First, they can break a relationship, and second, they all have to do with trust.Each of these hot button areas for couples boils down to a sense of trust or lack thereof. Lack of trust, trust betrayed, and trust taken for granted can lead to the very worst emotional pain for one or both people in any relationship. Why is that?
Here’s why. Trust is THE cornerstone of any relationship. That’s true, not because I said so but because it is a universally accepted truth that has withstood the test of time. Trust is defined as the firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something. From birth through the entirety of our lives, we need to trust that others and the world, in general, is basically a safe place and that our needs, hopefully, are going to have a good chance of being met.
A baby comes to TRUST that its parent will be there to care and protect it when it signals (read: cries) that it needs something. A child TRUSTS that his or her parents will continue to be there and follow through on what they say, i.e., “I’ll pick you up at 11,” or even “Yes, I’ll bring your soccer shoes for practice when I pick you up later.”
Trust For Adults
One of the most common issues I see with married couples, no matter what issue they initially come to me for, is related to a diminished or lack of a sense of trust. The areas I mentioned at the beginning, finances, parenting, infidelity, all relate to trust. Granted, some can have a more severe impact on the trust level, but they all do. Let’s explore this in more detail as that will help understand the tips that will follow.
Dr. John Gottman, a leading researcher on relationships, has noted that the basis of trust is attunement (or being in harmony with). When a couple is in attunement, they are deeply understanding each other. Getting to that level of understanding often involves open and honest conversation about your feelings. Dr. Gottman has an acronym to describe this relationship between trust and attunement:
Embracing these aspects helps trust build. This is a process that can feel very solid from the beginning but, with courage and vulnerability, will have a much better chance of growing deeper over time.
How to Address the Issue of Trust
The very first thing I do when couples are sitting across from me in my office is help them to understand that trust – or distrust – is what is most likely at the core of their issue.
Consider the couple who comes to me with the problem of finances; she maintains the family budget, and he feels that he is “on an allowance” and is unable to do the things he wants to in the moment (golf, hang out with his buddies, etc.) without permission.
Yes, there could be many things at play in this scenario. But for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s because deep down, she really doesn’t trust him to be responsible with the bank card.
Perhaps they have a history between them. Maybe once (or three times) she had money earmarked for bills in their joint checking account, and he spontaneously decided to treat his friends to a round of golf and didn’t tell her. This took more money out of the joint account than was available for incidental use, causing their account to bounce.
This made his wife furious, as she works very hard to save money, prepare for the future, and maintain a good financial standing. This happening more than once has caused them to seek help sorting this out, since the conflict rooted here has spilled over into other areas of their relationship.
Now they are in my office, fuming and resentful at the state of their relationship.
Three Steps to Regaining Trust
1. Talk Openly and Honestly – Without Judgement
My duty is to first help them see how the trust between them has been affected.
Perhaps the wife has a history of seeing family members not be financially prepared in old age, and saw them suffer because of it. This has made her so fearful, she is reluctant to spend money even on the smallest of indulgences.
She never shared this with her husband, though. She never shared that she was afraid of not being able to take care of herself (or him) when she was older. He just thought she was uptight.
When she shared this in my office, it was accompanied with lots of tears, and a sense of astonishment from her husband that he never knew. He felt regretful that he had never asked where her sense of frugality really came from. By sharing this intimate part of herself, she revealed an aspect of their relationship her husband could support her through. Sharing the vulnerabilities around this problem was the first step in rebuilding their trust.
2. Determine What Needs Are Going Unmet for Each Partner
Beneath the anger, and the hurt, are unmet needs. This was much more difficult to acknowledge when one or both people are highly reactive and defensive. Now that they are becoming more vulnerable with one another, they are in a more open place emotionally, they can determine what their unmet needs are, and have a better chance them being met.
Now is the time to work through this challenge together by having an open and honest conversation about what each other expected or needed. This is step two in mending this rift; sharing what your needs are, and how they are (or are not) being met. In this situation, she needs to be able to trust that he will mind their bank account, and he needs to know that he can maintain some of his (financial) independence in their relationship.
3. Create Ways to Find Agreements You Both Can Live With
In order to meet their needs, they may schedule a daily, weekly or monthly time to sit down and review the accounts – bills, deposits, expenses – and see what is available for “fun.” When both sides are aware of what the obligations are, it’s easier to make the decision to indulge in a little fun, or to save the indulgence for another week. Intentionally devoting a certain amount of time each week – even if just for 5 or 10 minutes – to talking with each other is just plain good for your relationship to begin with. Take it a step further, and imagine it was without distractions including ANY electronic devices. (Come on, give yourselves a chance here!)
And, yes, it can even be fun talking about the “piggy bank” or any other area of conflict in your relationship. Add some humor, when appropriate, because that also helps you as a couple develop more trust with each other. Humor that is directed towards ourselves instead of our partner has tremendous power for healing.
Now, the husband can better understand his wife isn’t just saying “no” out of reflex and fear, and the wife can understand that her husband isn’t just being frivolous. They have completed step three, they have agreed to a mechanism that can increase the chances of their needs being met.
I know that this sounds pretty cut and dry – but it isn’t always so easy. This can be a messy process, especially if these emotional violations have been going on for some time. The longer the resentments have been growing, the harder it will be to right them. Having said that, the sooner you start working on developing or restoring trust, the sooner you can take care of your unfinished business, and move forward.
Stop It Before It Starts
The best way that you can avoid this cycle in your relationships is to start with a solid foundation from the beginning. Couples counseling can be instrumental in highlighting potential relationship busters, establish good communication and conflict resolution skills, and increase the likelihood of happiness for both of you. And wouldn’t that be nice!
I hope this article was helpful. If you would like more assistance with all of this, I invite you to contact me. I’ve assisted hundreds of couples with the issues revolving around trust. Let’s see if we can explore this in ways that work for both of you.