Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
Recently, there has been a gush of articles in the media about a common problem in romantic relationships: mistrust between partners that erodes positive feelings and love. While it’s not uncommon for people to worry that their partner has the potential to rove, women are more likely to experience trust issues than men in relationships.
For instance, in The Normal Bar study, the authors collected groundbreaking data from 70,000 participants internationally and found that only 39% of women in their sample (compared to 53% of men) completely trust their partners. The authors ask: What’s wrong with this picture?
Why are women more mistrustful than men? The answer may lie in what can be labeled insecurity or a lack of self-trust. One of the hardest things about trusting someone is learning to have confidence in your own judgment. Trust is about much more than catching your partner in a truth or lie. It’s about believing that he or she has your best interests at heart.
An inability to trust someone may take many forms – ranging from feeling they’re being unfaithful, dishonest, or secretive to doubting they are going to keep their promises or be dependable.
Every person is born with the ability to trust others but through life experiences, we become less trusting as a form of self-protection. The breakup of a long-term relationship or marriage can set the stage for feelings of mistrust. This may be especially true for women who are socialized to place more value on intimacy and mutuality than men are.
Enduring your parents’ divorce can also leave you with lingering feelings of mistrust because their relationship was your first teacher about love and commitment. Makayla, age thirty, is a daughter of divorce who often reacts with fear and suspicion when her husband Erik returns home late from work or there’s the slightest imperfection in his story. It’s no wonder since her father betrayed her mother several times and ultimately left the family and moved in with a family friend.
However, Erik hasn’t given Makayla any reason to mistrust him. He’s a loving, faithful husband who honors his vows and has never cheated on her. Makayla has a tendency to blow things out of proportion when she says “You’re always late and inconsiderate of my needs.” Even when Erik returns home a little late from running an errand or going to the gym, Makayla is often filled with suspicion and sends him multiple text messages. These actions show a lack of confidence in herself and fuel Erik’s feelings of frustration and anger toward Makayla.
But since they’ve been attending counseling together, Erik is working on showing Makayla through consistency in his words and actions that he’s there for her. He’s focusing his energies on being empathetic and listening to her feelings rather than getting defensive or shutting down. Meanwhile, Makayla must learn to examine her thought processes. Is her self-doubt and mistrust grounded in reality or a fragment of her past? She must be willing to let go of self-defeating thoughts – to free herself from the blueprints of her childhood.
In the past, Erik’s defensiveness about Makayla’s accusations caused her to become even more mistrustful. It was entirely the wrong approach but neither one of them were aware of it. Recently, Erik has learned to reassure Makayla and now calls her if he’s going to be more than fifteen minutes late.
However, in order for her to build trust with Erik over the long run, Makayla must be vulnerable and expose her true feelings. If she shuts Erik out or doesn’t express her fears and insecurities, she’ll begin to imagine the worst. They’ve both discovered that open and honest communication is the key to restoring love, trust, and intimacy in their relationship.
7 wise ways to build trust in relationships:
- Challenge mistrustful thoughts. Ask yourself: is your lack of trust due to your partner’s actions or your own issues, or both?
- Gain confidence in your own perceptions by paying attention to your doubts and instincts. Ask yourself: is there congruence between my partner’s words and actions? Does he keep important promises and agreements?
- Gain awareness about how your reactions may be having a destructive impact on your relationship and take responsibility for them.
- Don’t always assume that your partner’s behavior is intentional – sometimes people simply make a mistake.
- Be open to your partner’s perspective. Make sure your words and tone of voice are consistent with your goal of building trust.
- Practice attunement with your partner. In his book What Makes Love Last? relationship expert, Dr. John Gottman defines attunement as the desire and the ability to understand and respect your intimate partner’s inner world. He writes: “Attunement offers a blueprint for building and reviving trust in a long-term committed relationship.”
- Keep in mind that learning to trust is a skill that can be nurtured over time. It can be a slow process. With courage and persistence, you can turn hurts from past betrayals into lessons.
In his book, The Science of Trust, Dr. John Gottman challenges the way most of us define trust. He says that trust is an action rather than an idea or belief – more about what our partner does than what you or I do.
You may enter a relationship with fractured trust for a variety of reasons. A recent breakup or divorce is not always the root cause. But as you become more aware of your tendency to mistrust your partner, you can stop yourself and ask: Is my mistrust coming from something that is actually happening in the present, or is it related to my past?
Trust is more of an acquired ability than a feeling. When you sustain the loss of a relationship due to broken trust, it makes you smarter and more keenly able to extend trust to those who are deserving of it. You can learn to trust your instincts and your judgment when you honestly deal with your fears. If you are able to come to a place of self-awareness and understand the decisions that were made that led up to trust being severed, you can start to approach others with faith and optimism.
While learning to trust can be one of our biggest challenges as women, it’s important to realize that doubts are common in relationships. Practicing being vulnerable in small steps will encourage open and honest communication – a crucial step to restoring faith in love. Trust is essential to helping both partners feel secure and building a happy relationship that endures the test of time.
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This blog appeared previously on YourTango.com