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The Four Stages of Trust

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The Four Stages of Trust

by Dr. Riki Robbins, Ph.D

Trust evolves. We start off as babies with perfect trust. Inevitably, trust is damaged by our parents or other family members. Depending on the severity, we may experience devastated trust, in which the trust is completely broken. In order to heal, we must learn when and how trust can be restored. As part of this final step, if we cannot fully trust someone. then we establish guarded, conditional, or selective trust.

Perfect Trust

The first people besides ourselves that we learn to trust — or mistrust — are our parents. If they behave with integrity, tell us the truth, and keep their promises, then we are inclined to believe that other people will do the same thing. If our parents tell us to trust them, and then break their word, we may never learn to trust at all.

When Cathy, a college professor, was betrayed, she experienced total mistrust at first. She asked me, "Can I trust anyone: myself, other people, or even God?" I asked her if she remembered feeling this way before. She thought for a moment and then replied, "Yes. When I was a little girl. My father was a minister devoted to spreading the word of God. Yet he beat me and my brother regularly. It seemed so crazy to me. How could someone who was supposed to be so good act so bad? If I couldn't trust him to back up his words with actions, then I couldn't trust anyone else." Since I fully empathized with how Cathy was feeling, it was difficult to disagree with her. But I did tell her that unless she changed her attitude she wouldn't have healthy love relationships in the future.

None of us become adults and retain the perfect trust we were born with. But that doesn't mean we have to go to the opposite extreme. As my good friend author and public speaker Cheewa James puts it, "I trust everybody at the beginning. I assume everyone is loving until proven otherwise". For best results, start off a relationship with the assumption that the other person is trustworthy. Be careful to protect yourself, but give him (or her) the benefit of the doubt.

Damaged Trust

Inevitably, the person you love will violate your trust. The most common warning signs include:

Withholding vital information. You say, "Where were you last night until 2:00 A.M.?" "Nowhere special."

Lying. He says, "I was working late," but when you called his office, there was no answer.

Giving you mixed messages. He denies your accusations but doesn't look you in the eye.

Refusing to negotiate. When you ask, "Will you promise to stay away from her?" he says, "Leave me alone," and walks away.

Deep in your heart you know that trust has been damaged.

When you find out about a betrayal immediately after it happens, trust is broken. But it is not necessarily devastating. Especially if it is a mini-betrayal, you and your partner can talk about the incident, agree that it won't occur again, and reestablish a bond of openness and loyalty.

Devastated Trust

When your partner violates your limits and behaves in a way you find morally unacceptable, your trust is completely broken. Typically this happens after a betrayal when you've been cheated on, lied to, and treated with profound disrespect.

Devastated trust is a crisis. The first time it happens you may totally regress. You feel as if you're five years old as you re-experience your original fundamental loss. You ask yourself, just as Cathy did, "Whom can I trust?" You may answer your own question, "Not my mother or my father, not even my partner. Who's left?" Before you can think about trusting yourself and other people, you have to deal with the situation at hand. Can trust possibly be restored? If not, you will have to end the relationship despite any remaining good qualities.

What happens if you suddenly find out that you've been betrayed long ago? This happened to Edith, a newspaper editor. After her husband, Joe, returned from a weekend personal growth seminar, he decided to "come clean" about his previous sexual infidelities. Late one night, he told Edith that when he had visited an old out-of-town girlfriend five years ago, the two of them had sex. Furthermore, they had both discussed the possibility of ending their marriages so they could have a serious relationship together. "I could never trust Joe again after that," Edith told me. "If he had told me at the time we might have been able to salvage something. But to find out five years later? All this time he'd been withholding vital information. How could I possibly know what else he is hiding now?"

Francesca, a computer technician, was offered a choice. Her husband, George, told her, "During the early years of our marriage I committed a few indiscretions. I'd like to tell you so I can get them off my chest. Is this all right with you?" Francesca thought for a while before she responded, "You can tell me if you like. But if you do I'll never believe another word you say again. The time to tell me was when it happened, not now." Of course, simply by bringing up the subject, he shattered her trust completely.

If you suspect that your partner betrayed you, you should confront him as soon as you can. You may rationalize, "I don't want to hurt him, get into an argument, or rock the boat." Short-term pain is long-term gain. Every moment you wait, trust is eroded. Conversely, if you betray your partner, either reveal it at the time or else take a vow of eternal silence. Sharing a betrayal farther down the road devastates trust.

If trust is repeatedly broken can it be restored? No. Harriet, a registered nurse, had a tumultuous courtship. Her fiancι, Ira, left her to go back to a former girlfriend. When they broke up, he returned to her, promised her an engagement ring, and asked her to marry him. Two weeks later, he spent the weekend with another former girlfriend. Upon his return, he announced that he wanted to postpone their engagement because he wanted to continue dating. Harriet waited patiently until he gave up his second girlfriend. Six months later, she married him. It was a mistake. Harriet said to me, "I actually believed that Ira and I could 'start over'. But it wasn't true. I had lost all respect for him. My trust had been violated so often that I found myself waiting for it to happen again. And Ira continued his habit of having other sexual relationships behind my back. For our relationship to survive it was up to him to take the lead in restoring trust. And he didn't."

Restored Trust

Can you restore sexual or romantic trust once it is damaged or destroyed? It's possible, but difficult. You don't get past a betrayal overnight; it takes months or even years.

The good news is that the aftermath of a betrayal is an opportunity to strengthen your relationship. If you and your partner openly talk about what happened, you will open the gateway to deeper intimacy. While you cannot be positive that you won't be betrayed again you can certainly minimize the chances.

Discuss your partner's motives for betraying you and your own involvement in the cause. Honestly share how you feel, and what you need at the present moment. Express your concerns about the future, let each other know what you expect from now on, and state your limits about what you will and won't put up with. If you can't have this kind of conversation by yourselves, then get professional help right away. Don't wait; mistrust can become a habit. A qualified therapist, psychologist, or marriage counselor can guide the two of you as you explore why the betrayal happened and how to prevent another one. Gradually you'll start trusting each other in small matters — and then in bigger ones.

One thing's for sure: You can't turn back the clock. You and your partner don't feel the same way toward each other anymore. Trust has been broken and it's difficult to fix. As you put your relationship back together, both of you see each other differently. You think, "Maybe I can trust this person again but from now on I need to be careful." Your trust is not as complete as it once was. It may be:

Guarded trust. You think, "I'll trust you again, but I'll be on guard for another betrayal. If it happened once it could happen again."

Conditional trust. You think, "I'll trust you again under certain conditions, such as if you never communicate with the accomplice again."

Selective trust.  You think, "I'll trust you with money but not with sex. You can continue to write checks on our joint account as you have in the past. But I want detailed information and frequent reassurance that you're being faithful to me."

By making one of these agreements, you take a big first step in the right direction.

But suppose you can't restore trust? What if you feel that you can't trust anyone ever again? Janice, a writer-editor whose trust had been recently devastated, answers: "Since my husband cheated on me I realize that I can be betrayed at any time. In one split second my life can turn upside down. But I don't choose to focus on the uncertainty. If I did, life would be too difficult. I couldn't have a love relationship with anyone. So while I'm aware of the danger of trusting other people, I don't obsess. I continue to reach out even though part of me shouts, 'Watch out'."

How You Create Trust

Trust is a choice. While there is no ironclad guarantee that you will never be betrayed, you have the power to create trusting romantic and sexual relationships. The moment you meet someone, you can begin to deliberately nurture trust. How?

Be in integrity with yourself. Get in touch with your real needs and feelings so you can disclose them. Know who you are and what you want from a relationship. If you are honest with yourself, you will be honest with other people. If you tell others the truth, they will tend to reciprocate.

Select a trustworthy person. Let your intuition be your guide. If your inner voice gives you a green light, follow it. Observe and listen carefully. If you perceive signs of danger (white lies, black lies, broken promises), heed them. An untrustworthy person isn't going to change overnight even with your good influence.

Create trust moment by moment. Whenever an issue surfaces where you feel your trust is being violated, talk about it. It may make you both uncomfortable in the short run, but it will bring you closer together in the long run. If you have serious questions, ask them: "Where were you yesterday evening when I called and got no answer?" "Why were you two hours late for our date tonight?" "Who was that woman who came to your door this morning?" "To whom does this necklace on your dresser belong?" If you feel there's something wrong, you're probably right. Always follow your intuition.

To create trust you need to reveal your feelings — both the bad and the good. You need to share the truth about who you are, what's going on for you now, and your intentions for the future. When you notice something that's going on inside you must honestly report it. You must resist the temptation to lie at all costs. Lying kills trust.

If lying is so deadly why do we do it?

To look good. We choose to present an image of ourselves as attractive and desirable. We are afraid to share information that may make us look bad because we think we may lose the person we love. Actually, the opposite is true. Intimacy begins when you stop pretending to be perfect and start being real with your partner.

To avoid unpleasantness. We conceal information that we believe may cause conflict. We want our love to last, so we go to great lengths to create false, superficial harmony. This is another self-destructive myth. We get to know each other better as we reveal and negotiate our differences.

To avoid hurting our partner's feelings. We don't want to upset our partner by saying something that might make him angry. We want to protect him from upset. This is another self-destructive strategy. Yes, you may cause an upset by saying something your partner may find offensive, but sometimes you have to air your negative feelings to get an honest, positive dialogue going.

In his book "Radical Honesty", Dr. Brad Blanton recommends that couples share their complete sexual histories with each other. I agree. The more honest information you have about your partner's sexual preferences, habits, and style, the easier it is to satisfy him. And to protect yourself. For example, if your partner is uncomfortable with monogamy — and you know it — you can agree to go your separate ways or else to use condoms to protect yourselves from disease.

The Secret of Creating Trust

A friend of mine posed this question to me: "If I tell you the truth —  that I lied to you — can you still trust me?" Clearly the answer is "yes". The secret of creating trust right from the beginning is to have a conversation that goes something like this, "I have betrayed other people. I may betray you sometimes and you will probably betray me. We will try to avoid it, but when it happens we will deal with it together."

I have been in relationships with people who proved untrustworthy. They could have spared me — and themselves — a lot of grief by being honest about their untrustworthiness. They might have said to me, "Sometimes I tell white lies; often I tell black ones. I might even sleep with someone else and not tell you about it. Do you want to have sex and romance with me on these terms?" If I had answered "yes", I would have gone into the relationship with my eyes open. At least I would have had a choice.

Similarly, people who want an extramarital affair can clear the air by being honest with their accomplice and with their partner about their intentions. When an attractive married man invites me to have sex with him, I reply, "Go tell your wife. If it's okay with her it's all right with me." Most of them reply, "If I tell her, she'll kick me out." My answer is, "At least she'll know what you're up to. Then the two of you can make a decision about what to do next."

Personally, I believe that ongoing and complete sexual disclosure is the most powerful building block of trust. Granted, you have to be a very secure person in a very strong relationship — and very few of us are — to share your complete sexual self with your partner. But if you can manage, it works. For example, a married colleague of mine had extra-marital sex without intercourse with another woman while we were attending a convention. He insisted on calling his wife (who was at home taking care of their children) and telling her the details. Naturally she was furious. When I spoke to him a couple of weeks later he reported that they had a huge argument, cleared the air, and decided that she had equal rights to sexual pleasure with other men (and that they would hire a babysitter).

Other people take an even more radical position. I recently received a letter from a former judge which posed this question: "If you know your partner is going to have sex with other people would you rather he did it behind your back or with your knowledge? Or would you prefer that he was miserable repressing his desires?" Then he answered his own question, "Of course you'd rather have a satisfied partner and know what's going on."

Complete sexual honesty is the antidote to betrayal. You and your partner can share your fantasies and your experience. It may be painful, but it's also liberating. Your emotional intimacy will skyrocket. In the long run, you will feel infinitely more relaxed. You will no longer be afraid of being betrayed.

This article was excerpted from  Betrayed!: How You Can Restore Sexual Trust and Rebuild Your Life ©1998 Dr Riki Robbins.

     


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Last updated: 08/15/08

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