Many people claim that they trust others until they have reason not to, but when you first meet someone, you don’t know anything about their integrity or past conduct, except what they tell you. Trustworthiness is proven over time by actions, not only by words. You can get hurt by believing what people say and ignoring their actions To be trustworthy, a person has to “walk their talk” – words and actions must be congruent. You also have to be able to trust your perceptions, a skill difficult for some codependents who trust too little or too much. Being able to trust realistically is a learning process.
When you’ve grown up in an environment where your parents kept secrets or invalidated your perceptions, you learned to doubt yourself. You may become distrustful and/or the opposite, suggestible to what others say and disconnected from your own inner guidance system. Either way, you’re not able to realistically evaluate other people. See my article,“Rebuilding Trust – Part II” to read more about the origins of the inability to evaluate trustworthiness.
The following are qualities to look for when you’re getting to know someone and evaluating a person’s trustworthiness. They’re one and the same as elements that create trust and safety in relationships.
Open and honest communication is the cornerstone of good relationships and of building trust. This is a problem in codependent relationships, because partners have difficulty knowing and openly and honestly discussing their feelings. Communication is often indirect, reactive, and defensive. When you’re closed, it raises doubts and misunderstandings with your partner.
Honest communication requires that you’re assertive about what you want and need and that you openly express your feelings, including what you don’t like when you expect your partner to read your mind and have unspoken expectations, it leads to resentment and conflict and undermines trust. Similarly, when you hide negative feelings, they come out sideways in behavior, such as lateness, forgetfulness, infidelity, or withdrawal. Your words and actions don’t match, which builds distrust.
Obviously, lying, breaking promises, keeping secrets, and denying things you’ve said quickly build distrust. It’s not worth losing your credibility over even a small lie or secret. Even shading the truth, can seriously injure trust and be hard to repair. It can cause your partner to doubt other, bigger things that you’re honest about.
Boundaries are limits. They’re important because they create a sense of safety. In getting to know someone, it’s important to have an honest discussion about the boundaries and privacy you’re comfortable with. You may desire boundaries regarding your belongings, space, emails, and conversations, which, if violated would cause you to distrust your partner. You may feel betrayed if a private conversation with your partner is repeated to his or her friend, or if he or she talks to one of your friends or relatives about you.
I felt my boundaries were violated when a date sent flowers to my office, which although a nice gesture, embarrassed me at work. I wanted a boundary between my work and private life. It caused me to distrust the man’s judgment and discretion and proved to be true in other areas. When you tell someone your boundaries and they ignore them, this creates a second violation – one of disrespect. You may have to explain the reasons for your boundaries with the person who has a totally different mindset.
A crucial boundary is the one around your body and sexuality. How much touching are you comfortable with early in your relationship, when and where? Are you going to be nonexclusive, sexually exclusive, or committed? Physical and sexual boundaries are essential to allow and protect the intimacy in your relationship. Jealousy and infidelity or even the perception of infidelity can irreparably ruin a relationship. You and your partner may have different values about what is acceptable. Have a frank conversation about what you require to feel safe and loving. Don’t be accommodating or idealistic about it – be real!
Simple things, like doing what you say you’ll do, returning loaned property, being on time, and keeping dates, build trust. These are all examples of “Walking the Talk.” Breaking promises, even small ones, creates disappointment. It also sends the message that the other person’s feelings and needs don’t matter. If it happens enough times, your partner loses trust and builds resentment that erodes the relationship.
As you get to know someone, you construct an idea in your mind about who they are and that gives you a certain sense of comfort and security. If he or she starts behaving in very unpredictable ways or in a manner that’s inconsistent with what’s become the norm, it gives rise to mistrust and doubt about the person’s mental health, fidelity, or financial dealings. If you’re going through some changes, like changing your job or not feeling sexual, it’s best to have open, honest communication about it before questions arise.
Learning to Trust
Learning to trust is not so much about the other person as it is learning to trust your own perceptions and paying attention to your doubts and intuition. When you’re with someone, move your attention inward to see what sensations you experience in their presence. Anger, shame, guilt, and hurt are feelings may be a signal that your boundaries have been crossed by verbal abuse or manipulation. Spend time with yourself and notice the difference with and away from the other person.
By Darlene Lancer, MFT JD
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