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My client Fran, a 38-year-old fit, attractive professional, has been trying to work through her trust issues with her fiancé of five months, George. I hadn’t seen her professionally for a number of weeks, when one day, out of the blue, she scheduled an appointment. She entered my office, took her old familiar seat on my sofa, and burst into tears. “I try desperately to convince him I love him, am committed to him, and will always be there for him. But regardless of what I do or say, he is concerned that I will leave him,” she said. “What can I do to get him to trust me?”
For Fran and others like her, the answer is you can’t make someone trust you if that person isn’t able or motivated to do so. Fran needs to continue to show George, through actions and words, that she is loyal, supportive, and reliable, but trust is always a two-way street. Your partner needs to have the ability and desire to trust you, and you need to be trustworthy.
My advice to Fran and others: Understand what trust means and why it’s important, ask yourself two questions about whether trust can develop in your relationship, and then try some trust building exercises with your partner, assuming both partners are committed to the process. Trust, or the lack of it, defines a partnership. It needs to be present for the relationship to flourish and go forward!
When you trust someone, you believe that person tells you the truth, won’t hurt or deceive you, and has your best interests at heart. In a loving relationship, it’s important that you and your partner each feel a sense of trust. This faith reduces your inhibitions and worries, and you can reveal feelings and dreams with each other. This sharing makes you feel closer and more connected to your partner.
In my long-term study of marriage, I asked the happiest couples to name their most important relationship expectation. A whopping 92% of the men and 96% of the women answered: “You should feel that your spouse would never hurt or deceive you.” There has to be trust.
Before trust can develop in a relationship, you must figure out if you’re able to trust your partner (and vice versa) and if each of you is trustworthy. These two things will determine whether it’s possible for trust to grow in your relationship.
You and your partner must ask yourselves this same question. It’s impossible to leave a serious relationship or go through a divorce without some negative feelings toward the ex-partner. But to build trust with a new person you need to let go of any strong feelings toward a previous relationship or ex. In my research, to truly trust a partner, you must say: “I don’t feel much of anything toward my ex.”
Hanging on to strong feelings about the past prevents you from developing trust in a new relationship. You must work through or tackle these feelings head on, and neutralize your attachment to the past, or you’ll miss out on new relationships. You’ll compare current partners to the past ones, and you won’t be able to fully trust a new partner.
For my client Fran, her fiancé George was still very angry that his ex-wife had divorced him several years ago. This emotional baggage prevented him from seeing how truly loving and supportive Fran was in their current relationship.
Of course, building trust in a new relationship is also about you and your partner’s trustworthiness or ability to be reliable and honest. But how do you know if your partner is the kind of person who can be trusted? There are three cues that point to the fact that a person is trustworthy.
Do they behave in the same way each time they are stressed out, upset, or full of love? Consistent behavior is a key to trustworthiness.
Does your partner tell you the truth and not keep secrets from you? It’s fine to protect you from some information (a little privacy isn’t a bad thing), but if he or she hides important information, then you can’t build trust together and grow as a couple. If a person regularly lies, fabricates information, or makes statements that contradict the truth, it will eat away at your relationship.
Does your partner think of you (and what might be best for you) when making decisions separately and as a couple? This includes what you do as a couple, where you go on dates, and how you support each other’s friendships, careers, and life decisions.
One way to build trust in a relationship is for you and your partner to share personal information with each other. This may be confidential information you haven’t revealed to anyone else. You can ask your partner questions about her early childhood, what he’s most proud of doing in the last year, or what it was like to grow up with a mother who is a therapist. When your partner answers these intimate questions, and you listen with an open mind, trust builds between the two of you.
I told my client Fran to write down seven personal questions on a piece of paper (e.g., did he have a pet when he was growing up or where would he travel to and why if he won the lottery?) and put them in a large bowl. She and George should then sit down together, pick each piece of paper out of the bowl, and both share the answers in front of each other. This conversation might even last a few nights!
Reveal personal stories and secrets to your partner without asking questions of him or her. Studies show if one person shares something extremely personal and both people are interested in having the relationship continue, then the other person naturally responds at the same level of intimacy.
This then gradually builds trust in the relationship. You can also use how much each of you is disclosing to each other over time as an index of whether the relationship is developing trust or not.
Another way to build trust in a relationship is to have what I call a trust chat with your partner. Sit down and ask each other tough questions like:
More than anything else, this conversation will give you a sense of how much you trust one another at that time and whether you view trust and commitment in the same way. Consensus and shared values on the meaning of trust and commitment lay the groundwork for trust to continue to grow in your relationship.
Trust also can develop in a relationship by doing activities together that require both of you to complete the task. Activities that are built on teamwork, like taking care of a puppy, jointly planting flowers in a garden, or working on a puzzle together, create trust.
It’s the process of achieving these outcomes together (e.g., puppy thrives, garden full of flowers, a finished puzzle) that builds trust and reliance on each other.
Trust takes time to develop at the beginning of a relationship. If your relationship is new, pay attention and wait and see whether trust grows and expands as time goes on. Recognize that trust follows a clear pattern in most relationships. It increases over time, and the more you trust your partner, the more your partner is likely to trust you in return.
As supportive and loyal as you are, you can’t make your partner trust you. For some people, trusting others is challenging because they’re caught emotionally in the past. Also, when your partner breaks the trust that the two of you have built up over time (e.g., affair, gambling, or lying), this is called a betrayal. These betrayals are painful because you’re confronted with the fact that your partner, whom you trusted, is not as dependable, reliable, or honest as you thought. You can regain trust after a betrayal, but it takes a lot of work and commitment on the part of both partners.
Fran came back to see me after a few weeks. “George and I finally had a trust chat. I needed to ask George the tough questions about commitment, loyalty, and his expectations for our relationship. George is also seeing a therapist about the anger he continues to feel toward his ex-wife.” Fran was definitely less anxious. She also mentioned she and George decided they really wanted to work on the trust issue together. They’re making an effort to do the trust building exercises together and were actually enjoying them. “We are much better. We talk it all out now.”