Last week I wrote about gaining the trust of our children. This week I’m focusing on earning the trust of our partner. There are similarities between the two but as adults we have had more relationships shape us over the years, thus our brains are chock full of ingrained patterns and expectations. We also view our partners more as equals in decision-making and emotional support.
Nevertheless, trust is a vital inroad to love and intimacy.
When I ask my clients about trust in their relationships, they usually give me some version of, Oh I know John would never cheat on me. He’s not that type. Or, Jennifer is completely honest. She doesn’t lie. I trust her. Or, If I really need Dan I trust that he is there for me. Their ideas about trust center on fidelity, verbal honesty, and coming through when the going gets tough.
I admit, for years these ideas are what trust meant to me too. No doubt, trust would be compromised in a relationship where infidelity, lying and desertion take place, but there are other more subtle, everyday versions of trust that play a huge role in the success or failure of a relationship.
When we are in an intimate relationship we are in a place of vulnerability. We are in a position to give and receive love and trust, much like the position we were in when we were young and cared for (or not) by our parents. In this place of vulnerability, we have to count on another to come through for us.
Just like in last week’s post on earning the trust of our children, as adults we look for our partners to be strong. We want them to handle and even help navigate our big emotions. We want to know our loved one is not going to crumble if we get angry occasionally or cry once in a while. They have strength of character and a steadiness that we can lean on. When we are vulnerable, can they stay strong? Do they have enough personal self-respect and self-esteem to be OK if we are not by their side every second? Can our partner handle us if we do get a little clingy and need reassurance?
It’s one thing to be a happy stable couple when everything is going our way. It’s another when the chips are down and one or both of us is stressed. Can we trust our partner to stick by our side and fight with us? Will they protect us when we need it? Can we offer the same kind of strength when they need it?
One important point about strength, is that we need to be able to trust our partner will not use their strength against us. If someone is physically or emotionally stronger than us, we have to trust them to protect our vulnerability. A secure person uses their strength to build rather than destroy.
Dependability is another trait adults as well as children look for to gauge the trustworthiness of someone. We want to feel we can count on our partner. For example, we don’t want to get excited about plans with our loved one, only to have them scrapped at the last-minute because she decided to do something with a friend. That initial excitement we showed was vulnerability. Excitement and enthusiasm are kinds of social courage. We put our innocent hopes out into the world. We want to trust they will be honored.
Too many times of disappointment register as rejection or abandonment. Anyone with an insecure attachment style is going to be highly aware of such let downs. We are looking for them. Depending on our attachment style we may withdraw to avoid rejection or to self-soothe, as an avoidantly attached person would do. We may become more “clingy” and dependent if we have an ambivalent or anxious attachment style.
A secure person will do their best to not let their partner down. A secure person will also be able to handle if their partner occasionally makes a mistake and has to disappoint them. Consistency is key. We do our best even when we are stressed. We come through on everyday obligations — picking up the kids, listening to each other, hug at the end of the day. Not only can our partners count on us during emergencies, they can count on us to have their back for the smaller things too.
No one is perfect. We all have bad days and unexpected issues arise. Aim for an 80% success rate. Studies show that is enough to give others a sense of security.
Another characteristic that boosts trust is the ability to reassure our significant other. We reach out to them regularly. We respond to their texts, phone calls, emails in a timely fashion. Our nervous systems subconsciously register the time between sending a text and its response. Too much air time bodes badly on our nerves.
Being reassuring means coming from a team or “we” perspective. Our partner has our back and we have theirs. We will tackle obstacles together. We will share joy and excitement together. When a partner is down the other one makes it her job to respond with care appropriate to the partner’s needs, not her own.
For those wrestling with insecurities, a secure partner assures us of their acceptance of us even when we act distant or clingy. They do not make fun of us when we make a mistake. They cheer us on when we take risks. They let us know they are in it for the long haul.
When there is conflict, trustworthy partners lead with relief. They start discussions with statements like, “I know we are struggling right now, but I believe we can work through this together.”
According to marriage expert, John Gottman, couples with masterful relationships trust their partner has good intentions. They believe their partner has their best interest at heart. They are more apt to forgive small infractions because they believe their significant other meant well or at least meant no harm.
It takes time to build up such trust and beliefs. There have to be more positive interactions in the trust bank account than withdrawals. Secure and safe relationships are worth the effort and time because that trust is a relief to our nervous system.
Trust as relief
In my current relationship, it took about eight months for me to trust my boyfriend. In the beginning, I felt the same pangs of doubt I experienced in other relationships. I questioned how emotionally available he was. I wondered if I could count on him. I wondered if I would be a priority. I doubted I could be fully open and sensitive with him. We had a couple of serious discussions. He spent more time talking of collaboration than he did blaming me or getting defensive. He made me want to strive for collaboration too, and not fight to be heard. There were probably times when we both wondered if we were right for each other, but he kept reassuring me by listening and working through any issues. He consistently stood with me. He included me in his life. He began to trust my intentions. I began to trust his intentions. I began to see his strength of character. I began to relax. Right around eight months, I began to feel a sense of relief. That’s when I could fully love him.
We are better resourced and strong if we can self-soothe and trust a partner to comfort us. If we are well resourced, we have more energy. We handle ups and downs better. We love better.
Do you feel the relief of trust in your relationship? If not, what is holding you back? How do you reassure your love so they can trust you?