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Do you remember the carpet riding scene from the Disney movie “Aladdin”? Jasmine inquires if the magic carpet is safe. Aladdin responds with the question, “Do you trust me?” Jasmine is surprised, and he repeats the question. “Do you trust me?” She looks up at him and firmly replies, “Yes.”
Princess Jasmine has never gone for a ride on a magic carpet, nor does she know Aladdin. Her reaction is based on a gut feeling and Hollywood wants us to believe that trust is this easy and straightforward to achieve. Is that really true? Where and how do we place our trust?
The trust expert Rachel Botsman points out how in the past trust used to flow upwards in our society by us placing trust in the people in power; today it flows sideways through our social networks. Sideways means to our collegues, friends, neighbours and so on, including strangers. In today’s world, we have lost faith in institutions, in bankers and in leaders, whether political, economic or spiritual leaders.
Does this mean we are less trusting than we used to be? Botsman says that the contrary is the case. While we are mistrustful of authorities and institutions, we are meanwhile placing our trust in our peers, including strangers on the Internet, or in technology itself. We are renting our home out to unknown guests through Airbnb, going on blind dates with people we have met on dating sites, are exchanging currency digitally and so on. Our smart phones or apps on those phones ask us on a regular basis for access to almost our entire life, our location, our photos, our microphone, our contacts and so on.
Humans are interdependent and cannot live life without making choices on who to trust. The mistrust towards anybody or anything which has a monopoly of power can be a good thing if it leads to the empowerment of the individual. The question is how the vacuum of not trusting who we used to trust in the past is filled today. Being more aware of the abuse of power, especially where there is a money trail, and for example reading the ingredient labels of food and cosmetics carefully, researching the vaccine your child is about to receive, or being cautious that our politicians are free of any hint of corruption, is certainly keeping us all safer. At the same time, we often seem to be very trusting when it comes to the convenience of technology.
As a relationship coach, I am especially interested in how trust shows up in our one-on-one relationships, especially in our primary love relationship. What components does trust have and how do they affect our relationships?
Trust is usually a process. Trusting means placing our faith or confidence in something unknown. That could be a person, a new idea, a new product and so on. There usually is a gap between what we know and what we don’t know, and we call this gap a risk. If I trust because I feel I can predict or even be certain how the other person is going to behave, that is not really trust. Having trust is the confidence in what we are not certain about. Life can hold some unpredictable magic carpet rides for us.
Trust is about being vulnerable. We cannot be sure of what is going to happen tomorrow, yet we need to approach life with trust. When we get married or start a committed relationship, we cannot ensure that we will still be together twenty years later. All we can do is to decide to do our best and trust our partner to do the same. However, during a relationship, trust is in a constant flow and must be maintained while we interact with each other.
A real issue regarding trust is poor information. From a lack of information, we often make assumptions and end up with unrealistic expectations. Have we had those tough conversations before entering into a relationship? Conversations about common future goals, about common values, about having and raising children, about money, and about other major topics which tend to lead to perpetual problems for many couples? In relationships it is of uttermost importance to have real conversations, in which we are transparent and up front about our expectations. In the euphoria of being in love, most of us skip those conversations that could provide us with necessary information. We might end up in a relationship and realize that there are trust issues due to not having gathered the necessary information.
Botmans feels it is helpful to think of trust in context, and I agree. If you are my friend, you might for example trust me to take care of your child because you believe I am a capable mother, but you might not trust me to fix your computer issue—or cook you a five-course meal—because you know I don’t have the competency to do that. However, perceived competency is only one aspect of trust.
What are the ingredients of trustworthiness? Research has shown that there are four key factors:
- Competence (skills, knowledge, experience)
Let’s assume you are my neighbour and you know I used to be an elementary school teacher and that I have raised my own children; those children appear to be well-adjusted and have a good relationship with me. Therefore, you might trust me to look after your child because you feel I am competent as a caregiver. You do, however, not trust me to solve your computer issue because you know I neither have the skills, knowledge nor patience required.
Applied to a love relationship, this might mean that you perhaps trust your partner to drive you somewhere because you know he hasn’t had an accident in 25 years and you believe he is a good calm driver, but you don’t trust him to balance the household budget because he never learned the skill of making ends meet.
- Reliability (time, responsiveness)
If you call me to ask if I could watch your child but I don’t respond appropriately within a reasonable time frame to your request, you will lose trust in me despite my competence.
If you have asked your partner to pay the bills but he procrastinates and only pays the bills after three more reminders and when they are past due, you also won’t trust his financial competency due to the lack of reliability. Meanwhile, you might experience that you only had to ask him once if he could drive you to a doctor’s appointment. You feel you can rely on him driving you; you trust him in that respect. You don’t trust that he is reliable as far as paying the bills.
We also check how much the other person cares. If you have the impression that I like your child, I have learned their name and at least some details about them and I have indicated in the past that I care about you and your family, your trust in me as your child’s caregiver is also going to be higher.
If you feel your partner cares about money and is trying hard to balance the budget, pay bills or save money, you will trust him more than when you are under the impression that he does not care about money. The same applies to driving you. If you feel he cares about getting you safely to were you need to go, your trust in him as a driver increases.
More important than any of the other three key components, more important than honesty or authenticity are our intentions. If there is a misalignment regarding our intentions and the other person’s intentions it also feels like the other one is not trustworthy.
If you feel I am watching your child because I am expecting you to vote for me in the next condo board president election in return, you will lose trust in me, independent of my competence, reliability or benevolence.
The same applies to your partnership. If the goal of future safety is high on your list of values and having fun in the moment is lower on your priority list, but your partner’s value system is opposite, you are dealing with a mismatch. Your partner’s intentions of living well in the present clashes with your intention of creating financial safety. That gap in intentions or expectations makes your partner untrustworthy to you in regards to financial matters.
Knowing all the ingredients of trustworthiness, we end up with a different level of trust in each relationship. We trust other people more or less in different areas. We all have principal areas in which we want to experience being able to trust.
In a relationship we can increase trust, by working on all four key components: our competence, our reliability, our benevolence and by being clear about our intentions and value systems. Open and honest conversations about values and priorities, combined with the willingness to meet each other’s needs, increase the trust in a relationship.
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