Imagine you’re someone who loves eating oranges but hates peeling them. It’s not that you can’t peel them; it’s just one of those minuscule tasks you would rather not do.
So, you ask your partner to do it. According to the online relationship trend du jour, the response may determine whether you have a solid relationship: If it’s anything less than an enthusiastic yes, then the romance isn’t real. But is it that simple?
This is the “orange peel theory,” which holds that the little acts of thoughtfulness partners do for us, especially those that pose an inconvenience, serve as irrefutable confirmation that they care.
When Brenda Garcia of Victoria, Texas, got wind of the trend, her mind immediately went to other kind acts that her partner does for her.
She thought about the way, after cooking dinner, she often rests instead of immediately putting away the leftovers. But by the time she remembers to pack them away, her partner has often already done so.
“He could easily be like, ‘Oh, well, this is your food’ because I’m a vegetarian, so our meals are always different,” Ms. Garcia, 27, said. “But he goes out of his way and does it anyway.”
If she neglects to take a towel with her to the shower, he will sometimes bring one without her asking, knowing that she has a tendency to forget. And to reciprocate, she will do things like deep-clean their shared home or massage his shoulders after a long day.
On TikTok, #orangepeeltheory videos show users sharing the particular ways their partners are passing or failing “the test.” One woman proudly shared that her partner always cracks open her crab legs and takes the shells off, something she struggles to do herself. Another woman recalled a time her husband wiped all the salt off her chips after she complained about the taste.
Although relationship content on TikTok has a tendency to be oversimplified and sexist, the orange peel theory isn’t inherently dubious or novel. (A related idea, the so-called bird test, is similarly making the rounds on social media.) It just reinforces an age-old notion of relationships that just because you can do something for yourself doesn’t mean you should have to.
Don Cole, a therapist and clinical coordinator at the Gottman Institute, a research group in Seattle that offers methods to help couples strengthen their relationships, said that he found the theory “endearing,” except for one part: putting your partner to the test. “That seems negative and inappropriate because the whole idea in successful marriages is we don’t want to set them up to fail,” he said.
If you want your orange peeled, just ask for it — but don’t play games or let the peeling become a referendum on the health of your relationship. Instead of testing partners to see if they will make you a latte in the morning, for example, you should instead say, “I love when you make me a latte in the morning,” Mr. Cole explained.
This is known as a bid, which, according to the Gottman Institute, can be small or big verbal or nonverbal requests to connect and might take the form of a subtle expression, a question or a physical touch. Concepts like the orange peel theory shouldn’t be thought of as litmus tests, Mr. Cole said, but can be powerful predictors of the outcome of a relationship.
“Couples develop these things over time, most of the time without even thinking about them,” he added. “We just fall into these patterns.”
However, without communicating one’s needs, it can be hard to feel as if your “oranges” are being peeled properly. Amanda Graus, a freelance content creator and graphic designer living in Denver, shared on TikTok a disappointing realization: “I’m always the one to peel everyone’s oranges, but I’ve always had to peel mine on my own.”
“My ex-husband is a wonderful guy, and he peeled my oranges but not in the way they needed to be peeled,” she said in a phone interview.
In a relationship that followed, Ms. Graus, 39, said that her ex-boyfriend was the complete opposite of her husband. She would take him on trips, buy him “cute little gifts” and even helped pay for his law school education. She would also bring him coffee at work and write him letters and hide them in his bag so that when he went to class, he would have something to smile at. But he wouldn’t reciprocate.
She is currently in therapy, she said, and instead of focusing on dating, she’s working on prioritizing her own needs.
“I never thought I deserved anything,” she said, adding that, for her, oranges now represent focusing not on other people’s desires but her own.
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