Infidelity brings many couples and individuals to counseling. Most often, the initial issue is layers of anger, shame, blame, resentment and more. At some time during the process of exposing these layers of destruction and beginning recovery work there are the inevitable trust questions, “How can I ever trust her again?” or “How am I supposed to learn to trust him?” When these questions arose with my early clients I wanted to answer, “I don’t know.” After giving this a lot of thought I decided to offer them the better questions. How important is trust? and Who is it important to trust?
Before deciding if trust is truly important, we should probably be able to determine what it is. When you trust someone do you believe she will never leave you? Never hurt you? Do you believe he will never turn his back on you? Will always put you first? Do you trust someone when you can allow yourself to be vulnerable with her and share your deepest parts? The possibilities are endless.
The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary defines trust as the “belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective.” This is a very concise and simple definition which does not work when a person says “I just can’t trust” after a partner has had an affair.
I laughed out loud when I read, “It has been argued that trust increases subjective well-being because it enhances the quality of one’s interpersonal relationships, and happy people are skilled at fostering good relationships” from an article in Current Directions in Psychological Science by Kristina DeNeve. Perhaps my laughter was a bit cynical because I was searching for a way to help my client learn to trust after the affair. The very trust which was to increase his subjective well-being (how nebulous is that?) is what allowed him to be vulnerable to the deep pain he is now feeling.
Then I came across something that made sense. It was written , of all places, in Wikipedia. In a trust relationship, “the trustor abandons control over the actions performed by the trustee. As a consequence, the trustor is uncertain about the outcome of the other’s actions; they can only develop and evaluate expectations. The uncertainty involves the risk of failure or harm to the trustor if the trustee will not behave as desired.” This explanation includes three components. The first component is abandoning the desire to control. Next there is accepting the fallibility of the human condition. Finally there is allowing oneself to become vulnerable and accepting the risks involved in vulnerability.
1. The trustor abandons control over the actions performed by the trustee.
The desire to control may appear where it has not previously existed after the experience of being cheated on. A person who believes she has been betrayed may suddenly want to know her partner’s every move. While some therapists support this approach, I would find it exhausting. Understanding we can never control the actions of others is essential as we enter or reenter a relationship of trust.
2. As a consequence, the trustor is uncertain about the outcome of the other’s actions; they can only develop and evaluate expectations.
This involves accepting human fallibility.We realize and fear the potential for disappointment as that ability to fall enters into our relationships. This fear is especially present when there has already been betrayal. Again, if control has been surrendered there is understanding that another will not always behave as we desire.
3. The uncertainty involves the risk of failure or harm to the trustor if the trustee will not behave as desired.
Now comes the hard part…accepting the risk. How is it possible to leave oneself vulnerable to someone who has already caused hurt by not behaving according expectations? Knowing there is risk, how can trust be regained?
Here is the paradox, does it really matter? Is it important to be vulnerable to the other? Consider this…when you make the choice to move forward with someone who has caused you pain, is it important that you can trust them or is it more important to trust yourself? Can you be vulnerable with yourself? I believe an essential component of emotional health and healthy relationships is allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and accepting the risks involved in that vulnerability. In one of her Ted Talks, Brene Brown tells us that it is courageous to be vulnerable. This ability to be vulnerable is born of realizing our inner strength. This inner strength is what allows us to take risks. It also causes us to know we will survive if the outcome is not what we choose. With the awareness of this strength comes the ability to find joy, even at the risk of pain.