“If we do not trust one another, we are already defeated.” — Alison Croggon
Trust and vulnerability are key to a relationship wherein both parties feel safe, seen, and understood. Without trust, we cannot have a close, intimate relationship. Instead, you end up walking on eggshells with your partner or find yourself reacting in defense to the slightest threat. Whether it was lost or never there in the first place, it’s essential to build trust in your relationship to create the safe place that you’re looking for with your partner.
What Mistrust Looks Like
No matter the reason for lack of trust in a relationship, it tends to look the same. When you can’t trust your partner or the relationship, you will find yourself in constant “survival mode”. When you are in a state of flight, fight, or freeze, you can’t allow yourself to be vulnerable.
Thus, when a triggering moment arises, your instinct tells you to react on the defensive. In turn, your partner will react with their own fight/flight/defend response. You feel like your safety is still under threat, so you maintain your position. This vicious cycle continues with each of you dancing around the conflict, wounding each other over and over again.
Why Trust May be Missing in Your Relationship
The “dance” of conflict that arises from mistrust in a relationship looks similar from my counselling point of view; but there are many potential reasons for lack of trust between partners.
Infidelity and Secrets
Cheating is probably one of the clearest reasons trust is harmed, but infidelity in a relationship has less obvious disguises. In his article After Cheating: Restoring Relationship Trust, Robert Weiss, Ph.D, defines infidelity as the breaking of trust that occurs when you deliberately keep intimate, meaningful secrets from your primary romantic partner.
Purposely keeping secrets, for whatever reason you have created, can wreak havoc on the trust in your relationship. In fact, withholding decisions, information, or any part of yourself can lead to an atmosphere of insecurity in the relationship.
The people around us have a very definite influence on the stories we tell ourselves about trust in relationships. Perhaps you were cheated on in the past, making you believe that everyone will eventually cheat on you. Maybe a parent cheated or often lied to your other parent, or even abandoned your family. None of these are enviable experiences, and these types of past events can become reference points for the narrative you have come to believe about yourself, your partner or relationships.
You may even be contributing to a self-fulfilling prophecy by maintaining old limiting beliefs around trust. By holding on to these outdated stories, you will make decisions and act from this “misinformed” place.
For example, if you have trust issues because your father abandoned your family, you may have a belief that you can’t trust anyone to really be there for you. As you carry this belief around, you may question your partner about their behavior, or feel like at any moment the floor will cave in under you.
Now imagine how your partner might feel and how they might respond if you go to that survival mindset when things get uncomfortable. They will be on the defense, and their own survival tactics will kick in, perhaps by pulling away. You have just created the very situation you feared the most.
This could be a whole other post in itself, but mistrust in a relationship doesn’t always mean you have experienced cheating, infidelity, or abandonment. It can also show up when we don’t believe we deserve to have a safe place to come to, or that we don’t have someone who will listen and accept us for who we are. These issues can run deep - but it doesn’t mean you can’t learn to be vulnerable.
Moving Towards Trust
Before you start to build trust into your relationship, you need to identify why the trust is missing and the limiting beliefs that are holding you back.
In an article written on the Gottman blog, Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW, shares some ways to bring those limiting beliefs to the surface:
What is the story I’m telling myself?
Does my fear of loss and abandonment cloud my perspective and cause me to overreact to my partner’s actions?
Is my mistrust coming from something that is actually happening in the present, or is it related to my past?
Do I feel comfortable asking for what I need and allowing myself to be vulnerable?
Do I bring my best self to my interactions with my partner?
Do I possess self-love and allow myself to be loved and respected?
Asking yourself these powerful questions will help you become more aware of the stories you’ve been carrying around that are hurting your ability to maintain a healthy relationship.
No matter the reason for the lack of trust in your relationship, it’s essential to understand if your story is maintaining part of the problem.
If you have trust issues because someone has cheated on you, it is not your fault. Other people's actions are a choice and one in which we are not responsible for. You are, however, responsible for yourself. If you are making choices from a place of scarcity, fear, and mistrust, then it is wise to take a look at what you need to do for yourself to get out of this place. We should be thriving, not surviving!
Read More: Change Your Beliefs, Change Your Story
5 Ways to Build Trust Into Your Relationship
Continual, survival-based reactions will create more mistrust in your relationship. I teach my clients how to stop reacting and start responding to one another, not take what their partner does or says personally, and to hold a safe space to move through whatever is coming up for each of them.
When you are ready to embrace vulnerability and build trust into your relationship, try using the following strategies that I share with my clients:
Establish boundaries. When your partner does or says something that triggers hurt or an old wound, learn to recognize the warning sign and acknowledge the trigger. You will know because something shifts in you. Maybe you move to anger, but it almost always will trigger you to want to defend, attack back, justify or explain yourself. These are all signs that you have been triggered. When this happens, put your reaction in a safe bubble to address when it is the right time. This will help you to be less reactive and learn to respond more consciously.
Practice listening and sharing openly. Being a better listener to your partner will help you respond effectively. Take the time to hear what they are saying, and try to “listen between the lines”. You might be hearing an attack, but what’s underneath it? Like an iceberg, you are just seeing one part of the issue on the surface. To understand what is really going on, you must explore the depths. So become a curious observer and listen closely. When it is your turn to share, be open to sharing the truth of what is coming up for you.
Create a container to hold the conversation. In order for you to understand the depths of an issue, you must be willing to hold a space for what’s really there. If you collapse at the first sign of intensity or discomfort (avoidance, not listening, dismissing, or pulling away), you will send a message to your partner that this is not a safe place. Alarms will go off and the dance of conflict will ensue. Don’t be afraid to ask your partner to hold the container and practice #2.
Have routine talks. Most of the couples I work with have avoided their issues for far too long. Planning regular conversations will ensure you don’t keep avoiding the elephant in the room. When you address things while they are small, it is easier to get to the depths of the issue, heal, and move forward.
Build your confidence. Practice confidence around asking clearly and specifically for what you need. You may want something different in your relationship, but if you aren’t clear what that is, it’s less likely to happen. We get what we focus on, so if you are focused on what you aren’t getting, you will receive more of the same. Instead, make a SMART request: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. Incorporate all of these criteria to help focus your request and increase the chances of getting your need met.
Building trust into your relationship means becoming vulnerable and changing how you have been thinking and doing things. Neither are easy! But in order to reach the loving and safe relationship you desire, you need to make the effort to grow yourself - so the relationship can grow, too.