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What is trust?

Trust lies at the heart of a strong relationship. When trust is lost we feel betrayed, angry and taken for granted. But what is trust?


Trust is when we take as fact some belief we have, for which there is only partial evidence. For that very reason there is an element of uncertainty and risk involved. Whoever we are trusting may not always live up to the faith we are putting in them.

We talk of “placing our trust” in someone, which shows that it involves an action rather than just our feelings. Many parents of teenagers will identify with choosing to trust our child to be able to spend the weekend in the house on their own without throwing a wild party. We may feel somewhat anxious as we drive away from the house and have a strong urge to ring up and “check how things are going”. There is a risk involved, they may let us down.

Often we place trust in a child according to what we know of their character, gradually giving them a bit more responsibility as we think they are mature enough and trustworthy enough to handle it. We see trust as something that must be earned or negotiated. We may trust other adults according to how much we know of their character, attitudes and behaviour.

Another way to see trust is as something that is inspired in someone when they are trusted. You place the trust, let go, and believe they will rise to the faith put in them. Yet another way is to trust, fully aware of the weakness of human nature and ready to forgive when someone lets us down.

From this we see that people can have different ideas of what it means to trust. Some people believe that they give trust, and it’s their choice to give it, while others think it has to be earned, so it is the one who is to be trusted who has the choice. Our ability to trust may be affected by our upbringing and past experiences too. It is very easy within a marriage to assume we view trust in the same way as our partner, but assumptions can be misleading and lead to disappointment and hurt when things go wrong.

We all long for someone who has chosen us, who respects, honours and cares for us, someone with whom we can be real, who accepts us for who we are and will stand by us through anything. We may live for years believing we know our partner and that they would never let us down. It can come as a huge shock when we find we have been deceived. Sometimes affairs arise through weakness and temptation. Someone attracts our partner and they don’t recognise what’s happening until they are already entangled. Another way is when one of us becomes dissatisfied with our relationship and looks for fulfilment, understanding or comfort elsewhere.

So what happens when we begin to suspect they have let us down? Doubts begin to creep in – do we really know them? Have they changed? Have we been taken in, deceived, taken for granted? Anger and fear can sweep in as we suddenly become aware of our deep insecurities and need for love. The foundations of our relationship are shaking and we don’t know how to voice our concerns or what to do.

We may come face to face with clear evidence that our partner has been deceiving us. Shock, disbelief, dismay, anger may boil over. Typical reactions are the desire to confront, to hit out physically or verbally and punish the one who has hurt us. We may want to push them away and retreat to a safe distance to nurse our pain. Our life has shattered and our dreams lie in dust at our feet. How can we go on? Is there any hope?

What is worse, distrust seems to breed distrust. When we don’t trust our loved one, then we will probably check up on them, read their mail, listen to their phone messages, check their bags or pockets. We want to reassure ourselves that we are not being taken for a ride, or confirm our suspicions that we are. We may feel torn between the urgent “need to know” and the fear of what we will find.

Put yourself in your partner’s place. How would you feel to know that your pockets were being checked, your messages listened to? It can leave a person feeling vulnerable, undervalued and angry even if they admit they have earned it. It can reinforce judgements that things aren’t going well in the marriage, that perhaps they were in some way right to look for comfort elsewhere. They may feel morally justified to criticise you for snooping. They begin to hide things, even innocent ones, for fear they might irritate or be misconstrued and further barriers of mistrust are raised between you. A vicious circle spiralling down into further hurt and mistrust develops. It is so easy to sweep things under the carpet, to avoid the pain and hope it will go away, but this only allows the vicious circle to continue.

There are several steps towards learning to trust again. It usually helps to acknowledge your own feelings and the reality of the hurt. The first step forward is forgiveness, choosing not to hold what has happened against your partner, choosing to give up your desire to get revenge and make them pay for what they have done.

The second step is to begin the rebuilding process, with both of you choosing to live in honesty and openness with each other. This will involve some adjustment to the picture you have of life and some adjustment to your behaviour. It may also involve accepting the differences in character and values between you. If you are still trying to change each other, then it will be hard to be open.

Finally you will need to allow the time that is necessary to adjust to what has happened, to allow the new approach to life to bed down and become part of your lives together.

The last thing you may want to do when you have been badly hurt is to forgive your partner. Why should you, especially if there are few signs of remorse or changed behaviour? There are many reasons not least that there is no real way forward unless you do. It’s about your own emotional health too. If you don’t forgive then the hurt will just fester and bitterness will soon set in. Unless you give up your right to revenge and holding the hurt against your loved one, there will be little hope of healing or moving forward. Forgiveness is not the same as trust, but like rebuilding trust, forgiveness can also be a process which takes time and repeated decisions not to go backwards again.

It’s worth considering what goes on in the guilty party when they are “found out”. Often they will feel very uncomfortable and find it difficult to face up to the pain they have caused. There may be a sense of guilt. Often people react defensively trying to deflect the criticism, by turning it into an attack or bringing up past mistakes against them. They may try to justify their actions in some way both to themselves and to you. They may be desperately distressed by what has happened and think they’ve blown it.

The signals may be very confusing and the person who’s hurt may not be in the best place to see through the confusion to what is really happening. Perhaps it’s worth considering how you would want to be treated if you were the one who had strayed.

A moment’s temptation succumbed to can be as quickly regretted. If your spouse is genuinely sorry, then it may be easier to forgive and put things behind you. On the other hand, there may be no sign at all of remorse. Weakness may mean they are struggling to stop letting you down. At such times it may be really hard to forgive, but if you don’t forgive, then you may never be able to take the step of learning to trust again. The will to move forward together will be all but lost.

Unlike the vicious circle of distrust you can build a virtuous circle based on openness and honesty. You can begin by trying to be honest about what has happened and accept responsibility for where you find yourselves. If you understand what trust means to each other, then you can begin to negotiate a way forward. Words and promises may not be enough. It may be necessary to ask, “What would help you trust me again?” It may seem an obvious question, but assumptions can be dangerous. Whatever you decide to do, do it together. If overspending is the issue, for example, agree to sit down once a month to go through the bills and bank statements together. That way you are mutually accountable for what is happening. But agree that no other action is necessary and the innocent party needs to keep to their side of the bargain and not check up behind the other’s back.

Openness, honesty and trust build a virtuous circle. When both are committed to live openly with no secrets, then trust can be built. We can live by the maxim, if my partner knew and would be hurt by this, then I won’t do it.

The greatest weapon against suspicion and mistrust are honesty and openness. If trust has been broken between you, try and share what it feels like for each of you. This will require a lot of self-control and understanding. Try to share where you are, what your feelings are, without blaming the other. Try to listen, setting aside your own reactions, pain and hurt, with the aim of simply trying to stand in each other’s shoes for a while.

Recognise there may be deeper issues between you that led to the trust being broken – disappointed expectations, baggage from the past, obsessive behaviour, unresolved conflict. Try and identify these and seek help to face them and deal with them together.

Agree to keep everything out in the open, but also to treat each other with respect. If you know your partner won’t like something you want to do and that you’ve promised to tell them all, then you will think twice about doing it. Likewise it can be hard for one of you to be honest if they get jumped on every time they are.

Does one of you have trouble avoiding lying? Perhaps one of you even thinks lying isn’t wrong in certain circumstances. Does one of you have an attitude of “peace at any price”, or struggle with the way the other usually reacts, which means you avoid conflict? Perhaps the other needs to change the way they react to things that upset them to make it easier for the other to be truthful. Honesty can also be used as an excuse to be blunt, critical or deliberately hurtful, or to manipulate the other person into accepting guilt. Honesty needs to go hand in hand with respect, love, tact and gentleness.

One of the hardest things when trust has been broken is to accept that repairing the situation takes time. Both of you will need to be patient and persevering.

For the one who has broken the trust there will probably be a desire to move on as quickly as possible to escape the pain, but the one who has been hurt will need time to work things through. Remember that unless they are allowed to do this, they may have trouble trusting anyone again.

For the one who has been hurt, patience will also be needed, patience with a spouse who is struggling to overcome some weakness or temptation, who has to come to terms with the consequences of what they have done. Perseverance may be needed to stand by your spouse and your wedding vows.

There are no guarantees in life that trust can be rebuilt or hurts healed, but if you both work together then there is hope. When two flawed human beings consent to share the rest of their lives together in marriage, there are bound to be difficulties along the way. Joy can come through working through the difficult times and learning to love and accept each other as you really are.

Article by: 2-in-2-1

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