Over and over again in my clinical practice and in my advice column, I often hear from people wanting to build—or rebuild—trust in a significant relationship, whether it’s a sexual relationship, a relationship with a friend, or with a family member. Trust is one of the most crucial building blocks of becoming emotionally intimate with someone; it’s absolutely fundamental for a healthy, close relationship. And yet it is far easier, and takes a lot less time, to lose trust than to build it back up. The rebuilding of trust takes time, patience, and work, just as it does to establish it in the first place. But it can be done if both people are motivated. Are you willing to put in the effort for the significant potential payoff? If so, here are some steps to take.
1. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.
Even as young children, we pick up very quickly on the clues that someone is saying things that aren’t really true. The parent who always threatens to make us leave the restaurant but we know will never actually follow through; the sister who always promises to share her cookie but invariably eats the whole thing anyway—we start not to buy what they’re claiming anymore. Our instincts for self-protection, honed evolutionarily for survival over thousands of years, typically will take note of the proverbial boy crying wolf. And we will adjust our behavior and expectations accordingly—learning not to trust the person quite as much the next time, in order to not be let down. So if you are looking to increase trust within your relationship, it’s imperative that you stop saying things that you won’t follow through on, or that don’t represent your actual feelings. Even what seem like minor lies, when chronic, will tell the other person that they should no longer trust things that come out of your mouth.
2. Be vulnerable—gradually.
Two distant coworkers who spend twenty years just chatting about the weather and not ever working closely together on projects never need to rely on each other for anything other than idle small talk or a returned "Good morning" when passing each other in the hallway. But what about two coworkers who have only worked together for six months, but are constantly in the trenches with each other, coming to need each other desperately for that 9 p.m. email to be returned, or to look over each other’s work, or stand up for each other against a difficult boss? They have developed a bond with each other that is much tighter than decades of small talk, and it’s because they have to be vulnerable with each other—relying on each other to come through or else facing real danger. In relationships that we choose in our personal lives, we also build trust through vulnerability. Some of this comes automatically with time and daily interactions, like knowing that if our partner said they’d pick us up at the airport, they’ll be there, or feeling safe that if we eat a dinner they’ve prepared, it won’t contain the allergen they know will send us into anaphylaxis. But emotional vulnerability is important as well. Building trust takes a willingness to open yourself up to the potential risk of hurt—talking about something embarrassing from your past, letting them in on what scares you in the here and now, showing parts of yourself that you don’t think are "attractive" enough for a first date reveal. Trust is built when our partners have the opportunity to let us down or hurt us—but do not. And in order for them to pass the test and build that trust, we must make ourselves vulnerable to that letdown. Gradually is best, of course, to protect ourselves along the way.
3. Remember the role of respect.
One of the most emotionally lasting ways that our partners can damage us—and our trust—is by belittling us, making us feel less-than, or viewing us with condescension or contempt rather than respect. Think of a basic level of respect as the common denominator in any relationship, whether between a cashier and customer or a mother and son. And the more emotionally intimate your relationship, the more important that keeping up that basic level of respect becomes, not less. Unfortunately, when we are tightly intertwined with someone, we sometimes show them our worst—which can be positive in terms of being vulnerable to them, but it also may involve treating them badly. Ironically, we may lash out at our mother or child or partner in ways that we never would at a cashier—and we forget that respect is even more important with our loved ones because of the damage the lack of it can do over time. This does not mean that you must be formal or perfectly polite always with your partner. But it does mean that you must remember that every time you treat them in a way that demeans them or violates that basic minimum of dignity and respect, you harm your connection a bit—and make it more difficult for them to trust you over time.
4. Give the benefit of the doubt.
Let’s say you’ve had a doctor for ten years that you really respect and have grown to trust. Now compare how you feel about that doctor’s opinion, versus the opinion of a doctor that you’ve never seen before. While you may be willing to rely on the medical credentials of both, chances are you’ll feel far more comfortable with the one you’ve developed trust with. And in fact, that doctor may make some difficult or surprising medical news easier for you to swallow, because you are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt given your trust and history together. The same is true in personal relationships. What goes hand in hand with trust is setting aside your doubts—even if temporarily—and letting the person come through for you. Now, in relationships where trust has been broken and you are trying to rebuild, it may not be wise to set aside all doubt all at once, like in the case of infidelity or substance abuse. "Once bitten, twice shy" may apply in those cases, as you may still need a certain level of checking up on someone to protect yourself from further harm. But over time, if you ever help to truly rebuild trust, you must be willing to string together some moments of letting the doubt go—or at least suspending it—and seeing if they come through for you. (If they don’t, of course, then it is them who is sabotaging the trust-building.)
5. Express your feelings functionally, especially when it’s tough.
Emotional intimacy comes in part from knowing that you can express your feelings to someone and that they will still care about you, that they will not dismiss you out of hand—that they will be willing to listen. It means that you know they will make time to understand your viewpoint, not to shut it down. This entails the maturity of being able to talk about feelings without escalating into shouting, verbally attacking, or closing down the conversation. Of course, it is very easy to have a non-emotionally-intimate relationship where everyone pretends that everything is fine and neither person lets the other person in, because neither person truly trusts the other enough to handle their difficult or awkward feelings or thoughts. But if that’s what you wanted, you wouldn’t be reading this! Work on ways to talk about difficult feelings that feel collaborative, helpful and respectful. Learn to discuss challenging emotions in ways that don’t automatically jump to feeling threatened or starting a conflict. Many of us have taken cues from our parents about how to talk—or not talk—about tough things, and sometimes those patterns can stunt us. But if you truly want to build trust with someone, you’ve got to give them the opportunity to make the connection to the real you, including who you are emotionally.
6. Take a risk together.
Being vulnerable with each other can also be a mutual endeavor, and it doesn’t just involve revealing parts of yourself. It can also involve a joint effort toward something rewarding—an adventurous experience on a vacation, a joint lifestyle change toward healthier habits, an attempt to expand your mutual social circle, or even just expanding your minds together with new ideas in the form of thought-provoking books or movies. This puts you both outside of your comfort zone with the possibility of reward in the form of increased trust—like two comrades who were in the trenches together. And if it’s a romantic relationship you’re looking to increase your connection within, there’s an added bonus: a bit of fear-induced arousal can actually increase your sexual attraction, as the now-classic 1973 study by Dutton and Aron showed.
7. Be willing to give as well as receive.
The friendship research bears out just how important reciprocity is to a solid relationship. And it’s not necessarily that each person is giving exactly as much as they are receiving, but rather that both partners are comfortable with the levels and they feel relatively equal. Of course, in a truly close emotional partnership, it is expected and understood that this balance may shift once in a while—one person leans on the other when it is most needed, and there’s no bean-counting necessary. And that’s because there is trust, and you know that you won’t end up giving, giving, giving without the other person ever coming through for you in return. So, a significant component of building trust is to let this process happen. Virtually everyone understands that they’re not supposed to always take more than they give, but what happens when you don’t let your partner give? You deny them part of this balance. Take the big picture and let both processes happen, being willing to both give and receive. Of course, if you’re willing to give just a little bit more, and your partner is as well, then you create a comfortable, caring cushion for you both and a safeguard against feeling chronically undervalued or unappreciated.
What has worked for you in building or rebuilding trust within a relationship? Let me know in the comments below!