What Does Trust Actually Mean in a Relationship?
Updated: Feb 14
When we think of trust in a relationship, the first thing that usually comes to mind is trusting that our partner will remain loyal or trusting that they'll never cheat. There definitely is an aspect of trust in the relationship that has to do with loyalty, but trust in a relationship is far deeper than that.
In a relationship, trust has everything to do with emotional safety. What does that mean?
Emotional safety is how safe you feel opening up to your partner about your thoughts, feelings, and inner world. It's how stable and safe they make you feel when you're in distress, experiencing an emotional flashback, dealing with hard things in your personal life, experiencing a tragedy, working through your own trauma, or just having a bad day and need someone to ground you. Without trust, you have no real relationship.
Can I trust you to be there for me?
Can I trust you to support my goals and dreams?
Can I trust you to have my back if my mom comes at me?
Can I trust you to choose me even when it's hard?
Can I trust you to stay sexually loyal to me?
Can I trust you to take care of me when I'm sick?
Thanks to Drs. John and Julie Gottman, MFT, and the help of Genesis Games, LMHC, we're going to take a closer look at what trust looks like in a relationship...but first, let's talk about betrayal.
Betrayal in Relationships
Betrayal is experienced when your partner keeps information from you. I know, I know, we usually think of betrayal when one person is unfaithful in the relationship. And while that is a big and loud betrayal, it can also be experienced very subtly, quietly, and ongoing. When this happens, it slowly destroys the relationship.
The message received from betrayal is that you can not trust your partner to be there for you. We experience this if we don't have our partner's support for our dreams, or if we find out they kept information from us. This causes us to feel betrayed.
Betrayal destroys relationships slowly over time, but what's even more interesting is that Dr. John Gottman conducted a longitudinal study that discovered that 58% of men who were in a marriage where they scored low on trust in their initial Gottman assessment died over the period of the study, which was within 20 years. Trust doesn't just affect the relationship; it also affects physical health.
Let's Build Trust!
How is trust built? Slow and steady, my friend. It's built within our every day lives, using every interaction with your partner to turn towards them. It can be easy to do a few grand gestures of love a year (I'm looking at you, Valentine's Day), but in reality, trust in a relationship isn't built that way.
For example, let's say I come home from work and I'm feeling/looking really sad. My husband is in the middle of doing something on his computer. In this moment, he has a choice: he can either continue doing what he's doing on his computer, or he can stop what he's doing, sit with me, and ask me what's going on. He can either prioritize our relationship, or prioritize his work on the computer. When he choses to prioritize our relationship, he instantly builds trust. He's showing me that I can count on him to be there for me.
If I use this same example but my husband chooses to turn away (so he continues to engage with what he's doing on the computer), I will feel betrayed. In that moment, he showed me that he cares more about prioritizing what he's doing on the computer than our relationship. At the root of betrayal is the belief that there are better options out there for me. When betrayals continue to build on one another, this leads to resentment, disengagement in the relationship, inability to compromise, and eventually, you're both completely checked out of the relationship.
In order to turn towards your partner, you have to learn how to be attuned to them. Being attuned to someone is being aware of their emotional state and expressing curiosity about it while remaining empathetic and engaging in a non-defensive way.
Can We Repair Trust Once It's Been Broken?
Is trust always repairable? It depends. Lots of factors play into that. Like what caused the trust to be broken? How willing are the people in the relationship to repair that trust?
Thanks to work done by Dr. Gottman and Nan Silver in their book "What Makes Love Last?", there are ways you can communicate to your partner about trust that creates a space of attunement, which, as we mentioned before in this post, is a super important component of any relationship!
Talk about how you feel: when we're overcome with emotion, it can be difficult to put our feelings into words, but we don't have to be ashamed stumbling around trying to vocalize how we feel. It's normal. It can be helpful to tune into our body and invite our partner into that process.
Ask open-ended questions: stay away from questions that your partner can only give one word responses to. When we ask open-ended questions, it's because we're curious to know more, and it gives space for our partner to go into greater detail.
Deepen Connection: when your partner answers your open-ended questions, reflect back on what you heard them say to ensure they feel heard by you and that you understand them. This will deepen your connection.
Compassion and Empathy: express it. Don't tell them how you think they should feel. Rather, believe what they tell you about how you're feeling, and step into that world with them. Keep defensiveness at bay, and hold space for all their feelings. This might feel uncomfortable for you, but you're creating emotional safety for your partner.
Games, G. (2023). The deeper meaning of trust. https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-deeper-meaning-of-trust/
At Root Counseling, we believe in fostering relationships that help couples build trust. If you're interested in setting up an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.