The long-term relationships we choose have greater impact on our happiness and well-being than any other decisions we make. This simple, 10-second, yes or no test helps us determine whether to stay the course or head for the hills.
Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
An’ if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know
—Should I Stay Or Should I Go, The Clash
New relationships are the best, right? We all know that special thrill. We meet someone fun and attractive, everything is fresh and exciting, and we experience the joy of discovery as we learn intimate details about another person and start to feel safe sharing our own. Companionship sure beats loneliness, and we feel fortunate and blessed to have found someone who finally understands us. And then there’s the magical bliss of infatuation, the sprinkle of sparkly fairy dust that dispels all doubt and makes us feel as if we’re perfect for each other.
And then … reality bites.
He steals a glance at the blonde one table over.
She orders a third drink.
She falls asleep without brushing her teeth.
He gargles religiously for five minutes every morning.
She leaves a tampon in the toilet.
He confesses he didn’t really like Bridget Jones’s Diary.
She confesses she doesn’t really like Thai food.
He admits he was only pretending to like cats.
She starts to “upgrade” his wardrobe.
And so on.
The progression from la-la land to love it or leave it is normal as a relationship grows and evolves, and with a core foundation of shared values and interests, sexual chemistry, solid communication skills, and dedicated commitment to making it work, many couples survive the drop-off of the booster rocket at the end of the honeymoon period and launch into the difficult but immensely rewarding orbit of building a long-term, loving relationship. Understanding what happens in our subconscious when the dream state wears off is key to making a sound and healthy decision about staying or leaving.
As time goes by—one month, three months, six months—a strange thing happens. We begin to feel, on the one hand, more confident and comfortable and less afraid of being ourselves around our partners. Yet at the same time, having invested a quarter or half a year of our lives in being with another person, we begin to worry about the what ifs, especially the big one: What if we’re wasting our time on someone who isn’t “the one”? And how do we know if this one is the one? This confusing dichotomy of increased confidence in and comfort with our partnership bond accompanied by decreased certainty of our partner’s rightness occurs naturally as we move closer to shifting from a short-term, easily escapable relationship, to a long-term, committed, often legally-sanctioned and possibly life-long partnership with another person. Just as we start to let our guard down, our protective instinct kicks in to ensure we’re getting in bed—literally and figuratively—with a partner who is safe and will treat us well over the long term.
The confounding push-pull of these conflicting feelings leads to those seemingly random outbursts of emotion, crying jags, scary statements such as “I don’t know if I love you,” and the need for a “break” or “time off to sort things out” before moving forward.
At the same time, partners experience an unsettling set of fears that spur irrational behavior. There is the fear of fucking up, of ruining the relationship and losing a loving companion. There is the fear that we don’t deserve to be loved, that we will be dumped as soon as this is discovered, so we might as well end it ourselves to avoid being dumped. Finally, there is the fear of losing “the one,” the person who is meant for us, and living an unfulfilled life with substitutes because we stupidly lost “the real thing.”
These fears result in the following unhealthy behaviors:
- self-imposed pressure to agree with our partner and conform to his or her ways of doing things;
- a tendency to accommodate and compromise;
- avoidance of confrontation even when our principles are at stake;
- and reluctance to draw boundaries for fear of upsetting, alienating, or driving our partner away.
While these behaviors seem rational in the short term, as they smooth out early rough spots in the relationship, they are unwise for the long term, as they gouge deep potholes that partners will need to navigate around down the road to avoid damaging the relationship.
In this confusing mess, the questions arise: Is he or she the one for me? Is it meant to be? Can we make it work? How do I know?
Fear of making a mistake also results in testing, which can take the form of obnoxious or disrespectful behavior to see how a partner reacts or manifest as requests for proofs of love and commitment. Isn’t love grand?
Perhaps the most memorable marriage test appears in the movie Diner, when Baltimore Colts fan Eddie, played by Steve Guttenberg, administers a 140-question football test to his fiancée Elyse to determine if she is marriage material. Even though she fails by two points, he still walks down the aisle with her.
In retrospect, couples who have been together for a long time often say, “We just knew,” but hindsight has a way of shrouding what really happened in a haze of false memory, revisionist history, and wishful thinking. Few people remember exactly how they knew or what they were thinking at the time. And everyone offers a different tidbit of advice.
While it’s nearly impossible to be objective about love—after all, we’re dealing with feelings here—it’s crucial to be aware of the factors that influence our decisions. It’s also helpful to have a simple, yes or no, blue or red litmus test (as opposed to a 140-question sports quiz) we can use to determine whether our relationship is destined for long-term happiness or headed for heartbreak. Here are 10 tests that don’t work, and one that does.
- He always tells me he loves me. (Saying it doesn’t make it so.)
- She says she accepts me exactly the way I am. (She may actually want some changes—we all do.)
- We always make up in the bedroom. (Sex doesn’t engender intimacy; intimacy engenders sex.)
- We never fight. (All couples have disagreements.)
- He’s nice to my parents. (It could be an act.)
- She’s good to my kids. (It could be an act.)
- We never run out of things to talk about. (You may not be communicating about the important stuff.)
- He/she always puts my needs first. (No one is a saint; there may be resentment building.)
- We like all the same things—books, movies, foods, activities, places to go. (Life will get boring if neither one of you ever pursues an independent interest or takes the other out of their comfort zone.)
- He/she says we’re soulmates and I’m the one. (If this is true, it never needs convincing.)
Here is the one test that does work.
How does your partner treat you when you’re wrong?
When it turns out you’re mistaken or had the wrong idea about something, does your partner jump on you, go for the jugular, pound the point home, spike the ball in the end zone, gloat in victory, take joy in your defeat, self-congratulate on superior intellect, and act smug about being right?
Or does your partner act respectfully towards you, give your points fair consideration, try to help you see where your judgment might be inaccurate or flawed, show forgiveness and understanding, treat your discussion as a learning experience instead of a conquest, and employ communication skills not to weaken you but to strengthen the relationship?
To me, this is the ultimate test. Because inevitably, we will all be wrong. And when we are, we do not want to be made to feel small, stupid, ignorant, and worthless. We don’t want to feel that our standing has been diminished by “losing.” We don’t want to feel squashed or stomped on.
We simply want to be treated fairly and with … respect.
This article and more like it are included in Thomas G. Fiffer’s ebook, What Is Love? A Guide for the Perplexed to Matters of the Heart.