The success of how two people in a relationship communicate is fundamentally tied to trust. What does this mean? The sense that you can count on someone else to take you seriously, respond to your needs most of the time and share their own concerns forms the basic fabric of any healthy relationship. If this process is interrupted by fear, protective cycles (individuals hiding their emotions out of worry that they will cause trouble), or a lack of ability to talk about one’s inner life, then progressively trust will erode and it will be difficult for the relationship to recover. This is why it is vital that at the first signs of trouble, the issues are taken seriously and help is enlisted to work through threats to trust and safety in any relationship.
Trust Is Not Given, It Is Earned
If you do not understand what trust actually means in a relationship, there is a very good chance that the relationship will fail. This is because although everyone talks about wanting a healthy and happy relationship, people often start complaining of a lack of trust at the very moment that the relationship is starting to learn what this actually means. Although it is a cliché, most relationships start with a honeymoon phase that provides the illusion of intimacy and trust, but it is simply not the case.
The loss of the honeymoon phase is often misinterpreted as a sign that the relationship is failing. People can go through dozens of relationships becoming increasingly resentful that they are “not being taken care of” or that “men are narcissists” or that “women are too demanding” without ever learning how to not only fix trust issues in relationships but really communicate what they actually need to feel safe and loved. The first failures of trust, the loss of that organic flow in the attachment, are the very seeds of the “information tree” that the relationship needs to lean on.
The Information Tree
Think about the signs of trust issues in a relationship as the seeds of the information tree that will grow into a strong foundation of knowledge and sensitivity over time. For example, let’s say that someone is dealing with an addiction early in a relationship but does not want to talk about it because they are afraid their partner will judge them or worse, leave them for being “broken”. And let’s say, the other partner discovers evidence of said addiction. This is often felt to be a betrayal of trust, and now the foundation of the relationship has a crack in it. We can look at this as a “mistake”, that the partner should have been more forthcoming about their struggles, which is true, but if we take a more human and realistic perspective, there are other areas that we could focus on that have to do with the relationship strengthening over time.
The fact that the partner struggling with addiction was hiding their behaviour reveals a lot about who they are, their vulnerability and their fears. Perhaps that could only come out through this incident, through being “found out” and having to confront how this might ruin the romantic relationship. People often need an incident such as this with someone they care about to realize how stuck they were. Trust issues at this point do not have to do with the fact that the partner has an addiction, but that the relationship now enters a state of vigilance; one of the partners cannot trust anymore and the other feels ashamed. This can shift over time where the partner who is struggling with addiction may grow resentful that there isn’t more understanding and the partner who felt betrayed grows tired of having to constantly check on things. These are clear signs that the relationship is in trouble.
The information tree has to do with the fundamental needs of each person. Perhaps the addiction was a mask for the fear of being alone, unprocessed trauma or fears of intimacy. If the relationship can use these failures to learn more about where someone is coming from, then there is a chance the partners can get closer and learn how to support each other. This also goes for the partner who feels betrayed and their needing to open more about what is required for them to feel safe in the relationship. You might protest that these principles, honesty for instance, are basic values, but we are not perfect human beings, we are full of faults and blind spots so we need to expect that all kinds of eventualities will take place and be ready to learn from them and plant the seeds of our learnings into the ground so they blossom.
The Therapeutic Process Around Trust and Fixing Betrayal
One of the hardest and most important first steps to fixing trust has to do with repairing shame. Often, the relationship is stuck in a dance where one person is asking for reassurance and the requests for reassurance trigger shame. Then the ashamed partners either withdraw and are numb to those difficult emotions or lash out. This often happens as one partner is asking for what they need and this can be chaotic and damaging emotionally, because shame shuts us down.
Couples therapy helps to hold both partners. I routinely have to contain people quite strongly as they go into shame, to help them process their pain and open up some room to be more receptive to their partner’s needs and concerns. If left unattended, this shame becomes stronger and is turned into hate and self-blame. Although some of the shame and responsibility can be useful, for instance in showing remorse, the vast majority of the time shame removes the partner from the connection and the emotional gap grows. This is the main reason to seek out couples therapy right away, because if you leave these early signs of growing together without exploring them, they will grow in the other direction and a tree of mistrust, blame and exhaustion will dominate the relationship.
So do not hesitate, the investment in your relationship is worth it, and there is no point in waiting to heal trust issues in your relationship.