Rebuilding trust: where "trust issues" meet "untrustworthiness" in intimate relationships

Trust is integral to intimate relationships - it's not only the foundation on which everything else is built, it is also the glue that holds the relationship together. For many of us, trust is not easily given to another person where we have been let down in the past.

For some, the opposite is true - our longing to be in a relationship with someone who is worthy of our unquestioning trust gets in the way of being able to usefully challenge the untrustworthy behaviour of our partner. We can become caught between blaming ourselves - "I have trust issues" - and blaming our partner - "You are untrustworthy". While both of these are an understandable responses to breaches of trust in a relationship, neither position equips us to deal constructively with the issue.

For others who have grown up in an environment where untrustworthy behaviour has not been challenged or limited (for example, we have got away with lying, or a parent has made excuses for the deceitful behaviour of a sibling or the other parent), we may develop the idea that we are untrustworthy, or even that it's OK to breach the trust of others. As a result, we may have become expert at convincing others that our lying or cheating is no big deal, and/or that there's something wrong with them if they become upset by our behaviour (You know you have 'trust issues'!).

This dilemma becomes even more complex where one partner's story about themselves intersects with the other's in a way that unwittingly re-creates the very dynamic they are trying to avoid. That is - one person's internal dialogue of "I have trust issues" means she is already predisposed to view her partner's inevitable relationship mis-steps through the lens of trustworthiness, rather than having the capacity to view these as - for example - his struggles with intimacy and connectedness, or with managing conflict etc. If the other person's internal dialogue is "I am untrustworthy", this may mean he is predisposed to behaving in ways that will undermine his partner's capacity to trust him, and not easily be able to sit with the knowledge about the devastating emotional impact this behaviour is having on her.

The work of rebuilding trust, then, may be different for each person caught in this difficult relational dynamic. For the person who tells themselves they have trust issues, it wil be important to give themselves permission to assertively challenge the unstrustworthy behaviour of their partner, but in a way that allows space for discussion about the context in which that behaviour has occurred - for example, my partner has not disclosed to me that he was flirting with someone at work, this is NOT OK and I need to challenge him about it, and develop an agreement together about what we agree is acceptable. We also need to have a conversation about what makes it easier or more difficult for him to be open and honest with me, and I may need to look at what I am doing here, and be prepared to do it differently, without taking responsibility for his choice to be trustworthy.

For the person who is behaving in ways that breach trust in relationship, it will be important to take responsibility for the impact of this on their partner, without invalidating or dismissing the depth of their distress, without minimizing or lying about what they have done, and with a willingness to enter into an agreement about what is acceptable. They may also need to become more assertive about having the conversation with their partner about the relational context in which their untrustworthy behaviour occurred, without using this to make excuses or imply that this justifies the fact they have acted inappropriately. For example - "It's NOT OK that I flirted with Susan at work, I am sorry and I promise that in future, no matter how stressed I am, or whatever difficulties we are having as a couple, that I will not flirt with other women. I do want to talk about how we manage stress better though, and how we can communicate better when we're working through differences."

Rebuilding trust does not only involve making solid agreements about what is and is not OK. Although making these agreements is vitally important, and may need to happen first, if further work is not done that pays attention to beliefs and negative mental scripts we have that may be perpetuating a negative cycle of 'trust issues' versus 'untrustworthiness', as well as examining the relational context in which untrustworthiness and suspicion are happening in response to, then any agreement made is bound to fail when put to the test.

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