Can I trust you to stick around through chemo and radiation treatments?
Can I trust you to choose me over your mother?
Can I trust you to respect me?
Can I trust you to provide for our family?
Can I trust you to have my best interest in mind?
Can I trust you to support my goals?
Can I trust you to not jump ship when things get hard?
Can I trust you to be sexually faithful?
Trust—a heavy five-letter word.
Trust and betrayal
Someone once told me that you could not have a relationship without trust, and they were absolutely right. At least not a healthy one, because trust is embedded in every fiber of a relationship.
To better understand trust, we need to reflect on the opposite—betrayal. Often betrayal is thought of as this huge event that shakes the partnership to its core. Betrayal can be obvious, loud, and big. It can also be subtle, discrete, and ongoing, eroding the relationship over time.
You experience betrayal when you discover information your partner kept from you. Or when they don’t show you the support you need when you need it most. The message you receive is that you cannot totally rely on them.
Trust allows partners to experience emotional and commitment safety. It opens the door for a deeper connection and gives them the motivation to endure the hard times they will face. The five-letter word is not just important for the health of the relationship. It also impacts the physical health of the partners. The distress caused by romantic relationships negatively impacts physical health. If you are male, it can actually be a matter of life or death. In a longitudinal study, Dr. John Gottman found that 58% of men who found themselves in a marriage that scored low on trust died over the 20-year period of the study.
‘How do I build trust?’
Trust is built in the little moments of everyday life, not with grand gestures twice a year. In every interaction, you have the opportunity to turn towards your partner or turn away from them. Dr. Gottman calls these sliding door moments.
Let’s say, I come home looking sad. My partner is doing household chores. They can put the broom down and show concern for my mood or they can keep sweeping. They can choose to prioritize me and our relationship or the cleanliness of the home. That’s a sliding door moment. One missed opportunity to connect won’t tarnish the relationship. Yet over time, if turning away becomes the norm, the relationship suffers.
The essence of building trust is attunement—being aware of your partner’s emotion and leaning towards it with genuine curiosity. It includes listening empathically to understand your partner while creating space for conflicting perspectives and engaging non-defensively.
Let’s go back to betrayal for a second. At the core of betrayal is not simply turning away from my partner during a sliding door moment. Betrayal is rooted in the idea that I can do better and that there are better options for me. I choose to not connect with my partner because I think there’s a better alternative. The alternative might be a friend, a TV show, my work, or another sexual partner. If we get wrapped up in this mindset, we will find ourselves building resentments, refusing to compromise, and letting arguments escalate. Eventually, we begin to check out from the relationship.
‘Is trust repairable?’
The answer is the proverbial therapist response: it depends. What caused the break of trust? What is the partners’ capacity and willingness to repair? In the book “What Makes Love Last?,” Dr. Gottman and Nan Silver lay out a method for communicating with your partner that fosters trust through attunement.
- Put your feelings into words. It can be difficult to articulate what you feel. There’s no shame in that. Just communicate that to your partner. Tune into your body and use bodily sensations as cues. Invite them to help you decode your feelings.
- Ask open-ended questions. Avoid close-ended questions that elicit one-word responses. Open-ended questions ask for a story and show genuine curiosity on your part.
- Follow up with statements that deepen the connection. When your partner responds to one of your open-ended questions, reflect back on what you heard. In your own words, paraphrase what they said. Don’t make assumptions, defend yourself, or bring the focus to you.
- Express compassion and empathy. Don’t tell your partner how they should be feeling. Don’t react defensively. Instead, hold space for their feelings, all of them, and even if they feel uncomfortable to you. This creates a deeper connection and a sense of emotional safety. Your partner now knows they can talk to you about the hard stuff.
Remember, you can build trust every day.
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