From 2009 to 2011 a TV show called Lie To Me aired. Each episode, Dr Cal Lightman (played by Tim Roth) would solve a crime and uncover the truth by reading someone’s tone of voice and micro-expressions. Unfortunately, in real life, working out who to trust is not always as easy as deciphering a raised eyebrow.
Given its importance in our lives, trust being the cornerstone of all relationships (whether with a partner, family member, work colleagues or yourself), why do some people trust more readily than others? Psychologist David DeSteno, author of The Truth about Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More, says, “Trust implies a seeming unknowable – a bet of sorts. At its base is a delicate problem – a desire for someone else to meet your needs and a desire to meet your own.” If trust is a bet, how can you increase your odds?
In the 1950s, psychoanalyst Erik Erikson developed a popular personality theory: he proposed that there are eight stages of human development. At each stage, the individual deals with a conflict that serves as a turning point in development. The first stage is about trust and occurs between birth and approximately 18 months. In this stage, children learn how to relate to the world through their primary caregivers. For example, if a child learns that their emotional needs will be met consistently when they are distressed, they then reason that they can trust other people and the world in general.
These experiences set a template for interacting with and trusting others. However, Erikson pointed out that this is not a “set and forget rule”. Corrective experiences of trust or attachment, such as learning that people can be inconsistent, can occur at any time. Mistrust comes when these negative experiences and inconsistencies are not corrected. How do I know I can trust my partner?
I first met my “Mr Darcy” when I was 17. The relationship started and ended within three weeks and I fast learned that he was actually the antithesis of Jane Austen’s considerate, gentlemanly character. While this experience was painful and my trust was broken on multiple levels, it did not prevent me from entering into other relationships. The main reason was because I realised that this was not the “norm”.
The concept of “normal” is important in intimate relationships. People gravitate towards what is familiar. If chaos, drama and inconsistent emotional responses were normal to someone as a child, this tends to be replayed in adult relationships. I see this frequently in therapy sessions – people gravitate towards the same types of toxic relationships, because they begin to learn and trust this is “normal”.
The basics of betrayal
John Gottman, a professor emeritus in psychology known for his work on the scientific analysis of relationships and the author of Science of Trust, says the number one issue in couples therapy is trust and betrayal. When we talk about trust in relationships we often think about “big issues”, such as infidelity. But Gottman explains, establishing and maintaining trust is about small moments that are extremely important. People ask themselves, “Can I trust you to be there for me? Will you support me emotionally?”
Several years ago, my husband and I were shopping around for tablets. I came across a site that was selling one I wanted, for a fraction of the price I’d seen elsewhere. I bought it online and waited. Three weeks later, with no sign of the tablet, I went to contact the seller. But the site had vanished. I tracked down a business address and, receipt in hand, I went to the address, which was a serviced apartment. I asked the receptionist for the company office number and she informed me that I was one in a long list of customers who were also looking for that company. This experience made me feel weary and foolish, but it represents another breach in trust – can we trust strangers? Scams represent extreme betrayals in trust, yet with the internet, they seem to be on the increase – a case in point, the notorious Nigerian inheritance email: “Dear Sir, you have inherited $80 billion. Simply deposit $5000 into this bank account to claim your winnings.”
We’ve all received the email, and some people fall victim to it. So what makes a person vulnerable to scams? Dr David Modic, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge, has spent many years studying the psychology of “scammers”. He says that it is tempting to imagine that only foolish people are vulnerable, but his research does not support that idea.
Modic says that some of us are vulnerable to trusting the “wrong” people due to a combination of factors: scammers playing on authority (such as pretending to be a lawyer) or social influence (peer pressure, persuasion, marketing). Scammers know what we need to feel secure and they rely on our desire to connect. In order to connect, we need to trust. And that’s the “bet” that DeSteno talks about. Loneliness and various life stages can make us more vulnerable, but scammers mostly rely on the psychology of trust to entrap “victims”. It is the same principle we apply to all relationships: the need to be emotionally validated.
A balancing act
We know that trust is a balancing act between whether a person will meet your needs and whether you allow them to. Still, if trust is broken, it can take a long time to get back to baseline. Gottman says that trust is built in very small moments, which he calls “sliding door” moments, after the movie by the same name. What he means by this is that in every little moment with your partner – or your colleague or friend – there is room to either connect or disconnect. This principle holds for all levels of interaction. One of Gottman’s graduate students, Dan Yoshimoto, says that the basis for building trust is the idea of attunement. Reflect on your own relationships and try the following to increase trust:
• Try to be aware of what your partner’s feelings;
• Address the feelings you are both having, and try to avoid running away from them;
• Remind yourself that two very different viewpoints can co-exist;
• Try to take a non-defensive stance;
• Respond with empathy before facts, and validate the feeling first.
Yoshimoto explains further that trust is built by being there for one another and repairing communication when it is messed up. pain versus all the good things
In every relationship – romantic, platonic or in business – there is a risk of broken trust. However, trying to avoid this at all costs entails cutting yourself off from a world of “goodies” and connectedness. There is undoubtedly no pain like heartbreak or the feeling of betrayal, but ask yourself: would you trade that in to have what you have now? Looking at my daughter running around with such confidence, I feel a need to protect her from all the hurts of the world. Yet I realise that having your trust broken is inevitable, and from this she will learn to refine who she turns towards and needs in her life.