top of page

What is Trust?

Think for a moment of how you would define trust. Maybe your definition includes synonyms such as dependability, reliability, confidence, responsible, or committed. Maybe trust means believing in what a person says or does. Do you conjure up images of someone who doesn't lie or who always does the "right" thing, or who won't hurt you? Whatever trust is, we all agree that it's crucial to relationships. This may be a difficult discussion for some people who have been hurt or whose trust has been eroded by another's betrayal. But this writing does offer hope that trust can be reestablished in a broken relationship.

Trust, and Social Contracts

When I think of trust, I think also of social contracts. We are, above all, social beings. We live in a world where being self-reliant is almost impossible. Even if you make your own coffee in the morning instead of depending on your barista, you still need someone to grow the beans and ship them in from different parts of the world where they are roasted by still others. And you need salespeople to help with setting up your smartphone. And engineers and technicians to design and care for the cars you drive, not to mention the oil companies who supply the gas. And very few people these days can claim to be self-sufficient when it comes to the food we eat. In short, we need people. And we need lots of people to function as a society. And we need to be able to trust them. 

Trust is Given, Not Earned

We put our trust in a lot of people we have never met. For example, we trust that our elected politicians are going to have our interests at heart when passing legislation. We trust that the pilots who fly our planes are not intoxicated. We trust the weather forecasters when making weekend plans. We trust that our doctors are going to practice their best medicine on us, and give us the treatment we need rather than what the insurance companies say that we need. Every time you drive your car you trust that other drivers are paying attention and being conscientious and safe. And some trust in a god they have never met in person and have only faith in his existence. In these and so many more cases, we are choosing to trust, without proof or justification. We are so willing to put faith in others to have our interests in mind. 

Let's take a simple example. You need a ride the airport, so you choose to call a taxi. You have never met this driver, and he has never met you. You are putting faith in a person to drive you on the highways, and you don't even know his name. Likewise, how does he know that you are actually going to pay him upon arrival? He hasn't run a credit check before agreeing to this contract. But let's look at this transaction a little closer. You don't trust him with everything. You are not going to give him your personal id number, email password or house keys. Likewise, he won't give you his sister's address. You are only going to entrust him with the task for which you need him. In essence, you have a specific need, and so does he. The contract states simply: I'll agree to meet a need of yours, and you'll agree to meet a need of mine. Or, I've got your back and you've got mine. 

Each type of social interaction assumes a different kind of contract, because each unique relationship involves a different set of needs. You will have different needs with your barista than you do your doctor or your boss or your parents. Being in a romantic relationship involves the most complicated contract of all, partly because the needs are not always understood, or are not effectively communicated. It may also be more complicated because for many people that social contract has been broken in past relationships and they are reluctant to extend trust towards another. Maybe trust has been broken in a current relationship and you're doubting whether your partner has your needs or feelings in mind when making their decisions. In these cases, it is common for to state, "You have to earn my trust back."

Trust is Based on Faith, Not Proof

I have heard many stories in my office which make me question whether trust can be proven or earned.  For example, Stan had a secret prepaid phone which he hid in his car and only used to contact his lover. Becky had a secret email account that her husband didn't know about and used this to correspond with her other male friend. Mae told me of how she was sitting at lunch with her affair having a conversation on the phone with her boyfriend; her reasoning was that her boyfriend can't suspect her of cheating if she is in contact with him. Jill and Marc agreed to have GPS locators in their phones, the assumption being that no one parts with their phones anymore; however, Marc just left his phone at the office during lunch while he went to meet his flame. And Roger, who traveled frequently for work, led a double life, having a companion traveler while his wife stayed home with the kids. In this technological age, there are many ways to hide one's indiscretions.

So I got to thinking: the only way to truly prove that someone is trustworthy is to have them wear a GoPro camera on their head and watch them constantly, monitoring every conversation they have, every person they interact with, every email and note they write. You would even have to follow them into the bathroom, just in case they have a phone hidden behind the toilet. If you insist that your partner has to prove that they can be trusted, this is the only way. Otherwise, there will always be a little doubt in your mind whether you can trust him/her. Short of these drastic measures, you will need to have some faith that your partner is looking out for you.

Trust Isn't Black and White

Though a person can't unquestionably prove that they are trustworthy, one can find evidence that they may not be trusted. Consider the Taxi driver above. If on the way to the airport, he gets a call and says that he has to make a detour to an out of the way town to pick up his brother, how do you feel? Most likely you will feel betrayed. He has negated the contract he has entered into with you. He's demonstrating that he is no longer considering, or maybe never did consider, your needs important. You will unlikely get into another cab with him. You may even develop a distrust for the whole industry. My client, Betsy, left her boyfriend after he cheated on her, and stated that she didn't know if she could ever trust any other man. Betsy's hurt has caused her to question the sincerity of all men.

But I don't see trust as an all-or-nothing proposition. Even if you state that you trust someone completely, there may still be some part of you holding back from trusting fully. Tony said that he trusted his wife completely, but when I asked him if she had the password to his email, he mentioned that he had some sentimental letters from past relationships that he didn't want to let go of. Even though he believed these mementos didn't harm his marriage, Tony did not trust that his wife could understand or be okay with him having those fond memories. Similarly, Abbie would only call her sister when her husband wasn't around because she would gossip about other family members, something she feared her husband would judge her for. So the next time you close the bathroom door while on the toilet, or pretend you didn't notice the attractive person walk by, or hide that chocolate bar you're saving for later, ask yourself whether you trust your partner in that moment!

One phrase I hear frequently in my office is "I can't trust him (her)." One example is Jennifer, who lost nearly $5,000 gambling. Her husband, Neil, complains that he can't trust Jennifer at all. This is a very troubling statement for Jennifer who, besides her financial issues has been a very loyal and considerate partner. I asked Neil about their daily living. He trusted her to cook a healthy dinner for their family. He trusted her to drive the kids to school safely. He trusted her to pay the bills on time. He trusted her enough to sleep next to him at night and to be courteous when his parents visit, and to speak kindly of him to her friends. I said to him, "It seems like you trust her an awful lot. Can you rephrase what you don't trust?" He replied, "I guess I do trust her, but I don't trust her gambling addiction." At that point, Neil and Jennifer found common ground, for she didn't trust her addiction either. The two saw that they were on the same side, struggling with the same problem. 

When people say that they can't trust their partner, it's never black and white. The wife who catches her husband cheating on her is still trusting him in many ways (for example, caring for her kids). Try to be more specific about what it is you don't trust, and avoid making this global statement about your partner. What this wife doesn't trust might be her future and whether she'll be hurt again. Maybe she realizes that she can't trust her judgement of others. She might not trust that she can make a decision about moving on from the marriage. Or she feels insecure and doesn't have faith in her ability to attract her husband anymore. I have seen this in a few of my clients who have pursued flings after having been cheated on themselves, commenting, "I just needed to feel good about myself again.".

I've Got Your Back

Betrayal is the antithesis of trust and erodes emotional security in a relationship. What helps people to feel secure is knowing that their partner is looking out for them, and has their interests at heart. What we want to know is that when they make decisions that might affect us, that they consider our feelings and our needs. Would you go out and buy a new motorcycle without first consulting your partner? If your finances are linked and money is tight, this might be a problem. What about time management? Would you make plans for Saturday night to get together with friends before finding out if your partner is already booked, or if childcare can be arranged? Would you agree to meet for happy hour (code for "Let's get a drink together") with an attractive coworker you've had a crush on? What if you are offered a promotion at work, but you have to move to another state. Would you accept the promotion without consulting your partner? I have heard in my office over the years all of these and many more examples of people not having their partners' backs.

Most decisions you make would not normally require you to consult your partner. For example, which route you take to work is not important to him or her. Nor is the decision about which shampoo to use on your hair. Choosing to spend your free time playing video games or reading a book will unlikely affect your relationship, as well as how you spend that extra money you discovered hiding in your coat pocket. Deciding to take a walk or call your mom on your break doesn't need your partner's consideration.  

What your partner needs to know is that when you make a decision that might affect them, that they are there in your head influencing those choices. But there may be a grey area in some of these choices, which will depend on the unique nature of your relationship. For example, deciding what to have for lunch seems like it would probably be inconsequential to your relationship. However, Joe promised to support his wife in her diet and both agreed to wanting to lose weight and get in shape. So she was furious with him when she discovered that he indulged in the pizza and soda that his boss brought to the company meeting. When he took that bite of pizza, she felt he dismissed her needs as unimportant to him.

Here's a similar example from my own marriage. I go out dancing with my wife on Thursday evenings, which requires some close contact. When I decide what to have for lunch, I keep the dance in mind. I'm really in the mood for that meatball sub with lots of garlic and jalapenos, accompanied by a hoppy IPA. But I know that this just comes right out my pores and makes my breath unbearable, and the dance less enjoyable for her. So, on Thursdays I avoid spicy foods and strong beers, opting for more mild foods. She is in my head, reminding me that she wants to have a more enjoyable time with me that evening.

Tell Them About It!

The good news is that even though you can't prove that your partner can trust you, you can present evidence that you are trustworthy. Here's how to do that.

As I stated before, what your partner needs is to know that you carry them in your head and they help to influence your choices. Well, most of us already do that. We make thousands of decisions every day, and some of those are choices affect our partners. We just don't verbalize these. Garry has a choice to stay around after work and chat with colleagues. But he choose to rush home because he knows that his wife needs a break from the kids and help with dinner. She's not in his head and doesn't know he made a choice with her in mind unless he verbalizes it: "Honey, the guys wanted to hang out and get to know the new manager over beers, but I knew you needed me and I would have much rather been there for you than for them. Plus, you're nicer to look at!"

In the previous section, I mentioned Joe, who is on a diet with his wife. Maybe he does resist the pizza, but he doesn't think this is important enough to bring up in their "How was your day" conversation. Yet there may have been a great impact on her faith in him if he had stated, "The pizza at lunch was calling to me and it was so hard to resist, but my promise to uphold our diet was more important and that slice would have left a bad taste in my soul."  In another scenario, Joe really want to curse at that bad driver, but he choose not to because he knows his words will upset his wife and kids in the car. How will they know Joe is looking out for their feelings unless he states it. And his wife likes the French milled soap her girlfriend got for her, but knowing that the smell is too strong for Joe she decides to use a more mild soap. Again, Joe doesn't know that he helped influence her decision unless she says something.

How do you feel when you find out that your partner has your back, is thinking of you when making decisions? Part of us smiles when we know that wherever our partner goes, we are right there with them. And even given simple samples of a person's thoughtfulness, like resisting pizza or deciding which soap to use, we tend generalize that to other choices they may make, and it helps to give faith in that person to be looking out for us. You don't have to verbalize every decision you make in your partner's interest, but simple examples now and then reminds them that they are in your head, that their needs and feelings are important to you. This is emotional security.

bottom of page