Trust is one of the keystones of any relationship — without it two people cannot be comfortable with each other and the relationship lacks stability. As its basic tenets, trust lets us feel secure because we believe our partner has our back and is loyal through thick and thin. It also allows us to display our thoughts and feelings openly and honestly, because we regard our partner as supportive and don’t worry that they will judge, ridicule or reject us. Trust goes hand in hand with commitment: it’s only after you feel you can trust someone are you able to truly commit to that person.
Trust builds slowly as we learn about our partner and they become predictable to us. Predictability is important because having an idea of what will happen makes us feel in control of our lives. As we observe how our partner thinks and acts in a given situation, we develop a sense as to how they will think and act in future situations. If they are consistent and have our best interests at heart, we can believe they will continue to do so in the future, so we can trust them. There’s an element of faith operating with trust because we really can’t know what our partner might do or say before the fact. Having faith in your partner, meaning you believe they will do right by you before they do it, is considered to be a pretty good indicator of a trusting relationship.
The sense of security and predictability that comes with trust makes us feel good about our partner and believe our relationship has long term potential. These positive thoughts help to keep our emotions on an even keel. When emotions are under control, they don’t get the better of us. So we’re able to discuss problems openly and with little or no hostility, and have an easier time coming to solutions. We’re also able to keep many conflicts in perspective and not use any single event to judge the overall quality of our relationship. Additionally, it’s easier to forgive most indiscretions because we don’t believe our partner would intentionally hurt us.
As slow as trust is to build, it can dissolve quickly, sometimes from a single indiscretion. If that event is extreme, such as infidelity, trust can be very difficult to re-establish, and that will undermine other aspects of a marriage. One of the main casualties is communication. Because we can’t be sure of our partners’ motives or have an idea of what they’re thinking, we can have trouble talking to each other. It’s not possible to work through issues if you can’t believe what your partner is saying. That means we might avoid discussing problems they’ve become so emotionally charged that we can only react with anger and hostility. We might also feel we have to be very careful in choosing their words, because we can’t be sure how their partner might react to what we say. Under such conditions, it’s not surprising that couples with trust issues argue much more frequently, and their disagreements have a more negative tone and rarely lead to resolutions.
Partners who don’t trust can’t feel secure, so their relationship will cycle through frequent emotional highs and lows. That happens because a mistrusting partner spends much of their time scrutinizing their relationship and trying to understand their partner’s motives. When their words or actions seem trustworthy or positive, the questioning partner feels happy and has hope for the relationship. But when some untrustworthy or negative event happens, it serves as evidence that the relationship has problems. Furthermore, when we don’t trust our partner, we’re prone to exaggerate their negative behavior and discount their positive behavior. So because the positives have much less weight than the negatives, we’re likely to constantly question the goodness of the relationship.
While a breakdown in trust is sometimes a result of actual indiscretions by one or both spouses, that’s not always the case. Some people, for various reasons, have trouble trusting anyone and may not trust their partner regardless of whether or not that person is trustworthy. Those with trust issues often have a few associated patterns of thinking and acting that make all types of relationships difficult for them. They tend to be critical of others, interpret situations in a cynical or negative light, and are less willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. Interestingly, low trust people are themselves more prone to lie and cheat than are trusting people. It’s possible they justify such behavior because they believe others are doing the same thing to them.
Low trust people bring to their marriage the same problems that are found among couples in which one partner truly can’t be trusted. They have trouble communicating, constantly question their partner’s motives, and allow their feelings of mistrust to cloud their overall perceptions of their partner and their marriage. Furthermore, because they tend to be highly critical, they will look upon what their partners say and do with much less tolerance than would a trusting person. They might also regard their partner’s questionable words and deeds as personally threatening, and that can cause them to overreact to minor indiscretions. As a consequence, small problems can have a bigger impact than they normally should.
Someone who’s married to a low-trust person will find their relationship to be exasperating. They might feel constant pressure to make sure they come across as honest and trustworthy. Such scrutiny can mean they have to spend more effort than should be necessary justifying themselves. They might also think there’s a “Kafkaesque” quality to their relationship. They feel punished or criticized for no reason, and yet guilty and helpless to fix a problem that really doesn’t exist. Along with feeling frustrated and possibly resentful, they’re likely to feel insecure about themselves and their relationship. As a result, they’re likely to find it difficult to stay personally connected to their partner.
Unfortunately, there’s not much advice to be offered if your partner truly can’t be trusted. You can try to discuss the issue, but that’s not likely to lead to a meaningful solution. If they’re really untrustworthy, how can you believe their promise not to be? The hard truth is a relationship without trust cannot flourish long term. It’s extremely difficult to disregard or de-emphasize such a flaw in your partner, because its existence will leave you feeling insecure about your relationship and that in turn makes it hard to feel emotionally connected.
However, if your mistrust is more perceived than real, or is based upon very minor transgressions that should be overlooked, then the issue comes down to your perspective, and that’s something that can be fixed. If you believe all or most people are untrustworthy or dishonest, or you often feel suspicious about other people’s motives, then you might want to consider that your inability to trust your partner stems from a broader personal problem. Individual therapy can be very effective in developing strategies that will help you cope with mistrust. Keep in mind that learning to trust is certainly worth the effort. Not only will it improve a marriage, but it will help you in other relationships and can improve your overall psychological well-being.
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