The Testy and the Tested
Tuesday, November 13, 2012
By: Hal Runkel, LMFT
Testing our spouses is something we all do.
“You’ve been really testy lately.”
That’s what my wife, Jenny, told me this morning as she dropped me off at the airport.
I guess that means she hasn’t really appreciated my recent reactive responses. My short, terse replies. My quick fuse. Obviously, for someone who’s built a whole career around a relationship philosophy called “ScreamFree,” getting called out for my “testiness” is not a good thing. Not good for business, not good for my marriage.
Which makes me glad she’s not here at the airport with me. ‘Cause I’m really feelin’ a little testy right about now. See, I’m supposed to be on a flight to Hawaii right this minute. I’m supposed to be headed across the Pacific to try and help some great Army families get calmer and closer. And later, my family is planning to join me for a great family trip to the Aloha State.
But I’m not on a flight to the islands right now. I’m stuck in an airport lounge, waiting on an undisclosed “system problem” to get resolved. So far, we’ve been delayed for seven hours. (Seven!)
Now, normally, I’m not one to complain about air travel. I fly almost every week, and I’ve logged so many miles that Delta usually treats me like I’m royalty. (Seriously, I once got escorted via Porsche across the tarmac directly to my airplane. It was awesome). But this delay, for whatever reason, is really irking me. I was not pleasant to the gate agent, I grumbled around the food court, and I practically barked at the Delta rep in charge. If Jenny thought I was being testy earlier, she should see me now.
Which brings up a thought. “Testy” is an interesting word. Etymologically, even though they share the same first four letters, “testy” has nothing to do with the word “test.” (“Testy” comes from an old Latin word meaning “headstrong,” or something like that). But in practical usage, “testy” and “test” do share some common meanings. When you think about it, don’t we use “test-y” when we feel like a person is test-ing us? I mean, it certainly feels that way. This other person (your husband named Hal, for instance) is on edge, seemingly ready to lash out at every interaction. You offer to help him pack for his long trip, (to Hawaii, for instance) and he jumps at your very first touch of his bag. It feels like he’s testing you. He’s being test-y.
The truth is that, whether or not the words have anything to do with each other, spouses are testing one another all the time. Very few of us are self-aware or conniving enough to know exactly when we’re doing it, but at one time or another, all spouses do it.
We test, for instance, whenever:
- we tempestuously say that one exact thing in an argument we know will trigger our spouse, even though we don’t even really feel that way, or even believe it’s true.
- we passive-aggressively wait and see how long it takes for our spouse to notice our new shirt, or new haircut, or new muscles (yes, I admit it, Jenny).
- we schemingly leave the dishes undone, just to see if our spouse will do something around the house without being asked.
Or (and this one indicts us all), we test whenever:
- we doggedly refuse to apologize for our part in the two-day silent-treatment-stand-off, determined to “make” our spouse make the first move.
This list could go on for a while longer, ‘cause when we’re honest, we can admit that all of us spouses are testing our beloveds quite consistently. And maybe that’s really why we each get testy: we’re each feeling tested by the other. At some level, all spouses are testing their mates in a continuing pattern of “do you even notice me?,” “you go first,” and “do you really love me?” Interject into this pattern one of life’s little stressors, like say, yet another flight delay, and boom! We get testy.
Is there a way out of this pattern, and these traps, and these explosions? Well, yes. Yes, there is. But like most solutions in life, the only way out is through.1 The only way out of a reactive pattern is by going through the difficult work of confronting your own part of the pattern first. It is remarkably easy to point out the other person’s contribution to the problem. And we do it all the time, whether directly nagging our spouse or by complaining about them—to our friends, or perhaps, to their mothers.
But the most successful spouses are those that actively search for their own contributions to the very problems they complain about. And then, upon discovery, resolve to stop those contributions and apologize for them—even if their spouse doesn’t initiate the apology or even reciprocate.
“You know what, honey, I have been testy lately. And I apologize. If I’m honest, I’ve been feeling a little neglected by you (which may totally be only in my mind), and instead of addressing that with you directly, I’ve just been, as you say, testy. And I want you to know that, regardless of what I may be experiencing from you, you deserve better from me. You deserve me to calmly address my concerns with you, to even check if they are consistent with reality. I promise to do better.”
Or something like that. It’s not like I’m actually gonna say that to Jenny, my beloved wife of 19 years. I just preach this stuff, I don’t actually live it out. Especially when they just announced that we’ll be delayed another couple of hours.
(BTW, this blog entry was written back in July. I ended up getting delayed eleven (11!) hours that day, but eventually arrived in Oahu safe and sound.2 And a couple of days later, Jenny and the kids arrived as well. That night, I think I did offer some form of the admission above. You’ll have to ask Jenny if it worked.)
1Many thanks to the poet Robert Frost for this glorious phrase, “the only way out is through.” It is quickly becoming one of my life philosophies. For others besides me, of course.
2Delta did apologize profusely. My Porsche escort was waiting for me on my next flight. 😉