Trust grows wild in relationships, but what happens when it gets "broken?" Can we "rebuild" trust?
To be honest, I actually prefer the verb grow when it comes to trust because in a lot of the work I do with clients, trust isn't getting "rebuilt" so much as it's really being built for the first time. You'll hear all kinds of language in reference to psychotherapy aimed at supporting clients in this area; "Trust Recovery" is probably the trendiest.
Trust is all about consistency and predictability. It's little things every day. For it to work, you don't have to be perfect, but you do have to show up. It's about the follow-through.
We grow trust in our relationships when we're accessible to our partners when they need us, respond when they reach out, and engage emotionally with them so they don't feel alone at times of need. This is based on Dr. Sue Johnson's "A.R.E. you there for me?" Question, which is rooted in bonding science.
We also grow trust when we can emotionally time-travel back into painful moments with our partners so that we can, in a sense, undo the aloneness that fuels distress and dysregulation.
A few weeks ago I got together with John Howard for his Get Ready Set Love podcast (@GetReadySetLove) to translate some of this science of trust into practical tips for anyone looking to grow trust, not just clients in-deep after relational norm violations like 'infidelity.'
I just want to share the top twelve tips I thought of when preparing for our conversation!
12 Practical Tips for Growing Trust:
Focus on “small things often” (Gottman Institute). Set small, concrete intentions (start with achievable goals like, “I will practice mindful breathing for 5 minutes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings at 6:15am” or “I will go to a fitness class once per week”) and gently direction your attention to keeping up with them. To build trust in relationships, it helps to increase your trust in yourself. Accomplishing something you committed to, even if it's as simple as making the bed every day, grows trust in the self. Apply the same thinking to relationships and you'll be on a roll! Just remember to keep goals specific and measurable/achievable. Remember: "little things are not 'little.'"
"A.R.E. (accessibility, responsiveness, emotional engagement) you there for me?" Explore which element of A.R.E. (Sue Johnson) felt lacking during an attachment injury or wounding experience, and increase efforts to embody this dimension. It's helpful to start by talking about one specific example of a time you felt alone/unheard/not seen in the relationship. Start with a less significant example, like a minor parenting miscommunication or something that doesn't make you immediately livid thinking about. Let your partner/s know what incident felt upsetting, and what set you up for feeling upset. In the painful memory, was your partner accessible to you when you needed? Did they respond to you when you tried to signal your need? Did they emotionally engage with you? If the answer to those questions is "No," let your partner know what you needed and how they could have helped! Try to start requests with "I felt ____. I needed ____," as opposed to sharing criticisms that start with "You..." Once you have done a low-level example, then try something that is more recent, or still a trouble spot. If you get stuck, it could be a sign that checking in with a couples counselor could be beneficial!
“Name it to tame it." What happens when there's a giant elephant in the room and no one is saying anything? The weirdness turns palpable. When I invite clients to name-it-to-tame-it, for their relationship and/or in the context of parenting, what I mean is to practice attunement. According to Gottman and Yoshimoto's research, these are the skills involved in emotional attunement (which I'll include in an image below!): Awareness of your partner's emotions, 'Turning Toward' your partner when they need you, Tolerance for differing viewpoints, Understanding, Nondefensive responding, and Empathy. I call this the gift of "of course;" we want to give our partners the gift of, "Oh, of course you responded that way. You're not crazy. I get it. Knowing you and your story, the way things went down makes sense to me. I get you and I'm here with you. And I'm not going to try to 'fix' you or convince you out of what you're feeling and experiencing."
Practice nondefensive responding. This means watch out for the word "but." It can feel counterintuitive when there's been a big hurt or someone feels let-down related to your behavior, but what's needed is often just simple reflecting back of what you're hearing as you listen, even if it feels like you're just being a parrot. This might sound like: “You’re feeling so angry. I lied and you feel betrayed. You feel so upset with me right now.” It can help to follow-up with open questions! "Is there anything else?" "What do you need?" "How can I help?" I like to invite clients to imagine just sliding into a hot tub next to their partner: "Wow. It sure is hot in here," and gentle reflection on what's happening, *not* dipping a toe in and recoiling in terror and "YOW! Get out of there! Are you crazy?!" Hang out in the feelings sauna without trying to yank your partner out of it. If this means doing some individual counseling to tolerate big feels, do it!
"Comfort in, dump out." Match the level of vulnerability of the person with the least amount of power (Jean Baker Miller - "Supported Vulnerability") and find a balance of eye contact that feels safe (Stan Tatkin). Don't forget that certain cultures tend to maintain eye contact while listening, while others are more likely to do so while speaking; be sure to mirror appropriately and ensure that you aren't coming across as disinterested. I also highly recommend learning about Susan Silk's Ring Theory. You might have heard the phrase, "Comfort IN, dump OUT." Read up and practice pouring love and compassion "in" to people with the least power who are most impacted by a painful experience, and try to "dump" complaints and criticisms "out" and to people with more power who are less impacted by the event. For example: if your friend was 'cheated on,' focus on sharing loving thoughts with them, and do any complaining about their partner's behavior to a trusted friend who is not the vulnerable person in the epicenter of their hurt; if you're trying to comfort a hurricane victim, stay focused on what you can do to help, and complain/"dump out" about legislative policy and geopolitics to someone whose home wasn't destroyed.
Know who your Marble Jar Friends are. Have the courage to take health-promoting relational risks *and* learn to screen for empathy in others to evaluate for “Marble Jar Friend” (Brené Brown) status in discerning who to trust with your realness. Again, this is one of those domains where we can increase trust in our selves. We have to be discriminating about who we choose to share our most vulnerable, raw experiences with; don't get double-burned by sharing a painful experience with someone who tends to struggle with vaulting, to borrow another one of Brown's words.
Co-create mutual agreements. I prefer to nix the word "rules" and even "contract" in favor of "agreements." We need clearly defined agreements if expectations are going to be shared, and to ensure that we're on the same page and not making inaccurate predictions and interpretations about our partners, we depend on clearly understood expectations. A lot of partners in dyadic, monogamous relationships take for granted that culture prescribes pretty simple expectations: don't 'stray.' Clients in open and poly relationships feel more accustomed to hashing out details that might "go without saying" or be culturally assumed in monogamy. All relationships benefit from in-depth conversations co-creating definitions, agreements, and shared understandings.
Know where you are, and don't rush. Pacing is crucial when it comes to trust! An essential task is to be able to identify which of the 3 Stages of Trust Recovery you’re in (atone/attune/attach or stabilize/restructure/bond), so that you can use appropriate language and questions. For instance, in Stage I, we focus on exploring, processing, and expressing body sensations, emotional movements, present-moment experiences because we’re not in a place where we have lots of prefrontal cortex; we're hanging out in more emotional parts of the brain. A lot of therapists who aren't trained to consider this will start asking complex, existential questions in the first sessions when clients are still trying to sort out which way is up. Once we've gotten some safety established and good apologies have been heard, then we can start to really dig into the specifics about where a relationship derailed. I recommend downloading Esther Perel's Infidelity Resource Guide if you'd like to learn more about the general stages of growing trust and what to expect. She also provides questions that are safe to ask in each specific stage!
Brush up your art of apology. It's essential that we learn to deliver/perform *and* embody timely, heartfelt apologies. Harriet Lerner has some of my favorite resources for apologies. Clients also tend to have luck with Gottman's "Aftermath of Regrettable Incident," which is a step-by-step guide to processing a painful experience and making sure that partners are attuning and delivering meaningful apologies. Whenever our partners have a sudden, intense response to something, we can often assume that we hit what Dr. Sue calls a "raw spot" in EFT. It can be immensely helpful to map out the raw spots in every person in a relationship. When you see a big, angry response, for instance, it can be a signal that you'll find something softer and more vulnerable, like sadness, fear, or loneliness, if you slow the action down enough. It increases trust and builds strength into bonds when we can vulnerably share our feelings and see our partner lovingly stay present with us, affirming and validating what we're experiencing.
Kindness counts when it comes to language. Adopt affirming, non-blaming language and externalize problems so offending parties can feel hopeful about achieving growth/change/repair. For a simple example, I try to adopt Caryl Rusbult's language, “relational norm violation” instead of “affair," and Esther Perel's “hurt/involved/affair partner” instead of “cheater” and “victim." Send the signal that you're trying to understand and willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt, and you're more likely to set a stage where trust can grow. When I signal to people that I believe they can behave in a trustworthy manner, they tend to rise to the occasion.
Nonviolent communication principles can help! Focus on sharing feelings, needs, and direct requests. One of the easiest traps to fall into when trying to grow trust is attempting to guess intentions and motivations of others instead of just focusing on your own needs. The Center for Nonviolent Communication has tons of great resources!
Check-in with a counselor if you stay stuck. If trust doesn’t begin to unfurl naturally, it could be useful to assess for Trauma/PTSD or other things that can block attunement, like out of control substance use. EMDR or another body-centered modality to discharge any energy that might be trapped in the nervous system can help. EFT can also support conflict cycle de-escalation needed to set the stage for increasing trust.
Keep heart. It is possible to build a relationship where trust grows wild again, no matter what you've been though.
I'll leave you with some lyrical wisdom from Leonard Cohen: "Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything). That's how the light gets in."