Listen to all three parts of the article as an extended version on my podcast, or read part one below!
Why are trust issues such a common topic for relationships? The answer is simply that we are all human; we are imperfect people who make mistakes. And other imperfect people with whom we are in relationships will too often hurt us, or disappoint us, or even betray us. A betrayal happens when one person does not take the feelings of another person into account. Every time we do not consider our partner’s feelings or fundamental needs, he or she is bound to feel disappointment and the trust in the relationship diminishes.
Kirshenbaum states in her book “I love you but I don’t trust you” that between 40% and 70% of couples know they have significant problems with trust, and at least 90% of couples will have a crisis of trust at some point.
Any upsetting surprise or discovery that makes us feel vulnerable, hurt or unsafe can be experienced as a betrayal. When we have a reasonable expectation and the other person violates it through their choices, we feel disappointed or betrayed. Mayor betrayals are of course gambling away the couple’s entire savings, having an emotional or physical affair, or tricking your partner into having a baby he or she didn’t want. Betrayals also happen when someone we trust doesn’t stand up for us, says bad things behind our back, takes advantage of us, exposes us to a situation we experience as dangerous, keeps important things from the past or present secret, pulls us into financial difficulties, or breaks other major promises or unspoken agreements.
Betrayal is a reliability breakdown. One big betrayal is painful but often easier to recover from than an endless series of little disappointments or little betrayals. The latter occurs when we are in a relationship with an unreliable partner who makes promises and keeps breaking them. In the second case, you cannot count on anything. Such little betrayals are ongoing lies, or repeated situations where the other person keeps getting into trouble, or keeps failing at something that is expected of an adult, for example their job or managing their money.
Differences Between the Partners
One way in which trust issues enter a relationship is when there are significant differences between the partners in background, personality or preferences. “For example, if you like to plan and your partner likes to just wing it, your partner’s way of doing things will seem wrong to you and you’ll feel that you can’t trust him” (Mira Kirshenbaum, 27). You will both be mistrustful of each other. The planner might feel they cannot count on anything and the more spontaneous person will potentially feel trapped, controlled or stifled, and therefore also experience mistrust.
Another risk factor for mistrust is a situation of unequal power, for example when one person has more money than the other, or more personal power. Having more power can play out as not needing to consult the other partner when decisions are made, or can occur if the priorities of the more powerful partner trump their partner’s wishes. The partner with less power experiences that they are not treated equally and that their wishes and needs matter less. On the other hand, the person with more money can never be sure that the other likes him or her for who he or she is. That erodes the trust on their end.
The worst trust killer is when one partner does not know where they stand with the other because that person is hiding. “He just plays his cards close to his chest. He’s not even open enough to tell you he doesn’t know where he stands on the subject of making a commitment. He keeps saying ‘I don’t know’ to your questions. He changes the subject when you try to press him a little on any personal topic.” (Kirshenbaum, 30)
Because two people are never identical, one will ultimately be more open than the other. The person who is less open will inevitably begin to seem hidden to their partner. And we all fear that when something is hidden it cannot be anything good. We start to feel insecure and afraid. So the more open partner begins to ask questions, to push, to probe or to invade. And the other partner will resist, close up more and put up more barriers. So in most relationships, there is one person hungry for more openness and the other one who is defending their closeness.
If you need to be with somebody who is open and you are with a hidden person, then you have a compatibility problem. However, a simple agreement can help to shift the dynamics of mistrust. That commitment is, “I will open up if you do not slam me” and “I won’t slam you if you open up.” This means that the person who is hidden has to swallow their fears and take a risk. And the other person has to be okay with hearing upsetting news and not freaking out about it.
According to Kirshenbaum, we make two mistakes. “We get upset at what the other person has revealed. And we give the other person the third degree about when they first knew this and why they didn’t tell us sooner and what else are they hiding” (Kirshenbaum 264). Or as Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson call it, we become lie invitees. When we get angry, attack or act like martyrs and make the other person feel guilty, we are not helping our partner to be truthful.
Unfortunately, we cannot command openness, we can only encourage or reward it. Instead of responding with anger, our first goal needs to be to welcome the honesty. We might want to say something like, “I really welcome your openness, and I am grateful, even though I am struggling to hear this information.”
Dr. Alexandra Solomon, who teaches an undergraduate course at Northwestern University called “Building Loving and Lasting Relationships: Marriage 101”, talks about asking constraint questions to invite the other person to dialogue. For example, if our partner lies to us, we can ask, “Why did you lie to me?” Or we can phrase a constraint question and ask, “What kept you from being truthful with me?” The first question triggers defensiveness, and we are coming from a victim place, where the other person is the perpetrator. The second question is coming from a place of curiosity and invites a conversation in which we share responsibility. Perhaps, it did not feel safe to tell the truth, or perhaps it is something our partner has learned growing up and that fear or limiting belief needs to be healed. We are interested in our partner’s history to understand and we are invested in working on changing this pattern together.
While you can’t have relationships without disappointments because it is part of human nature to hurt others, you cannot have a solid love relationship without trust. Trust nourishes the relationship. Only when you trust each other can you fully relax, be open and feel safe enough to let the other one see your true self.
According to Kirshenbaum, the trust healing process consists of “finding ways to radically take the other person into account”. Often right after a betrayal or broken trust we want to understand why it happened. Oddly enough that has us more invested in the relationship than we were in a long time.
By nature we are designed as trusting creatures. Our ancestors could only survive because they trusted each other and worked together. According to Kirshenbaum, there is a “trust-hungry part” and a “betrayal vulnerable part” in all of us. Trust is our default mode. Unless we have a reason not to trust, we will default to trusting. But when something happens that triggers our fears of betrayal, that betrayal vulnerable part will awaken and can cause destruction.
In PART TWO of this three part article we will address how to decide whether to go or stay in the relationship. Click here to read part two.
In PART THREE we will explore the steps to healing the broken trust. Click here to read part three.
If you would like to work on a trust issue by yourself or with your partner, contact me for a free phone consultation
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