POV: You’re about to embark on a new role, thereby signing a contract binding you to a clear set of established standards and expectations of behaviour.
If your levels of performance, commitment or ability to uphold the responsibilities of your role fall short, then the binding party is within their rights to release you from the contract within the first few months of signing. Sound familiar?
No, this isn’t a contract of employment, but in fact the terms of a relationship probation period, the latest relationship chatter taking over TikTok.
Imposed either mutually or by one person in a partnership who is unhappy and seeking change, this unwritten contract works much the same as the ones we encounter in our professional lives: laying out clear expectations of needs that must be met in order to stay together, and a setting termination date if the outcome of the probation is unsatisfactory to either party.
This latest trick is an extension of the #threemonthrule trend, which is currently amassing 5.7 million views on TikTok, encouraging singletons to cut ties immediately if they aren’t feeling their needs are being met after dating someone for three months.
Relationship probation periods, however, are a strategy being increasingly employed by couples to either save or end a relationship when things are looking rocky. Pretty harsh, you might be thinking. But given that recent statistics indicate 65% of failed relationships and marriages end because of a lack of effective communication, holding our love lives to professional standards and laying out our wants candidly is becoming a necessity for young couples, who feel less of a need to stick out failing romantic pursuits when they have the option to simply hop back on a dating app and meet someone better.
This was certainly the case for 30-year-old Nadeen Hui, whose viral TikTok video describing how she put her boyfriend on a ‘relationship improvement plan’ sparked mass online attention to the concept of relationship probations.
After being together for three months, Nadeen realised that their living habits were far from compatible, despite getting along really well, she tells HuffPost UK. Giving him 4-6 months to clean up his act (literally), the future of their relationship depended upon his willingness to be better at house chores like taking out the rubbish and loading the dishwasher.
“I needed a comfortable clean home and that’s a non-negotiable for me,” Nadeen recalls.
Three years later, Nadeen couldn’t be happier in her now non-tumultuous relationship. She explains: “When he started being present in the relationship – putting in effort, hearing what was actually making me upset, and contributing not just his share but more to show that he cares about me and our relationship – it made me love and respect him more because I saw that he was actively working on himself to become a better partner.
“Part of this ‘improvement plan’ also opened up intentional conversations about how we felt about each other and how our relationship was doing. It helped us get on the same page and also brought awareness to how we’re showing up in the relationship and for each other.”
But are probation periods always successful at repairing broken relationships?
Well, it depends how you view success. For 24-year-old George*, mutually agreeing to set a probation period with his girlfriend of almost two years caused the opposite outcome to Nadeen, but one he does not regret.
In fact, in his eyes, it was a healthy and less harsh way to kickstart the inevitable end of their relationship. “We started to grow apart and had different communication styles. We’d grown so close and friendly with each other that we kind of lost the spark,” George says.
Not yet ready to officially move on and date other people, the two decided to continue seeing each other, but take more time apart and see if things changed between them.
“Ultimately, this ushered in the end,” George adds. “In a way, the probation period took some stress off the situation – it was a bit of a relief. It made us feel more open and able to talk about our issues than before. I embraced it, and I think she did too.”
But what do the experts say about these ’partner probation periods?
“I’m a fan of putting the focus and attention on a relationship to establish any issues and what needs to happen in order to work through them,” says relationship expert Anna Williamson from E4’s Celebs Go Dating.
“But putting a time limit on such a sensitive situation should only be done with full mutual consent between the couple, with a shared understanding of what the terms looks like.”
“Relationships are forever evolving; emotions are constantly tested. So imposing a corporate-sounding ‘time limit’ on someone, in what is already a very emotionally vulnerable situation, only adds stress and pressure,” she adds.
This is a familiar experience to 26-year-old Morgan*, whose partner imposed a non-consensual probation period on them after struggling to agree on the terms of opening up their relationship.
“They told me, ‘either you let me do this [open relationship] without any boundaries, or I’m going to break up with you,’” Morgan shares.
“The probation condition was that if they decided they liked me as much as the people that they were dating, they would end up with me. They wanted to do whatever they wanted without being accountable to any agreements that we made. Obviously, this made me feel like trash.”
It begs the question, when imposed by one person and not mutual agreement, are probation periods a form of effective communication, or emotional manipulation?
“I think once it gets to that point, it’s quite clear that they don’t really care and that they want the relationship to end,” is Morgan’s conclusion. “Having to accept being put on the naughty step puts the blame on you rather than just cutting off, which is quite manipulative behaviour.”
Relationship expert Anna Williamson agrees: “Used in the right positive way, probation periods can serve as a useful tool to put the spotlight and priority on the relationship. But imposing a probation period on your partner as an ultimatum is never a good idea; it just creates pressure and negativity.”