Trust is an essential ingredient in a healthy, strong, and satisfying relationship. We enter into relationships believing that it is a level playing field and that both of us are at the same starting point as we begin to build trust in the relationship. This isn’t true. There are numerous factors that contribute to our willingness and ability to trust another person. Many of these factors have nothing to do with our experience in our present relationship but emerge out of what we bring into the relationship.
If trust is an issue for you, start by looking at your early relationships with the most influential people in your life – your parents and/or other significant people in your childhood. All of us come into this world in a completely helpless and dependent state. Our very survival depends on the ability and willingness of the people around us to meet our basic needs. Your willingness to trust in others has its origins in how well your basic needs were met in these important first relationships. If your childhood needs were not adequately met, you are likely to bring your hurt, fear, and insecurity into your adult relationships. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been on your own or how old you are. You carry the hurts of your childhood with you until you do the work of healing yourself and moving beyond your early history.
Your ability to trust is also influenced by your subsequent experiences in the world. If you’ve been physically or emotionally hurt, or if your sense of security has been threatened in some way, then trust will be an issue for you. Your sense of security can be threatened by abuse in relationships, the betrayal of someone close to you, the loss of a job, a traumatic experience, or by the death of someone you love.
Your level of trust is reflected by how safe you feel within yourself, with others, and within the larger world. It starts with you because as an adult, your primary is to take care of yourself. Do you trust yourself to take care of yourself, to give yourself what you need, to get what you want, and to know what is important to you? Do you trust your own feelings? If you are going to trust yourself you must develop self-awareness, learn to value yourself, be able to assert yourself to meet your own needs, and keep yourself safe. You will not be able to truly trust another person until you are able to trust yourself.
Developing trust in relationships is very similar to developing trust within yourself. Before you can trust another person, you need to get to know them. Knowing another person takes time, lots of time. How can you possibly trust what you do not know?
When you spend time with another person, you have the opportunity to observe them. You will learn about their personal history and the forces that have shaped who they have become. You will see the other person interact with friends, family, colleagues, and strangers. You will hear their comments about other people and daily events. You will feel what it is like to have this person be a part of your world. All of these things will tell you something about the person you are in relationship with. It is up to you to make sense out of the things that you see, hear, and feel as you spend time in the relationship.
At the beginning of relationships, especially romantic relationships, there can be a tendency to see only what you want to see. If you are going to make use of all of the information that is available to you through your observations, you have to take off your rose-colored glasses and work hard at trying to see the other person clearly. Here are some hints to help you do this.
First, look for patterns and consistency. Human beings are creatures of habit. If a person goes into a rage and hurts you verbally, physically, or emotionally and then tells you that they’ve never done this before or it won’t happen again, don’t believe it. You may want to give them the benefit of the doubt in the moment but think it through. People rarely act “out of character”. You may not see this behavior on a day-to-day basis because the rage is being controlled. If you look closely though, you are likely to see the anger under the surface. The angry person may not even be aware of their inner fury, but you will be able to see it and feel it.
Second, one of the best criteria you can use to determine whether or not a person is trustworthy is to see if their words match their behavior. When a person’s words and behaviors match, it is called integrity. Too often people believe what others say because they want to believe it, and it’s easier than trusting their own instincts. In hindsight, when the relationship has ended, they remember the person’s behavior and realize that the clues were there all along.
Third, you cannot have trust in a relationship if you do not have effective communication. This doesn’t mean that you have to talk all the time. There are all kinds of ways to communicate with others. Besides talking, you can communicate with touch, with gestures, with your eyes, and with your behavior. Communication is more than a sharing of information; it is one of the most important ways of connecting in a relationship. You communicate who you are, how you feel about the other person, and what you want in the relationship. Through communication you define the expectations and clarify the boundaries of the relationship. A relationship is like a contract and communication helps you to understand the fine print. Too often people sign on the dotted line without even knowing what they are signing up for.
Caring is the fourth aspect of trust. You are not likely to open up to someone unless you believe that they care about you. Caring must be demonstrated in all aspects of the relationship. To be caring means to be careful with your words and behavior. It takes thousands of little words and gestures to build the trust in a relationship. On the other hand, trust can be destroyed in a moment with a few careless words or actions. Think before you speak and act. Remember, the words, “I’m sorry” only mean something the first time you say them and only if you stop doing what you are apologizing for.
Fifth, you cannot have trust in a relationship without honesty. When a relationship begins, people tell each other all kinds of things. Don’t just take this information at face value. Again, pay attention to their behavior. A person’s behavior is the best source of information about them and will tell you what they are really like. If a person describes themselves as caring and then kicks the dog, take notice. You can change your behavior once or twice to try to fool someone but, over time, you will slip back into your usual behavior patterns. This is why taking your time is so important in developing trust in relationships.
Finally, you cannot have trust in a relationship without commitment. Being committed in a relationship means that you place value on the relationship and are willing to extend yourself for the sake of the relationship. In other words, once you’ve defined the expectations and clarified the boundaries, you make the conscious effort to translate your words into behavior. You are willing to focus your time and energy to do the work of maintaining and building the relationship. If you have your hand on the door at the first sign of trouble or withdraw from the relationship in silence or anger, trust goes out the window. It’s hard to trust someone when you are not sure they value the relationship enough to work at it. It’s hard to trust someone if you can’t count on him or her to stay in the relationship when the going gets tough.
Here are a few other things to consider. Relationships, like the individuals in them, are a work in progress. There isn’t one of us that can say we behave perfectly in all of the above areas. Everyone has blind spots about their own behavior. Just as it takes a lifetime to develop a complete understanding of one’s self, it also takes a lifetime to truly know another person. People continually grow and change. Communication in a relationship is a rocky and complicated road. Like any well-traveled road, the path of communication needs ongoing attention, maintenance and repair. Remember too, that even the most caring person is human and can be selfish or insensitive at times. And while honesty and integrity are admirable goals worth striving for, in reality they are very tough ideals to consistently live up to. Even if you can accept all of these human frailties in yourself and in others, it’s sometimes really hard to keep working on a relationship. It is even harder to know when “enough is enough” and when it is time to end the relationship.
Trust is the glue that holds the relationship between two people together. The glue is made up of self-awareness, knowledge of the other, communication, caring, honesty, and commitment. The glue takes awhile to set. In the meantime, make sure you take very good care of you, and be patient and kindhearted with one another.
Shirley Vandersteen, Ph. D., R. Psych.