Intimacy and Trust
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | January 15, 2020
Trust is essential for intimacy. Without it, relationships suffer and die.
The internet magnifies everything—car shopping, research papers, and dating. You can now buy a car while reclining in a Lazy boy. Finding a loving companion, well, not much difference. No need to put on a clean shirt, just fire up the computer. A salient feature of the internet is endless options. We over shop cars and dates, comparing and contrasting to oblivion. Unfortunately, a decent person quickly gets shopped out of relevancy. Attractiveness, at least on the internet, is about creativity, shining brighter than the crowd. Hopeful lovers, lonely professionals, and manipulating sociopaths carefully write, edit and beautify their profiles to catch potential partners (or victims).
Honesty is sacrificed to elicit excitement. Photos are deceptively selected from the past with the right smile, angle and shine. The internet welcomes deception, excusing dishonesty. The initial bait blindly ignores the inevitable collision with reality—the first date. Overly creative profiles are exposed, and the cheater discovered. More than once, I drank coffee alone, the magnificent person behind the (too) well-written profile, perhaps, feared exposure to reality, preferring the relationship to remain on-line.
Being tricked hammers at the ego. One feels a bit foolish—a humbling table for one. The mysterious absence isn’t a complete waste; it saves months of work. The rudeness of missing a jointly planned date shows lack of respect for your existence, time, and emotions. The unannounced disappointment, even when later justified, is more predictive of character than the elegantly designed profile. A promise broken and trust violated shouts a warning.
I have no regrets from my internet dating days. I met some charming people. Kind, hopeful and broken, just like me. Ultimately, I married someone suspicious of the internet. She still paid her bills with a check and stamp. Dating on-line? preposterous. She thought her boot camp instructor had a nice smile; so, she married him.
"A promise broken and trust violated shouts a warning."
We need others. We magnify joys and sorrows through relationships. But the meaningful blessings of connection depend on trust—not extravagant presentations. Without trust, interactions provoke worries, stirring discontent, sowing confusion in words. Everything must be considered for validity. When words don’t mean anything, the power of conversation is lost. When expectations totter on unreliable words, the unpredictableness gnaws at our wellness.
Life is chaotic; we can’t budget or plan. The constant surprises, like being stood-up, eliminate a great blessing of human cognition—future planning.
Julian Rotter defines trust as, “an expectancy . . . that the word . . . of an individual or group can be relied on” (Rotter, 1971). Rotter adds “believing communication in the absence of clear or strong reasons for not believing” (1980).
Trust is an expectation of a future action. Trust (or distrust) is an attitude that affects how we think, feel, and act. We build our mansion on expectations, shifting ground shakes these constructed worlds, demanding constant corrective action. When expectations fail, we must put on the brakes, re-evaluate, and adjust. Life doesn’t flow perfectly; some flexibility is necessary. However, when our important relationships have no anchor, their words and actions constantly fluctuating, we find no peace.
The relationships that operate without trust are more cognitively demanding and interfere with continued progression.
Words augment growth. We can create, share and act on secondhand information. We can avoid pain and jump at opportunities. Words are a rich source of learning (Forges, 2019). In finance, credit is extended to those capable of repaying. Credit is a structured form of trust. In relationships, words backed by honesty have value. We can promise anything. The words, however, are just puffs of air creating vibrations. We shouldn’t risk wellness on random sounds, no matter how pleasing the music, without a known history of reliability. To do otherwise is foolishness.
Communication and Trust
Marshall Rosenburg, communications expert and author of Non-Violent Communications, teaches that an underlying trust is key to healthy communication. “When others trust that our primary commitment is to the quality of the relationship, and that we expect this process to fulfill everyone’s needs, then they can trust that our requests are true requests and not camouflaged demands (2015, p. 81)
John Gottman, known for his love laboratories, concurs, "... that trust means that our partner, perhaps in considering his or her own interests, is also considering our interests in the way he or she acts" (Gottman, 2011, location 1425).
Trust turns the wheels of human interaction. We repeatedly make small investments in trust. We can absorb small losses, gaining insight from misplaced trust. Trudy Govier invested over a decade researching trust. Many of her findings she shares in her classic book Dilemmas of Trust. Govier explains that trust is a positive expectation that other people are basically well intentioned and are unlikely to harm us. (1998, p.7). Sociologist consider trust the social glue of society (p.6).
We, typically, default to trust. We believe people are honest until they prove otherwise. We routinely offer trust within protective limits. We believe the store clerk will not fraudulently use our credit card, the Uber driver will bring us safely home, and the date will show-up for coffee. If others honor small expectations, trust expands, and we can safely move towards weightier matters.
When opening the self beyond trivial matters, violations are costly. They sting. Some abuses brutally impact our lives and scar our souls. Betrayals transform perceptions; we grow suspicious of the world, becoming protective, building impenetrable walls to keep menacing intruders out. Unfortunately, most protective walls are indiscriminate, also deterring caring others.
"Betrayals transform perceptions; we grow suspicious of the world, becoming protective, building impenetrable walls to keep menacing intruders out."
Trust a Requirement for Intimacy
To benefit from intimacy, we must trust, lowering protective walls, allowing vulnerability. This is frightening. We still need some protections. Intimacy isn’t a no-sum game of careless openness. We should continue to scrutinize those allowed into the inner sanctity of our lives, not haphazardly risking our tender souls. Trust must evolve, starting small and slowly offering greater gifts.
Cynthia Wall, therapist and author, warns, “intimacy demands the slow unfolding of your secrets and doesn’t thrive in casual relationships” (2005 p. 726).
Don’t sell your inheritance for the lofty promises of charming strangers. Wait—be patient. See how they honor small graces first, only moving towards greater vulnerability as dependability is proven. With intimacy, two lives become intertwined, not co-dependent: but interdependent—gaining and growing together, honoring each other’s individuality. Does this person prove dependable? Can they be trusted with our precious wellness?
“As partners develop increased trust in one another, they are likely to become increasingly dependent on one another—that is, they are likely to become increasingly satisfied, increasingly willing to forego alternatives, and increasingly willing to invest in the relationship” (Rusbult, Davis, & Hannon, 2001, p. 107).
Three Aspects of Trust
According to Gottman, trust has three characteristics:
Trust and trustworthiness are necessary for a relationship to succeed. Trust doesn’t demand perfection. Partners occasionally disappoint. We must create room for the human expressions of individuality. There is a difference between the discomfort of disparity of expectations, stemming from individual wants and desires, and deceitful betrayals. Maintaining closeness while working through differences builds trust.
Trust Creates Security and Safety
We learn through experience whether a potential partner is trustworthy; whether they will respect differences and seek common ground. When choice is diminished with “my way or the highway” demands, we should take the seriously, and almost always select the latter. “Goodbye.” Gottman explains that trust is expressed through an affirmative answer to essential questions of security. “Can I count on you to stay interested in me?” “Can I count on you to treat my intimate disclosures with respect?” “Can I count on you to fulfill your promises?” (2011, location 978). When we actively communicate differences and remain confident that we are loved, trust is present. We securely know our partner won’t harm, using delicate moments of intimacy as weapons for manipulation (see The Intent to Hurt).
“Intimacy is strengthened every time differences are discussed and you take the risk to revisit difficult topics. The joy of steadfast intimacy comes after you have exposed deep truths and accept and understand each other.” (Wall, 2005, location 650).
Trust Relieves Cognitive Demand
Govier explains, “Trust is simpler than distrust.” She continues, “To coordinate activities and manage even mundane matters with people whom we do not trust is at best difficult, at worst impossible. Distrust leaves virtually every possibility open, implying anxiety, fear, lack of openness, and poor communication (1998, p. 145)
Gottman also elaborates on the cognitive benefits of trust. He wrote, “trust simply makes interaction easier and less costly. We don’t need to be continually testing our partner to see if this time we can trust him or her to tell the truth, keep promises, and think of our interests” (2011, location 1493).
Life is more predictable when we ally with dependable people. We conserve precious cognitive resources. When trust is missing, everything must be calculated and questioned. Trust clears communications of clutter. We can rest from deciphering vague and ambiguous messages (see Gaslighting for more). We don’t fear because we reasonably expect goodwill from the relationship—not harm. We trust that words are not covert manipulations, decorated with the jagged edges of a hidden agenda. The trust is in the underlying knowledge that the other person is also interested in the quality of the relationship (Rosenburg) and considers our interests in the way they act (Gottman).
When these trusts are broken, the events feel more like betrayal than unreliability. We relied on their word. We believed that they considered our wellness and the quality of the relationship, but they disrespected our vulnerability, taking advantage of freedom, unguarded by constant checks and guarantees. They betrayed us, giving our peace to the enemies. (See Betraying Intimacy for more).
Trustworthiness is complex. A bidirectional complexity complicates investigations of human behavior. On one hand we have reality, and on the other a subjective interpretation of reality. Sometimes there’s a great distance between the two. A correct response to a behavior occurring in reality may not be the correct response for an ill perceived version of that reality. We feel justified because if our perception was correct, our response would also be correct. But, as so often is the case, we’re reacting to a misperception of reality. In these cases, we need internal adjustments rather than external reactions. The elements of reality and perception are fluid, moving back and forth. These dynamics make writing about human behavior difficult; all general advice is prone to error, missing the personal situational factors. This especially applies to trust and trustworthiness.
A relationship will not work without trust. However, we shouldn’t indiscriminately trust without respect for our own safety. Ideally, we only trust trustworthy partners. Here lies the difficulty—trustworthiness is a perception, subject to error. Distrust is misplaced as easily as trust. And when we misplace distrust, it destroys promising relationships.
Neither trust nor distrust is more ethical. The appropriateness of trust depends on a person’s trustworthiness, not just generally but specifically. We must determine whether the trustworthy person can be trusted in specific action. Whether trust was misplaced or honored is only revealed after the fact. If we know there is no risk, then trust isn’t necessary. We’re acting on knowledge.
Honesty, Competency and Trust
A trustworthy person must be honest. “Intimacy and trust can never be built on active dishonesty" (Wall, 2005, location 1178). However, honesty doesn’t guarantee trustworthiness. Let me say that again for emphasis, honesty doesn’t guarantee trustworthiness. Broken commitments aren’t always purposeful deceptions; competency must be considered. Trustworthy commitments must be made in competency. We can’t do what we’re woefully unskilled to do. Insufficient skill to fulfill a commitment short-circuits the promise. The person doesn’t blatantly lie or intend to deceive; they just shouldn’t have committed. Sometimes we over commit, misjudging our capacities; other times, we comply with requests, hoping to please. Often these commitments are motivated by emotion, we promise without rational calculations.
A young mother, working a nightshift as a nurse bought her sixteen year-old son a computer. He argued his grades were poor because homework required a computer. The single mother, perhaps motivated by guilt, yielded to the semi-logical argument, and bought a computer. The computer resolution failed—the computer didn’t solve the child’s studying woes. The scanty effort he invested in schoolwork was the problem. A new computer just increased the distraction. With mom at work, and limited supervision, gaming took over. The unspoken agreement failed. “You buy a computer; I will improve my grades.” This equation is common. We make an investment and trust the other will uphold their end of the bargain.
This young student lacked competency. He believed the computer would solve his educational woes and the prospect of a new computer felt good. Adolescents are masters of switching the playing field. Somehow, his poor grades secured a reward of a new computer instead of a punishment. I’m certain the boy believed in his own argument—the computer would improve his studies. But later, at the point of decision, World of Warcraft won over algebra—every time. He wasn’t intentionally dishonest; he lacked personal insight, mispredicting how he would respond once a computer decorated his desk.
I am looking out my office window at a half painted fence that serves of a stark reminder of the incompetence of a struggling adult son to make a similar agreement. The work halted once the reward (cell phone) was secured.
Like the ailing student, we often lack sufficient knowledge to accurately predict how we will act under new circumstances. Our past is the best predictor of our future. (Dean, 2013, location 886). When inadequacy surfaces, we can step up and evolve, or manufacture more promises we’re incapable of fulfilling.
Imagine an unskilled handyman hired to fix a leaking pipe. Without proper skills, his YouTube education may fail, leaving our kitchen flooded. He honestly intended to fix the pipe and fulfill his agreement, but he couldn’t. We shouldn’t trust this person to tackle other complex plumbing issues because of his proven incompetence as a plumber.
Relationships are more complicated than broken pipes. Incompetent lovers make monstrous messes, seriously damaging hearts and minds, when all they intended to do was love. Children raised in harsh environments often become incompetent lovers, not because they are bad, but because they are blind to the complexities of attachment. A child devoid of healthy attachments doesn’t have a healthy internal model for guidance. Dr. Sue Johnson, Author of Hold Me Tight, wrote “Positive models tell us that others are basically trustworthy, that we are lovable and entitled to caring” (2008).
As an adult, the incompetent lover must blindly navigate complex issues. They may want to love (and be loved). They just don’t know how. Incompetent in love, tossed by insecurities and magical thinking, they must learn basic relationship skills. Under “good enough” circumstances, new mechanisms of attachment may take hold. I have witnessed miracles of grace; helplessly damaged children can enjoy the magnificence of adult intimacy, rising above their barren destinies. Johnson explains that, “when we learn to foster safe, loving interactions with our partners and can integrate new experiences into models that affirm our connections with others, we step into a new world. Old hurts and negative perceptions from past relationships can then be put away and not allowed to orchestrate our way of responding to our lovers” (2008). We can heal and we can love.
Trust must evolve with gentle commitments. Successful substance abuse treatment programs understand this. They only give responsibilities within the client’s capabilities, slowly increasing expectations as capabilities develop. When early environments are not safe, children adopt protective barriers. Their early attachments hurt. In adulthood, others must temper expectations, slowly increasing trust in their developing ability to love.
Because trust failed in childhood, victims learned that vulnerability is costly. We can’t just pop the safety raft, pushing fearful occupants into the cold waters of a (perceived) dangerous world. Careless actions that force vulnerability invokes panic—not healing. Trust must be gently introduced, slowly proving dependability through small and almost imperceptible progressions. Johnson cautions, “their raw spots are so large and so tender that accessing their fears and trusting in a partner’s support is a huge challenge. (2008, location 1299).
Trust isn’t something we do or don’t possess. Trust is linear. Our trust flows dynamically adjusting to circumstances, people, and our inner wellness. When we trust, we act with a reasonable expectation of another person. Social interactions are bolstered by honesty of intention but cemented by accuracy in prediction. Trust, therefore, is built upon fulfillment of promises. No matter how brilliant the excuse, if you fail to do what you’ve promised to do, trust is damaged.
For trust to evolve, we must honor the morsels of trust given. We must capitalize on opportunities to build trust. The reliability ultimately has much greater value than the proceeds from the agreement. A computer or new phone are nice but a legacy of reliability is “priceless.” When protective walls are lowered for us, we must act honorably. And conversely, we must gently lower protective walls for caring others, revealing our willingness to risk emotional vulnerability.
"We must capitalize on opportunities to build trust."
Robert Augustus Masters, Ph.D. describes emotional vulnerability as being “in touch with—and transparent about—what we are feeling, sharing both its surface and its depths.” We share our troubling emotions, “knowing that the more openly we share the emotional states. . . the deeper and more fulfilling our relational connections can be” (2013, location 788). This is the where trust creates intimacy. Here relationships cement their bonds. A couple becomes interdependent, dismantling normal protections. Vulnerable but secure.
There’s a dilemma—a perplexing paradox. For a relationship to succeed there must be trust. Trust breeds more trust. Distrust destroys, hastening the eventual collapse. When distrust wedges into a relationship, it divides, pushing a part decent people. Once distrust infects, the relationship is in trouble. However, we can’t decide to trust when doubt is present. Some doubt is grounded in evidence. To repair a crumbling relationship, we need some remnants of trust to build on. Once distrust takes hold, like a vacuum, it sucks life from the relationship, spitting it out into nothingness—the great abyss of broken hearts.
Several years ago, I witnessed a troubling conflict, flowing from the ugliness of distrust. The distrust created a no-win situation—an argument without possibility of resolution. A young woman was late. She failed to call or text. At home, her anxious boyfriend worked himself into emotional overdrive. He anxiously imagined varies theories of infidelity. When his girlfriend returned home, a vicious argument ensued.
“Why are you late?” He demanded.
She calmly explained “There were problems with the cash register. It was out of balance.”
Her response didn’t suffice, so he began to yell, “I need to know where you are all the time.”
Exasperated, “I was at work.”
“Who were you out with, your new boss?”
“I already told you, I had to work late.”
Fuming and on the edge of violence, He screamed “I’m going crazy. Tell me where you were!”
The emotionally distraught man was demanding answers from words; but her words weren’t registering. His theories of infidelity couldn’t be shaken by her reassuring words. There was no trust. He trusted his groundless imaginations more than her actual communications. He expected the impossible, unrealistically seeking security without trust. There never can be security without trust.
Govier explains, “Firm ‘proof’ of loyalty and dependability will be impossible. Because there is always a need for trust at some level, the person who is suspicious and uneasy can always find a basis for distrust” (1998, p. 154).
Typically, partners desire a call or text notifying of tardiness. But, in this case the notification wouldn’t have solved the outrage or fear. The text would have been received with suspicion, “she’s lying.”
“Communication is possible only if we can assume that the other is basically sincere and is trying to say what he or she means, and thus meaningful communication presupposes some trust. In serious cases, spreading distrust is unlikely to be resolved by talk alone, because those involved will not be prepared to believe each other” (Govier, 1998, p.168).
This vivid example paints the painful reality of distrust. When trust is gone, words mean nothing. The jealousies swooning in the heart commandeer the emotions and hijack the brain, the ears shutdown and logic hides. No words can soothe without the healing balm of an underlying trust. We must trust that our partner has integrated our wellbeing into their decision making tree.
Sue Johnson poetically captures this harmful spiral beautifully, “the more you attack, the more dangerous you appear to me, the more I watch for your attack, the harder I hit back. And round and round we go.” She then warns, “this negative pattern has to be shut down before a couple can build true trust and safety. The secret to stopping the dance is to recognize that no one has to be the bad guy. The accuse/ accuse pattern itself is the villain here, and the partners are the victims” (2008, location 1142).
Their relationship has entered the graveyard of a downward spiral. The distrusted partner quits communicating (because it does no good) and the distancing solidifies the suspicions. Each adverse act spurning another.
We may occasionally feel jealousy. Our fears and insecurities live on. We must process these emotions to strengthen the relationship, not destroy. Trust can elicit empathetic concern, giving life to a commitment of mutual wellbeing. Millions of daily interactions between proclaimed lovers are missing empathetic concern. The fear screaming demands, “make me secure!” Our inner demons shout so loud we can’t hear the whispers of love.
In a “must read” book on relationship anxiety, Carl Hindy, J Conrad Schwartz and Archie Brodsky explain, “empathic concern and trust lead to mutually cooperative interaction, directed toward meeting both partners’ needs” (1990, Location 2520). We must pause long enough to consider that accusations of distrust may be completely ungrounded, and our partner—the person we love—is being falsely accused.
Healthy couples argue. They forget to text. They annoy each other. Our partners will test patience, and occasionally spurn questions about the strength of the relationship. A healthy attachment isn’t smiles unlimited. The disagreements, however, don’t fall into Gottman’s “distance and isolation cascade” (2011, location 435). Instead of turning away from each other in critical moments, those destine to survive the choppy waters, quickly refrain from the negative, remember the good and then turn towards each other. The active ingredient of trust, when added to disagreement, allows for positive sentiments to return. Words of explanation are heard. The pain from an emotional collapse is shared.
Healthy couples quickly repair the momentary breaks. They simultaneously remember and confirm Gottman’s questions of trust; I’m still interested, I can be counted on to treat intimate disclosures with respect, and I will fulfill my promises. When our partners trust these answers, and we trust our partner’s answers, the fluff of disagreements can be placed in a larger context of a loving relationship. The conflict is only a temporary bump and not a sign of an imminent incoming disaster.
We must create these mindsets, seeking trust and building love. “Trust is more than a mental state or feeling we can’t control. Trust is a skill to be learned and a choice to be made. It is a gift to be shared with those who appreciate its importance. Trust is also fragile and must be handled with great care.” (Wall, 2005, location 143)
In a trusting relationship, when a partner is later than expected, who cares if the chicken is slightly over done. The repeated history reminds that the worry is unnecessary. The discomforts of distrust can be confronted. With trust we can productively express our emotions, exposing our vulnerabilities. When we trust our partner cares, we can receive their explanation and be calmed by their reassurance. Words calm the emotional throbs and love moves forward. Communication in delicate moments mean something. They are built on mutual empathetic concern.
When the quality of the relationship is the underlying theme, we willingly expose our tenderness, not fearing revelations of the soul to return as harmful swipes that discredit value. Lovers burn new positive profiles of each other in their brains. These are the profiles that matter, built with empathetic concern, through numerous interactions. These positive images emblazoned in our minds boost confidence and soothes pains. In trust, we find love; Someone to share life and a morning cup of coffee.
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