Throughout my four decades as a relationship therapist, I’ve too often witnessed how the betrayal of trust damages intimate partnerships. New lovers rarely betray one another, yet often break their commitments as the relationship matures.
“I trust you with my whole heart.”
“You’ve betrayed my faith in you.“
“I can never trust you again.”
Why does the initial trust in new relationships not hold? What is there about early trust experiences and beliefs that do not weather the test of time? Is it that the trust between new lovers is not based on accurate predictions of their behaviors because the couple is too willing to make promises they may not be able to keep? Is there a different kind of trust that would have held if only they knew the difference early on?
The answer to both of those questions is “yes.”
Let’s call the first kind of faith in an intimate partner “fantasy trust.” It is a belief system that arises from the passion and vulnerability of a new relationship. The impassioned lovers within it want desperately to be trusted and go out of their way to be honorable partners in the eyes of the other.
That assumption, unfortunately, is based on preliminary knowledge over a short and passionate time that hasn’t given the partners enough experience to accurately predict each other’s eventual behaviors. As a result, most new lovers truly believe that they will be able to forever deliver those promised behaviors but cannot sustain those promises over time.
It is my experience that lovers who expect fantasy trust behaviors to continue unabated will end up misunderstanding, disappointing, and disillusioning each other.
Credible trust happens in a very different way. It is created by a couple’s cumulative behavioral interactions as the relationship matures. It gives the partnership time to ripen as the partners within it share their past relationship behaviors and teach one another what to expect in the future.
Credible trust is based on open and transparent, negotiated promises that are dependable will hold over time, and are forever open to challenge and change. These realistic commitments form a continually moving and flexible set of thoughts and behaviors that both partners create and recreate over time.
The sooner a couple can look at what the other is likely to do, rather than what they fantasize or wish might happen, the sooner they will be able to accurately predict what their partners’ actions will be, without the disappointment and judgment that unrealistic expectations cause.
Let’s more thoroughly explore the difference between fantasy and credible trust.
When you were a child, if you were lucky, your caretakers were people you could depend upon to make sure you were safe and to be there for you when you needed them. Trusting, in that sense, meaning that you rarely had to worry about your own well-being. You were mostly watched over and kept out of harm’s way. When you were in trouble, those trusted others would be there to help.
When adult love relationships are new, both partners offer each other a similar kind of trust. They “promise” to anticipate each other’s every heartache and need, as if they could heal all prior childhood disappointments. They call each other “baby,” and vow to make certain the other feels safe, secure, and watched over. This fantasy of a forever-security sets the scene for eventual betrayal when one or the other partner can no longer be that dependable.
As those relationships mature and the illusion of perfection wanes the true and deeper parts of each partner’s personality and predictable behaviors emerge. Their needs, traumas, expectations, and fears, eventually come to the surface, sometimes unexpectedly. Those easily given and welcomed trust behaviors that were offered so freely when the relationship was new, now begin to waver.
Credible trust has no fantasy expectations. It is, instead, based on accurate expectations of the other’s likely behaviors over time. The partners who have developed this kind of trust in one another do not expect that they will always like what they can predict, but they would choose those realistic probabilities over fantasy any time. With the establishment of credible trust in each other, they know that the other partner will behave as they have actually promised they will.
There are six crucial elements that form the foundation for credible trust:
The First Element – What do you hold sacred?
There are specific ethics, morals, tenets, and other beliefs that guide people’s behaviors whether they are alone, with others, or with their partners. Some of these behaviors are innate and others are learned over time, but they continue to be self-chosen and operate independently of the other partner. As a result, both can totally trust that the other will always behave that way because that is who they are.
Ask yourself what principles guide your life decisions. These are your basic sacred beliefs and it would be difficult for anyone to get you to compromise them, whether you were with your partner or not. Think about how you attained them. Some will be deep-seated and inherited from childhood teachings, while others will feel more chosen from your life experiences.
In long-term successful relationships, the partners teach each other about those innate behaviors. They tell each other who they are, what they believe in, and what they are likely to do faced with any situation.
Your partner can absolutely trust that you will practice those behaviors because that is who you are and who you hold yourself to be. You may, over time, choose to change your thoughts and feelings about who you’ve been in the past and add or adjust your behavior accordingly. When you or your partner choose to do that, you talk it over together and renegotiate those transformations and new expectations.
The Second Element, the Sanctity of Negotiated Agreements
I’ve never witnessed a relationship where both partners always wanted the same things at the same time or in the same way. If they have a significant amount of underlying differences, they are blessed with enough compatibility to compensate.
For most couples, the capacity to fairly negotiate those differences is crucial. After they do that, they must then commit to either keeping those promises or renegotiating them if they don’t work. Kept agreements form one of the crucial foundations for trust. If the partners don’t deliver on those promises, their trust in one another will suffer.
Caveat: It is totally understandable that either partner will want to self-preserve at the expense of the other partner at times. Those potential lapses in predictable behaviors can and do happen and, depending on the severity of the breach, can be worked through by partners who believe in each other.
It is not always easy to put the other partner first, and sometimes self-serving interests emerge with intensity. What is crucial is that both partners recognize when they err and are quick to share those mistakes. That way they can authentically commit to doing whatever they can to repair their credibility.
What is not okay is when promises are continually broken and excuses, defenses, or pleadings for exceptions become the rule. At some point in time, those can become predictable lies that are no longer believable even when they are sometimes justified.
The Third Element, Belief in the Basic Goodness of the Other Partner
All couples disagree, sometimes on simple things and sometimes on significantly important issues. Over time, those who find long-term success in their relationships work hard to let go of superficial conflicts and to focus on finding agreement on what really matters.
But, throughout their entire partnership, they must always agree on one simple truth; they need to believe that their partners are basically quality people who intend to do the right thing, even if they cannot always stay perfectly true to those promises.
Everyone makes mistakes, even when they don’t intend to, and even when they do everything they can to avoid them. This is where forgiveness is paramount in any quality relationship. Not ever to forgive and forget, but, instead, to work it through, remember to do it differently, and then do everything possible to let go.
There are, however, mistakes that erode basic trust and result in one or both partners no longer believing in the basic goodness of the other. Deep betrayals such as infidelities, abusive behaviors, or intentional lies and indiscretions will ultimately damage that belief.
It is crucial that the partner who betrays at that level fully understands the damage he or she has caused. If he or she has no desire to recreate that basic trust, there may be no way for the relationship to recover.
The Third Element, Know Thyself
Though this term may seem currently overused, it is still as valid as it was when it was inscribed on the entrance to the Temple of Delphi, and engrained in the hearts and minds of millions over time.
One cannot be trustworthy if triggers and traumas from the past overwhelm good intentions. Many relationship partners, not knowing what drives them to act in certain ways, will promise more than they can deliver, or predict their behaviors inaccurately. Or, perhaps embarrassed or humiliated by their internal thoughts or prior behaviors, do not share those with their partners. They may have assumed that their partners would not be able to accept those parts of them and choose to keep them silent.
It is not easy for many people to share these sometimes shameful, inner thoughts with another if they have never been clearly explored and resolved. Some of them may have been suppressed for so long that they emerge only when the other partner may do or say something that triggers them. Because people often are attracted to partners who remind them in some way of childhood attachments, those memories may be more likely to emerge because of the familiarity.
The Fifth Element, Loyalty Triangles
This is an area of trust that is significantly problematic for most couples. Friends, family, may have had past interactions with either partner that were shared in confidence at the time they occurred, and still remain as a privacy contract. When a new relationship is established, it may not be okay to share those memories with the current partner without permission.
Those outside relationships may continue within the new relationship. Some of the histories of those past relationships may not have been shared. There may also be new interactions between the past partners which are extensions of those storied behaviors and asked to be withheld from the new partner.
The following example may help clarify this issue.
Kevin’s best friend, Alan, is married, but thinking of beginning an affair and wants to talk the situation over with Kevin. Alan knows that cheating on his wife is not the right thing to do and just wants to talk it out with someone he trusts before he does something he might regret. To make matters more complicated, Kevin’s wife, Sophia, knows Alan’s wife, Maria, and the two couples spend time together socially.
This is a moral dilemma for Kevin. He and Sophia share everything and have a deep trust of one another. Whether Kevin supports Alan’s proposed foray or not, he cannot share Alan’s predicament with Sophia. Now Kevin has entered into a conspiracy, the sharing of information with another that he cannot share outside that relationship. He is also inadvertently making Sophia an unknowing co-conspirator against Alan’s wife, Maria, her good friend.
There are other times and situations where loyalty to someone besides one’s partner may take precedence over their love relationship. For example, what if there are long-held family secrets that its members are sworn to never share without the agreement of the others? Sometimes, a teenage child may tell one parent something sacred that he or she has asked not to be revealed to the other parent at that time. Does that mother or father betray their child’s wishes to keep the communication open, or risk breaking the child’s trust if the breaking of trust is revealed?
What is crucial to the success of the current partnership, is that those required “withholdings” do not affect the sacred agreements between the partners. If there is any conflict, that partner must make the decision as to which betrayal he or she must choose.
The Sixth Element – Is the Relationship a Catalyst or Just Based on Conditional Acquiescence?
Many times, the partners in relationships have had histories where they lost relationships because they couldn’t or wouldn’t change behaviors that the other partners could not accept. Perhaps they even tried but were simply incapable of what was asked of them in that partnership.
This most often happens when a person meets a new partner who has very definite requirements of his or her partners. Whether it be total fidelity, staying in shape, or eating vegan, the new partner is clear about his or her choices and lives without hypocrisy in those choices.
Here is an example:
Sherry’s dad was an abusive alcoholic. She has vowed in her life that she will never have an intimate relationship with anyone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol. She’s attended Alanon for several years and in her own personal therapy, clearing her mind of the prior trauma. She has vowed never to be involved in an intimate relationship with anyone who abuses drugs or alcohol.
Then, unexpectedly, she meets Paul at a friend’s wedding. He is the most perfect partner she has ever known in every way. Except one. He doesn’t drink every day, but he can tie one on once in a while and has never felt it was a problem. He’s fallen for Sherry in a way he’s never felt about a woman before and knows she cannot tolerate his drinking in any form.
So, he promises that he will give up drinking just to be with her. Because he would not feel the need to quit drinking if she did not demand it, he is acquiescing to her requirements. He is giving up his typical escape/pleasure behavior just to keep her in a relationship with him.
Then, they hit some hurdles, as all couples eventually do. Paul realizes that he really wants to drink again but is afraid to lose Sherry so he is careful to drink when she’s not around. Because he feels guilty about what he is doing, he starts to find fault with her to rationalize his behavior. Eventually, his past becomes his present, and the new relationship ends when she finds out that she’s been betrayed.
If instead, that new relationship was a catalyst for Paul rather than an acquiescence, it would have had a very different process and ending. He would have initially stopped drinking just to be in the relationship with Sherry, but then found that, without using alcohol, he felt healthier, happier, and more productive than he’d ever been in his life. Everything started to work for him in a new way, and he realized that sobriety was now his choice, and no longer a decision just to appease her. His life has taken on new purpose and meaning and, even if the relationship were to end, he won’t ever drink again. The relationship has been a catalyst for change.
Behavior changes that are made only to keep another person in the relationship, but not personally desired, will not hold when that relationship stumbles. Those that happen when the relationship is a catalyst, become a chosen new behavior whether the relationship continues or ends.
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Trusting another is the ability to predict and accept behaviors that a partner is likely to engage in. It enhances a relationship’s core connection and gives the partners within it a sense of predictability and certainty. The partners are credible, non-hypocritical, authentic people who keep one another up-to-date on who they are and how they will behave.
The people in these kinds of relationships know each other deeply and believe in one another’s basic quality and commitments. They update each other on a regular basis if their needs or intentions change, and they negotiate those changes up front. As a result, they are far less likely to face negative surprises or significant betrayals that cannot be worked out between them.
That kind of transparency strengthens their faith-foundation in each other and in the relationship. They believe in themselves, each other, and the relationship’s validity. That sense of certainty gives them the strength to weather the crises that every committed partnership is certain to face over time, and to deepen their trust as they occur.