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14.1: Destructive Relationship Behaviors

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    Learning Outcomes
    1. Familiarize yourself with the concept of secret testing.
    2. Understand the effects of empty apologies.
    3. Discuss the challenge of identifying Internet infidelity and emotional infidelity.
    4. Explain hurtful messages and reactions to hurtful messages.

    Secret Testing

    Very often, in relationships, individuals seek to understand the nature or state of their relationship. The most direct way to understand a relationship is to talk about it, but sometimes the timing doesn’t seem right. Perhaps it’s too soon, or maybe the relational partner is squeamish about talking. Regardless, individuals experience a great deal of uncertainty about the nature of the relationship. Uncertainty also exists when relationships seem to be headed toward termination.

    Humans engage in intrapersonal communication in which we think about how our dating partner feels about us or about whether the individual wishes to continue in the relationship. A great deal of time may be spent thinking about how the relationship partner feels. If you have ever called a friend to ask your friend’s opinion about how your boyfriend or girlfriend feels about you, then you are engaging in information seeking about your relationship. In the early stages of relationships, the relational partners may not share the same definition of the relationship1. As a result, one or both relational partners experience uncertainty. Research demonstrates that individuals experiencing uncertainty will work to reduce uncertainty.2 As research continued, it was determined that it is taboo to talk directly with a relationship partner about the state-of-the-relationship.3 Consider your own experiences with dating and whether it is comfortable to ask or be asked, “so, where are we? Are we dating exclusively, seeing other people…?” Because of the discomfort of such direct questions, individuals tend to use indirect strategies.

    There are seven indirect strategies individuals use to assess the state of their relationship. These indirect strategies are referred to as secret tests. Some secret tests actually invoke negative relational strategies such as provoking jealousy, deliberately behaving negatively toward a partner, being overly demanding, intentionally creating distance, and testing a partner through a third party “fidelity check.” Many secret tests may result in relational hurt or even relationship termination.

    Secret tests are labeled directness, endurance, indirect suggestions, public presentation, separation, third party, and triangle test.

    Directness Test

    Directness is the least secretive of the strategies and involves asking the relational partner about his/her feelings toward the relationship and commitment to the relationship. Alternatively, an individual might disclose their feelings about the relationship with the hope that the relationship partner will reciprocate. Although this “test” may not feel comfortable at first, it can have positive outcomes and involves open communication. Though employing this test may lead to answers that one may not want to hear, at least information is obtained directly from the relationship partner. Research conducted by Melanie Booth-Butterfield and Rebecca Chory-Assad4 indicates that individuals in more stable relationships are more likely to use this overt strategy.

    Endurance Test

    Endurance test is another form of secret testing in which the partner is tested by engaging in actions that the partner might perceive to be a cost in the relationship. If the partner remains in the relationship, then it is presumed that the partner is committed to the relationship. Research revealed three types of endurance tests: behaving negatively toward the partner, criticizing oneself to the point of being annoying, and making a request that required the partner to exert a great deal of effort. Because the endurance test involves introducing cost into the relationship, individuals risk tipping the scales, i.e., creating more costs than rewards which social exchange theory tells us may result in relationship dissolution. Melanie Booth-Butterfield and Rebecca Chory-Assad explored secret test use in deteriorating relationships.5 Their research revealed that in unstable relationships, any secret test involving behaviors that deviated from what one would normally do in a relationship was associated with a desire for relationship disengagement.

    Indirect Suggestions Test

    The third form of secret testing is indirect suggestions. Indirect suggestions involve joking or hinting about more serious stages of relationships such as marriage or having children. If joking about more serious stages in a relationship is met with laughter, flirting, or intimate touching, then it might be assumed that the partner is interested in pursuing a more serious relationship. Another indirect suggestion comes in the form of increasingly more intimate touch. If the intimate touch is received positively or reciprocated, then it is also assumed that there is a commitment to the relationship.

    Presenting the Relationship to Outsiders Test

    The fourth form of secret testing involves presenting the relationship to outsiders as a relationship in which a mutual commitment is involved. This public presentation is meant to gauge the partner’s response. For example, you might change your Facebook status to “in a relationship” to gauge your partner’s reaction. Another example is introducing your relationship partner as girlfriend/boyfriend and observing the reaction. This secret test is particularly risky because it may result in a public rejection. The advantage is that it might result in public acceptance.

    Separation Test

    A fifth secret test is the separation test. Have you ever been in the beginning stages of a relationship and found it necessary to travel and hoped that your new relationship would survive the physical distance? At times, individuals intentionally create physical distance to test the strength of the relationship. If the relationship survives a few days of separation, then this is an affirmation that the partner is committed. If the relationship partner does not attempt to make contact during the physical separation, then this may be a sign that there is a less than desirable level of interest.

    Third-Party Test

    The sixth form of secret testing is third-party testing. In this case, one might seek the opinion or insight from the partner’s friends, family members, or coworkers.

    Triangle Test

    The final form of secret testing is the triangle test. This test involves the manipulation of a third person to obtain information about the relationship. A common form of triangle testing is to induce a jealous reaction by mentioning an interested third party. For example, a relationship partner might be told that a classmate was making flirtatious advances in class. The partner’s reaction to this information is presumed to be an indicator of the partner’s commitment. A “fidelity check” is another form of triangle testing in which a situation is created to allow the partner to “cheat.” The partner’s reaction is then observed.

    In more recent research, Rebecca Chory-Assad and Melanie Booth-Butterfied determined that relationship partners use different strategies when attempting to maintain a relationship than when attempting to end a relationship.6 These researchers determined that relationship partners who wish to maintain a relationship when the relationship seems to be coming to an end will use the direct secret test in which the partner is approached directly. On the other hand, individuals who wish to end a relationship will do so by utilizing a secret test such as jealousy. Still, these individuals also report having low self-esteem. They concluded that individuals with low self-esteem might use secret testing as a means to “break up” because they do not have the confidence to talk with the partner directly.

    Empty Apologies

    Apologies are a necessary part of everyday interactions and important to correcting either intentional or unintentional hurt created in others. Despite the positive aspect of apologizing, it is often difficult to do. If your parents/guardians ever required you to apologize to a sibling, then you may recall the difficulty of uttering the words, “I apologize.” Conversely, some individuals use apologies so frequently that the apology becomes meaningless. An apology implies acknowledgment of wrongdoing.7

    Acknowledgment includes expression of responsibility, conveyance of remorse and direct request for forgiveness. Acknowledgment of wrongdoing should imply that there will be an effort to avoid repeated occurrences of the same behavior. Regardless of the difficulties presented by the need to apologize, the positive aspects must be considered. Apologies have positive benefits such as increased feelings of empathy for the offender8 and reducing the consequences for an offender.9 Individuals who offer more elaborate apologies receive more favorable evaluation, are blamed less, forgiven more, and liked more by the individuals to whom an apology is made. Apology Sincerity influences how the victim feels after the negative event.10 Apology sincerity may alleviate strong negative emotions, including anger. Sincere apologies may also lead victims to think about conflict less negatively and be less vengeful.

    Internet Infidelity

    The amount of time spent online by a wide range of people makes the Internet an adequate “meeting place” for relationships of all types. The Internet shrinks our world and enables individuals to find others with similar interests, desirable knowledge (health information, how to clean, the best campgrounds, etc.), and attractive qualities. We might consider that the Internet provides privacy, the ability to interact frequently, and enables close proximity. Research shows that when it comes to Internet infidelity, partners perceive their infidelity to be more acceptable than their partner’s infidelity. Also, males find involving/goal-directed acts (making plans, expressing love) as more acceptable than women.11 Because of the murky nature of what constitutes infidelity via the Internet, researchers have worked to define it accurately. Internet infidelity is defined as using “sexual energy of any sort—thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—outside of a committed sexual relationship in such a way that it damages the relationship, and then pretending that this drain in energy will affect neither partner nor the relationship as long as it remains undiscovered.”12 Partners take a harsher approach to Internet infidelity with their partners than themselves.13 Specifically, the researchers concluded that there is a double standard in Internet infidelity. Individuals find the Internet infidelity of their partner to be worse than their Internet infidelity. Also, relational partners use self-motivated rules regarding Internet infidelity and have different expectations for self than for the relationship partner. Internet infidelity led to the murder of Google executive Forrest Hayes who was described as a loving father and husband. Hayes made an unfortunate decision to make contact with Alix Tichelman on After meeting with Tichelman several times, she injected him with an overdose of heroin, and he was found dead on his yacht in Santa Cruz’s Craft Harbor the next day. According to the Washington Post, the woman coldly injected him with heroin and simply walked away. Her actions were caught on camera and she is now on trial for.14

    Internet Characteristics Fostering Online Infidelity

    Contributing to the ease of forming relationships via the Internet are several characteristics identified through research.15,16,17 First, the Internet increases the speed with which messages are sent. Consider the difference in sending messages today in comparison to the early 1990s. Mail and landline phones were the primary means of communicating “quickly.” Widespread use of emails and instant messaging increased the speed with which people could communicate. Reach is another characteristic of the Internet, which enables individuals to establish many more relationships than in the past. Relationships were previously established by those in our immediate vicinity including our hometown, workplace, places for social gatherings, and churches. Now, our computer/smartphone puts us in touch with people all over the world without ever leaving our home. Anonymity (revelation of identity or lack thereof) also opens up opportunities for relationships. Consider the case of Manti Te’o in which anonymity allowed him to be fooled into believing that he had a girlfriend and that she died as the result of leukemia.18

    Finally, interactivity, defined as the ability to send and receive messages and react to these messages, makes the Internet a breeding ground for infidelity. An additional characteristic of the Internet that may deceive individuals into thinking that they are not engaged in infidelity is the lack of physical presence, which makes the issue of infidelity ambiguous. After all, if one is not physically present, how can one cheat?

    Research Spotlight

    Tony Docan-Morgan and Carol A. Docan set out to examine how men and women view Internet infidelity in a 2007 study. The researchers started by having 43 undergraduates list what they thought could be Internet infidelity. The researchers reviewed the open-ended responses and paired down the list to the following:

    • having cybersex (engaging in sexually explicit conversations with someone online)
    • flirtatious behavior (flirting with someone they met online)
    • emotional (developing an emotional connection with someone online)
    • seeking another (posting a personal ad online)
    • conversing with another (having a conversation with someone online)
    • exchanging information (giving personal information about yourself online – e.g., email address, cellphone number)
    • other (engaging in casual conversational topics, not relational or emotional ones)

    Based on these six categories and other literature on the subject, the researchers developed a measure and narrowed it down to 27 items. The measure ultimately discovered two different patterns of Internet infidelity superficial/informal acts (e.g., chatting about sports, talking about current events, joking) and involving/goal-directed (e.g., disclosing love, viewing personal ads, making plans to meet someone).

    The researchers found that superficial/informal acts were rated as less severe than involving/goal-directed ones. When it came to the severity of superficial/informal acts, there were no differences between females and males in this study. However, females did find involving/goal-directed Internet infidelity as more severe than did men. Lastly, the researchers found that people tended to rate their Internet infidelity as less severe than they rated their partner’s infidelity on both involving/goal-directed and superficial/informal acts.

    Docan-Morgan, T., & Docan, C. (2007). Internet infidelity: Double standards and the differing views of women and men. Communication Quarterly, 55(3), 317-342.

    Emotional vs. Sexual Infidelity

    The lack of physical presence in online relationships drives the need to differentiate between sexual infidelity and emotional infidelity. It seems clear that physical interaction with another individual constitutes sexual infidelity. Still, some individuals might say that as long as there is no sexual intercourse, then there has been no infidelity. If we can’t all agree on when cheating has occurred after physical contact, then it is easy to see why there tends to be a great deal of disagreement as to what constitutes emotional infidelity. One might even question whether emotional attachment to an infidel outside of one’s primary relationship constitutes infidelity at all. Sexual infidelity involves sexual intimacy and physical involvement. In contrast, emotional infidelity includes “emotional involvement with another person, which leads one’s partner to channel emotional resources such as romantic love, time, and attention to someone else.”19 For example, if you receive a promotion at work, it might be assumed that the first person you would tell would be your relational partner. However, if emotional resources have been directed toward another individual, then this individual may be the first individual you might call. The relationship partner might view this as a betrayal or a dependence on another individual at the very least

    It was initially proposed that women would perceive emotional infidelity as worse than sexual infidelity and that men would perceive sexual infidelity in their partners as worse than emotional infidelity. This proposal developed from the evolutionary psychology perspective. In summary, this perspective indicates that males would be concerned with sexual infidelity because they had no way of knowing whether their mate was carrying their child and thus carrying on their genetic material. On the other hand, women were more concerned with emotional infidelity because women feared that their male counterparts would become attached to another female and that his resources (e.g., money, time) would be directed toward the other. Although this perspective provides insight into the basic differences between perspectives that might be held by females and males, research consistently shows that both females and males find sexual infidelity to be worse than emotional infidelity.20

    Researchers reported that sexual infidelity occurred in 30% to 40% of relationships. 21 When sexual infidelity occurs, research shows that how infidelity is discovered determines relational outcomes.22 Voluntary admission seems to result in increased forgiveness, less likelihood of dissolution, and was the least damaging to relational quality.

    Hurtful Messages

    “Even in the closest, most satisfying relationships, people sometimes say things that hurt each other.”23 We have all been in the position of having our feelings hurt or hurting the feelings of another. When feelings are hurt, individuals respond in many different ways. Though hurtful messages have existed since humans began interacting, it was in 1994 that Anita L. Vangelisti first developed a typology of hurtful messages. Her work resulted in ten types of messages.24 She furthered her work by exploring reactions to hurtful messages. First, we will discuss her typology of hurtful messages, and then we will address how individuals respond to hurtful messages.

    Types of Hurtful Messages


    Evaluations are messages that assess value or worth. These messages are a negative assessment of the other individual that result in hurt. One of the coauthors was once riding in a car with a coworker and his wife. He was driving and made an error. She said, “You are the worst driver ever.” The moment was awkward for everyone.


    The second type of hurtful message is an accusation. Accusations are an assignment of fault or blame. Any number of topics can be addressed in accusations. A common source of conflict in relationships is money. An example of an accusation that might arise for conflict over money is “You are the reason this family is in constant financial turmoil.”


    Directives are the third type of hurtful message, and involve an order or a command. “Go to hell” is a common directive in some relationships depicted in movies and television, but is a more extreme example. In everyday interaction, examples might include, “leave me alone,” “don’t ever call me again,” or “stay away from me.” One of the coauthors remembers a short-lived relationship in which she called her boyfriend’s house. The boyfriend had told his mother that he was out with her. The phone call to his house ultimately resulted in the boyfriend being punished for lying, but he relayed a potentially hurtful message to the coauthor, which was, “Don’t ever call my house unless I ask you to.” As noted, the relationship was short-lived, but the hurtful message indicating a lack of value for the coauthor’s feelings still stings.

    Informative Statements

    Informative statements are hurtful messages that reveal unwanted information. A supervisor might reveal the following to an employee: “I only hired you because the owner made me.” Siblings might reveal “I never wanted a younger sister” or “When Mother was dying, she told me I was her favorite.” Friends might say something like, “When you got a job at the same place as me, I felt smothered.” Informative messages reveal information that could easily be kept a secret, but are intended to hurt.

    Statement of Desire

    A statement of desire expresses an individual’s preference. A romantic partner might state, “the night I met you, I was more interested in your friend and really wanted to go out with him.” A friend might say, “Callie has always been a better friend than you.” A parent/guardian with multiple children might state, “God only gives you one good child.”

    Advising Statement

    An advising statement calls for a course of action such as “you need to get yourself some help.” One of the coauthors inadvertently communicated an advising statement when a friend was talking about going on so many interviews and not getting hired. The coauthor said, “There are courses that offer interview training. You could take a course in interviewing.” The statement hurt the coauthor’s friend as she was only seeking comfort and not advice that seemingly indicated she had poor interview skills.


    A question is another type of hurtful message which, when asked, implies something negative. A very direct hurtful question is, “What is wrong with you?” Another subtler question that might be perceived as hurtful is, “You’ve been at the bank for ten years. Have you been promoted yet?”


    Threats are messages that indicate a desire to inflict harm. Harm can be physical or psychological. For example, a romantic partner might say, “if you go out with your friends tonight, I’m going to break up with you.” A direct physical threat is a statement directed toward inflicting bodily harm such as, “I’m going to knock the crap out of you if you don’t change out of that outfit.”


    Jokes are another type of hurtful message that involves a prank or witticism. For example, a cousin might say to his athletically built female cousin, “what’s up quarterback thighs?” implying that the female’s looks are masculine. In an organization, a coworker could jokingly comment to a supervisor on the supervisor’s relationship with a subordinate, “I can see who’s really in charge here.” A prank can be hurtful if it results in humiliating or embarrassing the object of the prank. Pranks are sometimes carried too far. The Breakfast Club includes a perfect example of a prank carried too far when the jock explains that he and his wrestling buddies duct-taped the butt cheeks of a nerd. It was meant to be funny, but results in physical injury to the nerd. Jokes in the form of witticism are often open to interpretation, but hurt may result if the recipient feels that the sender intended to hurt more so than humor. Pranks that embarrass or cause physical harm often create emotional pain for the recipient.


    Lies are deceptive speech acts that result in the hurt of the recipient. In an episode of The King of Queens, Doug tells his wife Carrie that her forehead is too big after she hurt his feelings. He didn’t really feel that way, but his words resulted in Carrie trying to cover her forehead because she was embarrassed that her forehead was “too big.” Lies can range from the mundane such as “I was late for dinner because I was on the phone with my boss.” to “I’m going to San Diego on business.” Lies, when discovered, may result in feelings of being disrespected or betrayal.

    Reactions to Hurtful Messages

    After exploring the types of hurtful messages that exist, Anita Vangelisti and Linda Crumley investigated the reactions individuals have to hurtful messages.25 The results of Vangelisti’s and Crumley’s investigation revealed three broad categories of reactions: active verbal responses, acquiescent responses, and invulnerable responses.

    Active verbal responses involve attacking the other, defending the self, and asking for an explanation. Suppose that you and a romantic partner go to friends for dinner. Upon entering the home, you take off your shoes. Your romantic partner poses a hurtful question, such as “what is wrong with you? What kind of guest takes off their shoes?” An active verbal response that attacks the other is “nothing is wrong with me. What’s wrong with you, you idiot? Everybody knows wearing street shoes bring in germs and allergens.” Alternatively, one might respond by saying, “nothing is wrong with me. It is perfectly normal to take one’s shoes off when entering another person’s home.” Finally, one might ask for an explanation, such as “Why do you think there is something wrong with me?”

    Acquiescent responses involve crying, conceding, or apologizing. This type of response demonstrates that the message is hurtful or that the recipient believes they have engaged in some wrongdoing. For example, if a friend says, “I never want to see you again,” a conceding response might be, “that’s fine. I won’t bother you anymore.” Alternatively, an apologetic response is, “I am so sorry. Is there something I can do to change your mind?”

    Finally, hurtful messages can result in invulnerable responses. We have all heard the phrase “sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This phrase, while not true, does demonstrate a desire to demonstrate invulnerability. Reactions of invulnerability range from ignoring the message to laughing. Recall the example from the directive message earlier in which one of the coauthors was told not to call the boyfriend’s house. Although the coauthor felt that the message was disrespectful, the response was to laugh. The boyfriend was told that his “directive” was ridiculous and that if she was going to be used as an excuse, then he should be smart enough to let her in on that little secret unless he was lying to her, too.

    Key Takeaways
    • Because it is considered taboo to ask one’s relational partner about the nature of the relationship, one or both relational partners may use secret tests. • Inherent characteristics of the Internet may facilitate infidelity.
    • Emotional infidelity is particularly challenging because relationship partners may not agree on what constitutes infidelity.
    • Hurtful messages are a part of the human experience, but they can be avoided by becoming aware of the types of messages that exist.
    • Review the types of secret tests. For each type, provide an example from your own life in which you have engaged in the secret test or observed a friend doing so. For each example, state whether you believe the secret test was helpful or harmful and why.
    • Create your definition of emotional infidelity. Ask three friends to come up with their definition of emotional infidelity. Compare and contrast the four definitions.
    • After reading the section on Internet infidelity and Internet characteristics, find your example in the popular media that relates to one of the characteristics of the Internet that seems to facilitate infidelity. For example, you might choose the characteristic “speed.” Find an article in the popular media in which speed played a role in an individual’s ability to “cheat” in the virtual environment.
    • Working in a group, create an example of each type of hurtful message from your own life that you have experienced or witnessed. What was the reaction? Label the reaction according to Vangelisti and Crumley’s Reaction Types.

    This page titled 14.1: Destructive Relationship Behaviors is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jason S. Wrench, Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter & Katherine S. Thweatt (OpenSUNY) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.