By: Matt Brown
Do you trust your partner? How would you define trust? Oftentimes, we associate the word trust with big issues, such as infidelity. While trust does play a vital role in recovering from a major betrayal, it is the smaller, day to day interactions that teach us how to trust. In my work with couples, these three questions are crucial to the process of building trust.
All of us have a range in which our emotions can fluctuate without becoming overwhelming. Couples are often mismatched in this area. One partner may be comfortable experiencing a wide range of emotions while the other partner may prefer a smaller range. This is not the problem. The problem arises when the patterns that occur between them consistently push both partners beyond the limits of their emotional safety zone. This often happens during conflict. Couples who consistently escalate beyond their emotional limits when they fight eventually learn to stay away from each other. So, if a couple doesn’t fight, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are in a good place. It could mean that they are both burnt out. The range of their interactions could be severely restricted, where they no longer feel comfortable being upset or happy around each other. They are essentially in a stalemate where both partners are walking on eggshells, never risking anything that would rock the boat. The outcome of these patterns leads to one or both partners seeking ways to experience more “safety zone” time.
Do I matter to you?
We need to know that our presence in a relationship is meaningful. If partners begin to feel that it would make no difference whether they were there or not, there is a problem. Dr. Sue Johnson has used attachment theory to explain the core connection of couple relationships. Essentially, healthy couples have a certain level of dependence on their partners in order to meet hard-wired, emotional needs for human connection. They need to know that if they had a need, they would be able to reach their partner and that their partner would respond appropriately to that need. This might be easier if we always felt safe openly expressing our needs. Even healthy couples don’t always do this. Dr. John Gottman has observed that many times we express our needs in more subtle ways, called emotional bids. These are small moments when one partner says, “Hey, I’m going to bed,” rather than saying, “Do you want to have sex?” Or when one partner sighs deeply, rather than saying, “I’m feeling down, and I need you to come comfort me.” If couples experience patterns of tuning in and responding to each other’s needs, trust will build. If the opposite occurs, they may never feel safe leaning on each other when times get tough.
Can I be happy when I’m with you?
When I am working with couples, one of the things I look for is their ability to share a positive moment together. This is not as simple as laughing about something that happened that day. It goes deeper. I’m looking for their ability to talk about something positive that has happened between the two of them. If both partners can simultaneously experience the positive emotions associated with that memory, this tells me they feel safe being happy in each other’s presence. If they can’t, or the positive moment is quickly followed by a litany of problems, it tells me they are not yet comfortable leaning on each other. They don’t trust that opening up to each other emotionally will be a good experience. A great way for a couple to see where they stand is to discuss the story of their relationship. Dr. Gottman’s research has looked at the way couples talk about their relationship and predicted whether or not they will stay together with surprising accuracy. When couples have clear and specific memories of how they met, can talk openly about difficult times and how they got through them, and when the male partner is positive and affectionate in his descriptions, it is a good indicator that the couple is on the right track.
How can I build trust?
Like many things in life, it is the small and seemingly insignificant moments that lay the foundation of trust. Get to know yourself and what goes on in your head and heart when you are with your partner. Do you feel hurt or rejected at times? Are you always waiting for the other shoe to drop? How do you respond to that? Do you respond with anger? Do you shut off emotionally and pretend you were not affected? The more you can identify some of the deeper emotions and assumptions you might be making about why your partner did something, the easier it will be to express that to them. When both partners are making intentional efforts to pay attention to themselves and each other, it will be easier for them to catch those small opportunities to reach out and connect with each other. If you don’t think you will able to get there on your own, find a therapist who has experience working with couples that can help facilitate those conversations. And remember, change occurs over a thousand small moments. The small, positive moments that build trust are the threads in the tapestry of a healthy couple relationship.