from her actions. He was trying to find creative ways to honor her needs AND honor his feelings. She seemed locked into the “I’m right, you’re wrong” position.

She could have created more closeness with no sacrifices but for some reason, she wasn’t willing to make that choice. NOTE: You’ll notice I have capitalized the word “and” several times in this article. I did this to point out that many difficulties in relationships come from people thinking that feelings and things have to be either/or. So often what works better is AND. You can feel this AND that. You can agree to do this AND that. People can decide to try it this way AND that way. “AND” is a small word with a great positive impact when you add more “and’s” to your relationships.

What’s the difference between holding boundaries and testing and proving?
A brief response to this thought-provoking question is as follows. A boundary is making a decision that indicates a border or limit on something that is about you and for your well being, with no intention to have negative impact on others. Testing & proving is almost always about demanding that someone else do (or not do) something that impacts them negatively in order for you to get something you need AND carries the threat that if they don’t do as you demand they will be punished, criticized, hurt in the relationship.

All in all, it comes down to being honest with ourselves and with those we love.
Do we want to have negative impact on someone we love?
Are we willing to invest the energy to create a solution that works for everyone involved?
Ask yourself, Can I stay loving AND find ways to meet my own needs? Is what I’m about to do or say going to bring me closer to the one I love or put a strain on our love?

When we take the time to become conscious of our actions and impact AND to think about the answers to these questions we will create more joy and love in our relationships. It feels great to realize that we can love and be loved without any negative impact. Love need not be about controlling to get what we want. This is a place for good creative problem solving skills and a clear intention to generate more trust and love in your life.

© 2002 Cathryn Bond Doyle. All Rights Reserved.
©2012 Cathryn Bond Doyle. Revised. All Rights Reserved.
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