Trust is the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.
Many articles and research studies refer to trust as “the indispensable ingredient” (note the food metaphor) in a marriage since each partner supplements the other with their minimum daily trust requirement. The fact is, 90 % of Americans are in some way vitamin deficient, and a Pew Research Report finds that 71% of Americans find trusting others has become harder over the last 20 years. Many participants attribute this to political divisiveness, cultural convulsions, global upheaval, divorce caused disruption of family life, and currently, conflicts over vaccines, masking, and the very existence of the virus.
If you Google how to build trust in a relationship, you’ll find 459,000,000 articles on the subject written by psychologists, sociologists, and relationship researchers. After representing divorce clients for 30 years, researching and discussing the cause of marital breakdown with psychologists, sociologists and collecting anecdotal evidence, what I’ve learned is that distrust is at the root of most marital breakups. A recent study found that 71% of those filing for divorce claimed lack of commitment, contributing to a lack of trust as the cause.
Many of my colleagues say that if a client is in my office, it’s too late. I disagree. I believe marriages do not have to end in divorce if the couple understands the source of their distrust and that their trust issues stem from their respective childhood experiences. The conscious and unconscious parental messages they received about their looks, intelligence, abilities, and expectations for what they’ll be and do in life was formative in terms of how they’ll evaluate whether to trust their partner or not.
To understand the dynamic impact trust has on relationships it’s important to understand what constitutes trust. The word “trust” first came into English around 1200 and meant that a person could rely on another for “help, confidence, protection and support”. In the law a trust is a method by which one party gives a second party the right to hold their property for the benefit of a third party. In an intimate relationship it is a choice to risk giving another person your heart with the belief that they won’t break it. Today, legal trusts are established by forming an estate plan, while human trust is established by the life plan our parents have for us.
Trust in humans develops from birth to 18 months, continues to develop throughout childhood and young adulthood, and depends on the care and nurturing a person receives during those formative years from their family of origin, caregivers, and their innate personality traits. Since human adults raise human babies, mistakes interpreting the needs of an infant dependent on their parent or caregiver are bound to be made and are what may cause the seeds of distrust that grow and flourish.
The research that’s emerged is that a crisis of trust in a romantic and/or social relationship will inevitably occur when one or both partners are raised to distrust others. The innate lack of trust can lead to negativity, conflict, insecurity, depression, anxiety, and cause betrayal in an intimate and social context. To identify signs of preset mistrust in a person, here are a few examples to consider:
- Does the person always assume the worst?
- Are they always suspicious?
- Do they self-sabotage?
- Do they distance themselves when conflict occurs?
- Do they focus on the negative no matter their situation?
These are the most frequently manifested signs of a lack of trust in a relationship. Let’s look at each of them separately:
- If a person is always assuming the worst about people thinking that they can’t be trusted, even when the person has proven themselves trustworthy in the past, this ideation causes unresolved conflict.
- If a person is suspicious even when there’s little proof to sustain the belief causes the perception in relationships by the suspicious person, that others are out to harm or deceive them.
- If a person self-sabotages, they are most likely to be the one who wants to get to the door first. They think it’s better to leave a relationship than to be disappointed by it.
- If a person distances themselves from others, the research shows that they fear betrayal and disappointment and would prefer to detach than be hurt by remaining engaged and hearing something they don’t like.
- If a person focuses on their situation negatively, they will notice other people’s flaws and weaknesses rather than focusing on any of their positive qualities.
Ideally, if you saw these red flags you ended the relationship before committing to it. However, since most people’s vision, including my own, was obscured by the haze caused by the hormonal cocktail awash in our brain when we think we’re “in love”, we’re blind to the other’s faults. So, we walk headlong onto emotional wet cement where the first impression of distrust in our partner hardens like concrete. Then each time we evaluate whether we can trust our partner we see the impression in the concrete and question our judgment causing arguments over trust to occur and reoccur. This causes both parties to keep their guard up and guard against being vulnerable.
Many couples who find themselves in this cycle of distrust develop some of the following patterns of behavior:
Loneliness: If you can’t trust the person closest to you in your life, you are bound to experience feelings of loneliness and isolation. Since humans are social animals, it doesn’t take Freud to figure out that one or both partners will seek affection outside the relationship and fulfill the self-fulling prophecy of betrayal.
Lack of Intimacy: As night follows day, intimacy decreases where there is a lack of trust in a relationship. When you feel you can’t be vulnerable with your partner, you will likely distance yourself from them, both physically and emotionally.
Depression and Anxiety: When there’s little trust in a relationship, you will most probably experience higher levels of depression and anxiety caused by constantly questioning your partner’s loyalty and commitment to you. Doubts about whether your partner is lying or being deceitful may cause you to fear what your partner will do next and worry that they’ll not be there when you need them.
Trouble concentrating: An inability to concentrate occurs when you’re constantly worrying about or wondering what your partner is feeling, thinking, or doing and what you should do about the relationship. That is, whether the relationship is worth sledgehammering through the impression left on the concrete or pouring a new foundation.
Looking at what your partner does in the present context, unless there’s been infidelity, sexual, emotional, or financial, will not repair the relationship. Instead, getting at what in their formative years caused them to lack trust is the strategy most relationship researchers find works in these situations. Compassion for a partner is what makes rebuilding trust possible.
While we can see what physical characteristics a partner brings to the relationship, it turns out that what we can’t see is most important to predicting compatibility and a relationship’s longevity. The previously lived experiences of our partner or we lived shape the emotional characteristics we bring to the relationship. Numerous aversive childhood experiences contribute to a partner’s mistrust. For example, a parents’ inconsistent responses to the child, their failure to keep their promises, frightening outbursts of rage, and sexual or physical abuse can set up expectations of future betrayal or lead to an inability to judge the trustworthiness of others accurately. Painful events in childhood leave unseen scars and have a profound impact on us throughout life and our relationships.
To protect ourselves from the pain, disillusionment, and confusion caused by breaches of trust, we build self-protective defenses and a “critical inner voice” that may limit our capacity for trusting others and finding fulfillment in an intimate relationship. A critical inner voice triggers trust issues in a person’s closest relationship. In the early phases of the relationship, if we doubt ourselves, see ourselves as inadequate, or have cynical feelings toward the other person, we are not likely to seek to prolong the relationship. However, if we find someone who seems to love us genuinely, our critical inner voice tells us that we need to be on our guard because their view of us conflicts with our negative self-image. Listening to our critical inner voice takes over our rational thinking.
From the research relationship clinicians find that there is compelling evidence that to build trust in a relationship, partners need to identify the critical inner voices that fuel mistrust which keeps them stuck in their childhood defenses. They recommend four strategies for enhancing trust in a relationship when you’re in it or thinking about exiting from it, but want to give a sledgehammer one more whack at the impression on the settled concrete:
Honesty: This is hard since it requires looking at yourself and the parts of your personality that unpleasant experiences in childhood may have formed. The point is not about blaming your parents for who or what you’ve become but accepting that they are human and subject to all the mistakes a human can make. We’re all struggling to survive and so were they. Although a painful process and one in which you may need professional counseling, increased self-knowledge will enable you to override the critical inner voice. Working on a present inner voice will help you develop more trust in yourself, your thoughts and feelings and will help you establish trust in your partner.
Understanding: If you do the work to build on your self-knowledge, you’ll be able to accept and appreciate the differences between you and your partner instead of allowing those differences to foster distrust. Seeing your partner as having their own childhood experiences and built-in defenses resulting from their life experiences and accepting their opinions and views with this in mind will go a long way to building trust and avoiding conflict. Keeping in mind that all of our personalities are built on strength and struggle will help you feel compassion and empathy for what your partner has gone through.
Non-Defensiveness: This is also hard since it means you have to be realistic about your and your partner’s shortcomings. Being open to hearing feedback and considering that their opinion about your flaws may hold a kernel of truth without feeling attacked will go a long way to resting your relationship on a new foundation. In committed relationships, partners learn what subjects are sensitive to triggering defense mechanisms. The problem is that avoiding talking about them leads to more mistrust and tension. The only way to address insecurities in a relationship is to recognize them and talk honestly about them. Because trust is more a mindful assessment than an emotional one, trying to keep and maintain an emotional balance when talking about them is the best approach and may require professional help to do so.
Communication: What helps most couples build trust is to become more aware of discrepancies when a partner’s actions don’t align with their words. Mistrust breeds hurt that erodes the relationship. Trust takes time to build and avoiding talking about discrepancies leads to secrecy and mistrust. So, an essential step in building trust is to be honest, and forthcoming when you feel a trigger is taking over your rational brain. What’s important is that you can grow closer to each other when you disassemble the emotional armor that’s keeping your defenses up and become vulnerable enough to trust your partner not to hurt you.
In conclusion, trust is the glue that holds a relationship together much like vitamins obtained from food sources or supplements bind the cells of the body together. Much as your body needs a balanced diet to get the needed vitamins a relationship requires trust to balance it. But keep in mind, just as a consistently healthy diet doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time and effort to build the trust a healthy relationship requires.