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Tease-Test Your Courtships

The often-overlooked key to a sustainable relationship.

Ask any scriptwriter: How do you make love believable?


And what’s chemistry? Two things in semi-realistic fiction: first, make them honeys and hunks second, pepper their early encounters with playful teasing.

Not perhaps in Harlequin novels where the love is still between honeys and hunks but often earnest, passionate, chivalrous and humorless. But in any modern chick flick, you’ll find playful teasing, and why? Because a couple that teases together eases together. If both partners are good at both dishing it out and taking it in, they’ve got the resilience to make their love sustainable.

Partnership has things in common with porcupine breeding. Porcupines have to get close which is a bit risky what with all of those quills.

Partners, likewise, have elbows jutting out to make room for their individuality, but to get close they have to be able to tuck those elbows in. Teasing in courtship is test-driving the jutting and tucking. It tests the elbows for limberness. Without limberness, bruises will accumulate until the partnership becomes a duty, too risky for real sustained intimacy.

We want two things in partnership and indeed in all friendships. We want support and challenge, affirmation and a second opinion, truth and care.

Romance is the dream of the support and affirmation half, the dream of finding someone who will never jab us. Romantic fundamentalists imagine that you can always have truth and care without any conflict between those two ideals. It should be easy for both partners to be totally honest and never hurt each other’s feelings.

Romantic fundamentalists make prickly partners. If they are ever stung by anything you say, they blame it on you. They believe everything true can be said lovingly, so if it stings you must have made a mistake. Shame on you.

Romantic fundamentalists make relationships a whole lot harder than they have to be by pretending they can be a whole lot easier than they can be.

Some of the most romantic dating partners are the ones who aren’t planning to stick around for the challenge and second-opinion. They’ll just harvest the romantic affirmation in the honeymoon dating period and skip out on the rest.

Teasing is the healthy counter-balance to romance. It’s the ability to dish out and take in challenges and second opinions both partners able to say what’s up for them without taking it or themselves too seriously.

Teasing demonstrates the ability to laugh with each other at each other. That’s the heart of healthy irony, saying what’s true for you while demonstrating that you know it’s not gospel truth but your opinion, honesty, and self-effacing humor blended together.

Ironic teasing is love-lube. It counteracts the excesses of the romantic fundamentalist’s dream of mounting your high horse together to ride off into the sunset of happily superior ever after, or of being deified romantically by your partner with you up on your high horse and your partner down below looking up in reverent romantic deference.

Of course, some people are, by nature, better at lighthearted teasing than others. And some are more sensitive than others. Some are only good at mean teasing, teasing that’s not give and take but take and take.

If the teasing works in one direction and not the other, that’s a red flag, a sign that the partnership may be unsustainable. For sustainability, what you’re looking for is rough equality in teasing. Maybe you’ll both tease a little or a lot, but whatever you do, there will be some balance, some evidence that the give and take won’t rapidly become lopsided, and the elbows won’t be bruised.

Now how seriously should you take my advice here?

Not too.

I’ve was married once for 17 years, was in about six partnerships since, none of which lasted more than three years. I’m now retired from the whole business, happier alone than coupled. So really, what do I know?

Even though I’m now devotedly married to happy solitude, the importance of tease-testing lives on in my courtship of friendships and collaborators. Tease-testing applies to all intimacy, all relationships of near-range give and take, elbow jutting and tucking.

Here’s a poem I’ve long loved that depicts what happens when there’s not enough room to tease left in a relationship. It’s by another guy ultimately married to solitude, because, like me, he wanted more room to speak his mind, jutting freely, than one finds in almost any romantic coupling. There are all sorts of realistic, honest and useful things to say about partnerships that you can't say when you're in one, and all sorts of bitter exaggerations one would be inclined to say right after one fails. I've waited a year since my last before spouting my opinions about them, a kind of quarantine.

I don't know how long Larkin waited post-relationship before writing this poem, but to my ears it rings true.

Talking In Bed
Philip Larkin

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,

Lying together there goes back so far,

An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.

Outside, the wind's incomplete unrest

Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.

None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why

At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find

Words at once true and kind,

Or not untrue and not unkind.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D.
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