Our loved ones aren’t mind readers, so why do we expect them to know our needs and wants without us uttering a word? Columnist Michelle Elman explores why we feel the need to set ‘tests’ to see how much people care – and why they’re such a failure

If you’ve had a quick scroll on TikTok recently, you’ve probably seen the wealth of videos of people pranking their partners. And while they call them ‘pranks’, in reality, they are tests.

A recent trend was texting your partner “They’re gone, come over now” to pretend you’re cheating on them, and have sent the text to the wrong person. This might sound extreme, but these videos are more intense versions of what people in relationships do all the time, and not just romantic ones.

Some people will stop texting their friends to see if they initiate conversation and make plans. Or perhaps when their partner asks what’s wrong, they will reply “Nothing” as a test to see whether they truly care, the measure being how much they persist. All of this amounts to indirect communication, and not even ‘testing’ what you think you are.

If this sounds familiar, you might be wondering why you try to ‘test’ people. Normally, the answer is because, for some reason, you feel unimportant and think that they don’t care. Usually, you learn to communicate this way in childhood. If you weren’t listened to, you might have slammed a door and sulked in your room to see if your parents noticed, or packed your bags and pretended to leave to get the feeling of being wanted when they asked you to come home.

We learn this indirect way of communicating because we are too scared to ask for what we need, often because we’ve been rejected or ignored when we asked for it in the past. The issue with continuing this type of communication into adulthood is that when you run a test, the other person doesn’t know they are being tested.

An example of this that I share in my book, The Joy of Being Selfish, is one day I called one of my best friends. I asked how she was, and she told me that her new job was really stressful and, suddenly, I felt guilty: I had forgotten. I apologised, and she was absolutely fine about it, but if that’s the week she had chosen to test me, I would have failed. It wouldn’t have tested our friendship though, it would have tested my memory. It’s not that I didn’t care, I simply didn’t remember.

Similarly, I remember when a friend did test me. It was in the middle of the third lockdown, and he texted saying he missed me. I replied saying my mental health was struggling, and the second lockdown had been tough. He responded by telling me that he had stopped making an effort the past few months to see whether I would notice, and I hadn’t. I failed his test.

What he failed to recognise though was he wasn’t the only person I hadn’t texted; I hadn’t texted anyone. All my energy had been focused on keeping myself afloat, and while I failed his test, it struck me as peculiar that upon me growing more distant, his first reaction wasn’t to check I was OK.

As we get older, life comes with more responsibilities, and you won’t always remember everything. More importantly, you won’t be able to be there for all the people in your life all the time. The phrase ‘main character energy’ is thrown around a lot now, and while you might be the main character in your life, you aren’t in everyone’s, and sometimes someone’s silence is not personal.

Yes, they could be growing more distant because they are annoyed at you, or they don’t care, or they could be distant because they’re stressed at work, have just gone through a miscarriage, or are dealing with grief. You won’t know what is going on in someone else’s life unless you ask.

Instead of testing your people, communicate. Annoyed that your friend isn’t making more effort? Tell them that you want more reciprocity. Worried your partner might cheat? Communicate your concern, and ask for reassurance. Do you think all your friends are mad at you? Ask them.

When you run tests, you are expecting the people in your life to know why you are upset, and to be mind-readers. The test shouldn’t be if we notice, but more, when we are told, what do we do about it? Measure how much they care about you by how they respond when you communicate you’re upset. People won’t know your needs unless you tell them. People won’t know your boundaries unless they are communicated. And, most of all, if you want the people in your life to communicate with you, good communication starts with you.

Once you get rid of the testing people, not only will your communication improve, but your life will get simpler. You’ll no longer wonder what friends, family, or your partner is thinking, because you know you can just ask. You can also rest easy in the knowledge that you aren’t being secretly tested, because if you are direct, they have permission to be as well.

Life throws enough tests at us, we don’t need more from the people we love.

Love, Michelle x

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