Test All Relationships

Be aware of relationships in your life that have never really been tested. And if you can, test them.

Here is an idea I’ve been meaning to write down for months. As is my new custom, I’m throwing away hope of writing about it well — sometimes, we need to dump things out of our head to focus on all the other things demanding our attention.

A minimal number of words will do, and a minimal amount of time. A simple record of an idea, to purge it from the list.

A while back I read an excellent memoir about Pablo Picasso, Life with Picasso. The book is written by Françoise Gilot, an excellent artist in her own right and a fascinating individual, who happened to be a long-term lover with Picasso over some years.

I think Picasso was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, but that's not to say I have a predisposition to liking him as a person. In truth, I found a lot of Picasso’s personality traits as described in the memoir dislikable. Though there was some balance of both positive and negative, from Gilot's book it seems fair to say that Picasso was, on whole, a bit of an arsehole.

One thing I did admire was his insistance on staying in Paris when the nazis occupied France — even though he was on their list as an “obscene artist,” which made him a real target. Nazi officers would come to his house and harass him during the years of French invasion, trying to intimidate him and succeeding in annoying him, but he dealt with it and made it through those years in one piece.

From the memoir, the trait that left the strongest impression on me, with ambivalent feelings, related to how he managed friendships. He was unable to abide friendships that didn’t have solid foundations, so he would constantly stress test all the relationships in his life as a way to check their strength. He would allow no friend an easy ride.

For example, he would confront friends with silly doubts he had about them, or attack weak spots in their personalities, aiming to hit nerves. The idea seemed to be to see their true colours, or to know what they really thought of him — and also to gauge their ability to hit back and hold their own. Like shaking a table to gauge how study it is. Would it hold tight, or just start breaking apart?

It is an unconventional and adversarial way of behaving with friends, and one that could be misapplied. And really, it was a part of what made Picasso an arsehole.

However, the instant I read this I also recognised the wisdom in it. It made me realise I had taken something of an opposite approach in life, and had paid for it dearly more than once. Hearing the idea was enough to alter my thinking on what a healthy friendship means, or could be.

My motto for a long time in life was “think the best of people, get the best of people.” I learnt the hard way how fundamentally foolish that thought is — though it is the kind that can take a long time to be proven wrong in a definitive way.

The truth is: if you think the best of people, sooner or later you get taken advantage of by the worst of them. If you overlook the worst attributes in people, you encourage them to think they don’t need to fix them. They continue to develop, nurture, and grow them. And in the long run you might end up feeling like you helped create a monster.

Picasso would not have had this problem.

If, on the other hand, you confront and probe into the worst in people, you find out if they are real or not. And if they are, you might find a way to resolve and balance them with the good qualities in that person. You might learn about circumstances you were unaware of. Either way, you will make them aware of the things they really do need to fix.

There's a difference between course correcting your view on something, though, and putting that into practise. A few years after reading Picasso’s memoir, I’m still making the same mistakes. Old habits. They need strong effort, applied consistenty over time, to really change.

I want to put this bluntly, in an unqualified way: if you have relationships that have not been put to the test, you have no idea if they are of any value at all. Act accordingly.

You might have known someone most of your life, or for years, or for only a short period of time but have found insane amounts of common ground with them, and love and trust them deeply as a result.

It doesn’t matter how long you have known them, or if you have not, how strongly you feel love and trust towards them. Until that relationship has been put to a true test, it is an unknown quantity. You have not seen their true colours — and sooner or later, you will do.

What is “being put to the test?”

Usually, it is something along the same lines. A situation that proves the person is neither acting out of kindness, or seeing your relationship as something transactional. That proves they are willing to stand up for the friendship against their own interests.

For example, a friend who is offered something they desire (or is threated with the loss of something they desire) at the expense of betraying your friendship. That is being put to the test.

Or a friend who is put under social pressure to shit talk you, or is made to feel embarrased to be your friend by other shit talkers. Whether they put up resistance to that social pressure or not is a test.

Or a friend who hears bad things about you. Whether they confront you to confirm the truth of those things, in a direct and straightforward way, is a test.

In general: the first time a friend must act against their interests, or put up meaningful resistance against attacks against your friendship, is the first time you know if they are worth a damn.

And that blade cuts two ways.

If you consider yourself a good friend to another person, you must be prepared and willing to stand up to all of these tests, too. If you are not, you should not allow that person to think of you as a friend in any real sense of the word.

Friendship should be able to hold water, take hits, and endure trauma. To fly through turbulence and shake itself out. And it should be willing to confront doubts and work through them, fearlessly.

Test all your relationships, and adjust them based on the results.

As for how to test? That could obviously be done in the wrong way, and care needs to be taken. You don't want to manufacture dramas, provoke arguments out of thin air, or throw out random abuse as "tests" — that is close to what Picasso did, but Picasso was a bit of an arsehole.

At the least, look out for situations in life that will naturally test your relationships, and hope they come as soon as possible. And when life throws up such situations, do not run away from them — they are priceless.

And if a relationship has not been tested, be accutely aware of this fact. Consider it something less than true friendship, and something more like potential friendship. An unknown quantity, still to be proven.

As for the friendships that were tested, and failed the test spectacularly? Maybe there can be reconciliation, but only a fool would pretend it never happened.

James Lanternman writes movie reviews, short fiction, essays, and nonsense (politics). Reach him at [email protected], or follow on Twitter.