It is mutual trust, even more than mutual interest that holds human associations together. ~ H. L. Menken
It’s become more and more difficult to remain vulnerable, trusting, and open to life in this era of uncertainty, global upheaval, divorce, and disrupted family life. Fortunately, many of us have friends and family members we can count on, or a relationship partner we can turn to as a safe haven where we can let down our guard, relax, and be ourselves. But sometimes even here, things can get rough.
When everyday stresses intrude into our protected space or an unexpected relationship problem disturbs our calm, we may begin to feel insecure and self-doubting. We may also begin to doubt our partner’s love, loyalty, and trustworthiness. Without realizing it, we may react to these doubts by pulling away from our loved one in subtle ways.
Why does trust rest on such shaky foundations? On the other hand, wouldn’t it be risky to be too naïve and trusting? What kinds of trust issues do couples face today that were virtually nonexistent only a decade ago? How can we best deal with events or situations that threaten to erode our trust and confidence?
What is trust?
The Oxford Dictionary defines trust as “a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something” For example, we trust people who are benevolent toward us, who have integrity, and whose actions correspond to their words. We trust someone we can count on to consistently do what is “right.” In an intimate relationship, we trust our partner if he or she is predictable, reliable, and honest. Trust can also be defined as a verb: as actions based on having confidence or trust in oneself. On an action level, trust involves being able to “do something without fear or misgiving.”
Are trust issues on the rise?
A number of psychologists recently reported that, over the past 10 years, there has been an unprecedented rise in trust issues among couples who seek counseling. According to Joe Bavonese, of the Relationship Institute in Royal Oak, Michigan, part of this increase is due to recent technological advances that make it easier for partners to be deceptive, for example, to hide text messages, cell phone call lists, Facebook friends’ messages and emails.
Today, hundreds of blogs, articles, and advice columns offer suggestions designed to help couples resolve troublesome trust issues. Many questionnaires are available to measure relational trust, (trust in a relationship partner) as well as global trust (trust in human nature). Clearly, trust matters a great deal to a lot of people, especially to those of us who are striving to have a loving, fulfilling relationship.
How do we first develop trust?
How children learn to trust was a fundamental question explored by several eminent developmental psychologists of the 20th century, notably Erik Erikson, John Bowlby, and D.W. Winnicott. Each wrote extensively about trust and the key role it plays in children’s ongoing growth and development.
Erikson proposed that infants develop basic trust when they have successfully resolved the first psychosocial crisis (or opportunity) in life, the conflict between Trust and Mistrust. A baby being raised by adults who respond consistently in trying to meet its needs develops trust by the end of the first year. Erikson asserted that the critical factor at this stage of development was the ratio of trust to mistrust.
Higher levels of trust in children are closely related to secure attachment patterns. Toddlers who trust their environment are generally those who have also formed a secure attachment to their parents or caregivers. In fact, attachment theorist John Bowlby concluded that basic trust, as defined by Erikson, is absolutely necessary for the healthy psychological development of the individual throughout the life span. He described the secure and insecure attachment patterns identified by Mary Ainsworth in one-year-old toddlers as being strong indicators of their level of trust. According to Bowlby, “The dimenstion of security-insecurity…seems clearly to refer to the same feature of infancy that Eirkson refers to as ‘basic trust.’ As such it assesses an aspect of personality of immediate relevance to mental health.”
Psychoanalyst/pediatrician D. W. Winnicott believed that “predictability” on the part of parents was critical to building trust in their baby. In his book, Talking to Parents, he wrote, “Parents, and especially the mother at the start, are taking a lot of trouble to shield the child from that which is unpredictable.” According to Robert Firestone, such parents are also “characteristically warm, affectionate, and sensitive in feeding and caring for their children and offer them control, direction, and guidance as well.”
Childhood experiences that contribute to trust issues
There are numerous aversive childhood experiences that contribute to children’s mistrust and lack of confidence. For example, parents’ inconsistent responses or their failure to deliver on their promises create insecurity and distrust in their children. A parent’s frightening outbursts of rage can shatter a child’s trust in a predictable world. The betrayal of trust that occurs with child sexual abuse as well as with incidents of severe physical abuse over the long-term can trigger dissociative states in young victims. These events can also set up expectations of future betrayals or lead to certain blind-spots in an individual’s ability to accurately judge the trustworthiness of others.
The dishonest ways that many parents communicate with each other and with their offspring also damage the child’s trust. Parents who lack integrity tend to be duplicitous in their communications, that is, their actions don’t correspond to their words. Their double messages confuse children and play havoc with their sense of reality. Gregory Bateson focused on this important dynamic—the “double bind” — in his book Steps Toward an Ecology of Mind. Based on clinical research, he concluded that children learn to distrust their perceptions in social interactions when they have been confused and mystified by double messages experienced in their family.
These painful events in childhood leave unseen scars and have a profound impact on us throughout life. In an attempt to protect ourselves, we build a system of defenses against our pain, confusion, and disillusionment. Some of us vow never to trust anyone ever again; others become hyper-vigilent and feel determined to not be a “sucker.” If we were hurt by our parents’ dishonesty, we may see other people from a skewed perspective and develop harsh, cynical attitudes toward them. These self-protective defenses help us preserve an illusion of strength and invulnerability, yet these same defenses limit our capacity for trusting others and for finding fulfillment in a close relationship.
Trust issues in relationships
In an intimate relationship, trust is all important. Relationship expert Shirley Glass points out that “Intimate relationships are contingent on honesty and openness. They are built and maintained through our faith that we can believe what we are being told.” In fact, trust could be thought of as the glue that holds a relationship together because it facilitates a positive emotional connection between partners based on affection, love and loyalty. Mutual trust within happy couples is reinforced by the presence of oxytocin, a neuropeptide in the brain that expedites bonding between a newborn and its mother. Loving, affectionate, and sexual exchanges between partners also release oxytocin, which, according to some scientists, “makes people trusting not gullible.”
By contrast, mistrust can disrupt even the most loving relationship. There are many situations that occur over the course of a relationship that can generate attitudes of mistrust and suspicion in one or both partners. Most people respond to deception or lying by a partner in much the same way they reacted to their parent’s lies, dishonesty, and mixed messages.
- Mixed messages and trust issues
Mixed messages create an atmosphere of confusion and alienation in couples by breaking down feelings of mutual trust. Some people begin to doubt or distrust their partner almost as soon as they become involved because, deep down, they are afraid of intimacy and closeness. Others may respond to early indications of duplicity or untrustworthiness in their partner. For example, a young woman thought her new lover was spending less time with her than before. When she mentioned this, he insisted that he loved her as much as ever. However, his words failed to reassure her, because his actions did not fit his seemingly supportive statements. In these cases, it is important for us to give more validity to our partner’s actions rather than relying only on what they say.
- Deception, infidelity, self-destructive behavior, and trust issues
People’s reactions to a partner’s dishonesty and lying are based primarily on their past experience with parents who may have betrayed their trust. In discussing the aftermath of an affair, Shirley Glass emphasizes that “Individuals who did not develop basic trust during childhood are especially vulnerable to deception by a loved one. Infidelity brings back all of those childhood wounds for a person who was lied to.”
Deception or betrayal of trust can have a more damaging effect on the relationship than the affair itself. Lies and deceit shatter the reality of others, eroding their belief in the veracity of their perceptions and subjective experience. According to Robert Firestone, “The betrayal of trust brought about by a partner’s secret involvement with another person leads to a shocking and painful realization on the part of the deceived party that the person he or she has been involved with has a secret life and that there is an aspect of his or her partner that he or she had no knowledge of.” Similarly, in Living and Loving After Betrayal, Steven Stosny claims that “Just as the harm of a gunshot wound threatens the general health of the body, intimate betrayal goes well beyond issues of trust and love to infect the way we make sense of our lives in general.” .
Trust can also be destroyed through a partner’s indifference, criticality, comtempt, and rejecting behaviors, both overt and covert. A loved one’s secrecy or deceit about abusing alcohol or drugs can obliterate trust. Deception and lies about money, family finances, or other hidden agendas can demolish people’s confidence and faith in a mate’s trustworthiness.
- How the critical inner voice fosters trust issues in a relationship.
Mistrust, doubts and suspicions are strongly influenced by the critical inner voice. This destructive thought process is part of the defense system we built as children; it consists of an internal dialogue that is antagonistic to our best interests and cynical toward other people. The critical inner voice is the culprit that triggers trust issues in people’s closest relationships.
Here’s how the voice often operates in the early phases of a relationship. If we doubt ourselves, see ourselves as inadequate, or feel cynical toward other people, we are less likely to seek love and satisfaction in a relationship. When we do find someone who genuinely acknowledges and loves us, we may begin to feel anxious because their positive view of us conflicts with our negative self-image. At this point, mistrust and self-doubt can take over our rational thinking. The critical inner voice becomes stronger, telling us we don’t deserve love. Or it may focus on and exaggerate any flaws in the person who loves us, and we start being picky and critical.
Gender stereotypes and sexist attitudes represent an extension of the critical inner voice into a cultural framework. They focus on certain negative traits thought to be “characteristic” of men or women and promote a great deal of mistrust and cynicism between the sexes. Distorted views such as“Men are so insensitive. They don’t care about feelings, or about women or children.” and “Women are so childish and over-emotional, they don’t understand practical matters” are examples of this type of thinking.
Ironically, some of our inner voices may strike us as friendly and protective. These voices caution us about the dangers of being vulnerable, open, or trusting, sometimes when we have just become involved in a new relationship, “Don’t get too excited about him(her) Don’t get too involved, you’ll just be hurt or rejected.”
Many people experience the critical inner voice as a kind of internal “coach” that offers bad advice about how to handle a relationship. “Remember, you have to put your best foot forward. One wrong step and you’ll end up alone.” The voice may question our partner’s commitment or love, “Why isn’t he (she ) more affectionate? “Why is he (she) always with his (her) friends.” “He (She) must not really care about you.” Other destructive thoughts reinforce any self-doubts we might already have, “No wonder he(she) stood you up. He(she) had second thoughts.” “Once he(she) gets to know you. he(she) will find out what you’re really like.”
Some of the most vicious voices are those that bombard us with anxiety-provoking thoughts predicting rejection and loss, especially in situations that where there is a potential rival, for example, “You’d better watch out! You’re going to lose him (her).What is he (she) doing! Where is he(she) going? You’d better find out. What if he (she) meets someone else at work, at that party?You can’t compete with that man/woman. You won’t be able to stand it!You won’t ever be able to meet anyone else.Your life will be over.”
To rebuild trust after a betrayal, partners need to identify the critical inner voices that continue to fuel mistrust, keeping them stuck in the past. If infidelity caused the break in trust, they also need to have an extended conversation about what each person wants; whether to recommit to the relationship or go their separate ways. One resource that is helpful at this point, Not Just Friends, by Shirley Glass, offers valuable suggestions to “Heal the Truama of Betrayal” as her subtitle indicates. Dr. Glass emphasizes that “Trust cannot be earned by oaths of allegiance…The antidote (to the secrecy, deception and alibis of a secret affair)…is openness, accountability, and honesty.” She also advised,
Compassion for the other person is what makes forgiveness possible…Both partners must seek and grant forgiveness for the part they played in marital problems that preceded the infidelity or for hurtful behaviors that followed the revalation of the betrayal.
Four general principles for enhancing trust in a close relationship:
- Honesty and Integrity: Strive to be more honest and transparent in all your personal interactions. This requires taking the trouble to really know yourself and perhaps to face parts of your personality that may be unpleasant. However, this increased self-knowledge will enable you to gradually develop more trust in yourself and in your thoughts, feelings, and values. Living with integrity, according to your values and principles, makes you a person worthy of trust as well.
- Nondefensiveness: Learn to be less defensive in communicating with your partner: Being nondefensive means that you have a realistic view of yourself and your partner and are open to hearing feedback. Look for the kernel of truth in any feedback or criticism you receive from your partner. You may discover that you are overly sensitive to criticism about certain subjects, yet are open to discussing other subjects. In a long-term relationship, partners learn quickly which subjects are “taboo” and stop bringing them up in their conversations. However, this is precisely the kind of censorship that leads to mistrust and tension in a relationship.
- Understanding: Accept and appreciate the differences between you and your partner rather than allowing these differences to degenerate into disagreements that foster distrust. Mature love involves an appreciation and respect for the uniqueness of the other person. This means seeing your partner as a separate individual with his or her own opinions and views.
- Direct Communication: Become more aware of any discrepancies between your words and actions. This type of self-awareness enables partners to develop increased trust in each other. To enhance this mutual trust, partners also need to learn how to communicate their desires and wishes more directly. When people are straightforward in asking for what they want in an intimate relationship, they feel more vulnerable and open to both loving and being loved.
In exploring the diverse meanings of trust, it’s important to discriminate between unconditional trust (naivete) and conditional trust based on sound judgment and past experience. It’s valuable, too, to distinguish between healthy skepticism, which is a mature attitude, and cynicism, which is immature and maladaptive. When the critical inner voice is ascendant in our thinking, we tend to become cynical and scornful toward other people. These negative attitudes are corrosive to the human spirit; they hurt us and our loved ones as well. An attitude of healthy skepticism is a part of the real self, whereas cynicism belongs to the anti-self, that part of the personality that damages our self-esteem and interferes with our relationships.
In conclusion, trust matters a great deal; it helps preserve the love, affection, and tenderness that partners feel toward each other during the beginning phases of their relationship. These feelings of mutual trust continue to sustain them through the inevitable vicissitudes – the ups and downs in every relationship – that they will encounter in the years that follow.