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Forever on Trial

What causes people to constantly test their romantic partners?

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

The hard work of creating and maintaining great relationships is an ongoing process. Like any important investment, it will only show a profit if it is continually innovating and transforming.

Successful relationships depend on the willingness of both partners to work on deepening their mutual understanding of what each can give and needs in return. In order for that process to work, they must continually guide one another towards successful awareness.

Sadly, this process fails when one or the other partner not only doesn’t give helpful feedback but actually tests the other in ways they cannot succeed. Partners who are repeatedly thrown off-guard in these ways gradually lose their grip on reality as they continually fail at gaining approval from the other.

It would seem so likely that people who profess to love their partners would do this to the other partner, whether purposefully or not. It is also hard to believe that the partners who are continually tested would be able to tolerate that gaslighting for any period of time.

Are all those who continually test their partners just unconscious of what they’re doing or just mean-spirited? Conversely, are all those who continually try to please martyred or self-destructive?

The answer is sometimes yes, but more often, no. Many people who sincerely seek quality relationship interactions with their partners are not aware that they are doing this to each other.

It is crucial for every couple caught up in these relationship-damaging interactions to carefully identify what and why they are continuing to perpetuate them. Only with a non-judgmental understanding of the dynamic can they stop this mutually destructive behavior.

Here are some examples of people who forever test, and of those who stay in relationships with people who are the recipients, and why they, perhaps, stay together.

What May Cause Partners to Test Each Other?


When people are unsure of their own value, they look to others to reassure them of their worth. But, because their fears come primarily from within, they cannot be assuaged from the outside, no matter how often they are quelled.

These relationship partners just can’t accept, or retain, the fact that they are genuinely loved. They continually ask the same questions, even when they have received the same answers many times before.

  • “Are you just telling me you love me because you think that’s what I want to hear?”

  • “I saw you looking at that other guy. It didn’t look innocent. Were you comparing me to him?”

  • “You hardly ever tell me you love me anymore. Just tell me the truth, are your feelings going away?”

  • “Are you sure I satisfied you last night? Don’t ever pretend, okay?”

  • “I just don’t feel like you’re attracted to me anymore. You’d tell me, wouldn’t you? Promise.”

Fear of Intimacy

There are many people who desperately crave intimacy but simultaneously fear being trapped if they become too attached to someone. They consciously or unconsciously keep their partners not too close and not too far away. They continually rebalance that fear by pulling their partners in, then pushing them away when their fears of containment emerge.

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  • “You’re too needy sometimes and I feel smothered.”

  • “Why are you always sitting so far away? Do I need a shower or something?”

  • “I need to get out of here for a while.”

  • “Why didn’t you want to go for a walk with me this morning? You could have if you’d really wanted to.”

  • “I’m the kind of person who really needs my alone time.”

  • “You’re never here when I need you.”

Attention Seeking

People who need contact and attention, but don’t feel they deserve it, often test the other partner as a way to get the other to express affection or reciprocal desire. They may have, over time, discovered that doing that ups the level and intensity of the response they are seeking. If those strategies don’t work, they sometimes try to make their partners jealous or more directly demand the response they want.

  • “You have to tell me 20 times a day how important I am to you.”

  • “I know this is your favorite dinner, but you haven’t said anything about it tonight. Have you lost interest in it now?”

  • “That girl in that TV show is really hot. She must have guys all over her.”

  • “Did you notice how many people want to spend time with me? I must be doing something right, right?”

  • “I’m feeling very alone and unwanted. Do you just want me to look elsewhere for what I need?”

Game Players

There are people who purposefully alternate putting their partners on pedestals and then knocking them down. For whatever reasons, they seek to create situations that require them to employ reentry seduction, enjoying the process of getting them to believe again that they are adored. They want to keep their partners a little off-guard because the process is intriguing and the payoff is more exciting. Some of their partners, aware of the pattern, actually enjoy the game. Sadly, more have had childhood trauma that drives them to be susceptible to this constant testing.

  • “You have to be the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known.”

  • “You’re kind of losing it lately a little? Something wrong?”

  • “I had the greatest time with you tonight.”

  • “You know, you used to be a lot more interesting.”

  • “I just need to tell you that I’m having a lot of fantasies about other men.”

What May Cause Partners to Endure Being Tested?

Victim Mentality

Sadly, there are a lot of people who were continually put down as children, and only trust love when it is accompanied by the expectation of abandonment or debasement. They consciously or unconsciously, “invite” being devalued and respond by trying harder to be okay. All they need is occasional reinforcement that they’ve met the grade, and they will continue to double down on efforts to please. They will do almost whatever is asked, just to avoid their feelings of failure and low self-value.

  • “Will you promise to always tell me how I can do better?”

  • “I’m so sorry I didn’t live up to your expectations.”

  • “I know it’s no excuse to forget. Can you ever forgive me?”

  • “Are you absolutely sure that’s what you wanted?”

  • “I feel absolutely terrible when I don’t give you what you need.”

Challenge Seekers

There are actually people who are attracted to partners who continually test them. They like that end of the game, willing to rise to the challenge and win it from their end. They may even continually counter-test, raising the ante and making the game more interesting.

  • “Let me give you 20 reasons in a row why I want to be with you, and you have to successfully argue me out of those beliefs.”

  • “I’m never going to reassure you in the ways you are trying to get me to. I know you’re just testing me and it won’t work.”

  • “You’re going to have to come up with new ways to undercut my love for you because these are getting too predictable.”

  • “You’re never going to push me away with those kinds of provocations. Unless, of course, you want out of the relationship and are trying to make me do it for you?”

  • “Great try. It won’t work.”

Unmoved Acceptors

If people are raised by nagging, threatening, or blaming parents who never act on what they propose to do, they learn to just ignore the noise and not react. If those same parents intersperse their negative actions with positive ones, they really aren’t going to do anything to back up their in-the-moment blackmail statements. If, as adults, their partners use the same tactics they learned to ignore as children, they can easily wait for the positive moments that occur between the testing manipulations.

  • “I heard you, sweetheart. You’re just feeling insecure. I’m not going anywhere. Just let it go.”

  • “Hey, just let me know what I can do right now to make you feel better.”

  • “If you’re trying to pick a fight with me, it won’t work, honey. You go through this from time to time. It’ll be okay.”

  • “Thank goodness for both of us that I love you as much as I do.”

  • “I’m going to do a couple of errands. Hope you feel better when I get back.”

These are just a few examples of the way people test their partners and what drives them to do that and those who endure that behavior. Many relationships seem to survive these continuous bids for connection and reassurance. Sadly, not all do. Most people do have frustration thresholds and sometimes choose to exit, too often without the other partner’s realization that he or she has exceeded that limit.

Caveat: There are relationships where both partners seek and continuously re-create these seemingly control/be controlled interactions and both willingly contribute to maintaining them as they are. If both partners are not distressed by their eternal testing and approval-seeking behaviors, they may have no need to change them.

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