Trust vs. Threat

In relationships.

Friend or foe?

Really, at some level, it all comes down to trust and threat. Do you trust your partner to be there when you need her? Can you count on him to comfort you when you’re stressed? Or down? Or sick? Or are you never sure if she’ll be on time. If he’ll remember the trash. If she’ll get too drunk and cause a scene.

I’ve talked about Threat Mode, and how demands, expectations, and mustering evidence can all be triggers. Let’s pull back wide here and take a broader look at trust vs. threat.

Trust is a very broad concept that operates on many levels. In some ways, trust is necessary for almost everything we do. It is closely related to faith, although some senses of faith don’t rely on the same kinds of data that trust does. Both are forward-looking expectation systems related to reliability and predictability. When a relationship is rocky it is almost meaningless to say there are trust problems, in the same way it is meaningless to say there are communication problems.

If there is trouble in a relationship, trouble with communication and trust are givens.

Operating in the world requires a certain amount of reliability. If we had to experience every detail anew in every moment it would be overwhelming. We would not be able to function. So we rely on simple assumptions such as that when we stand up we will be able to balance on our two feet. That when we start to speak the words will flow out in a sensible order. That small discs of metal, little sheets of paper, and little plastic cards have monetary value. And so on. These acts and transactions all require some degree of trust or faith.

Scale this up to primary relationships and things get considerably more complicated, for a number of reasons. To begin with, let’s look at that word “primary.” In making a commitment to one other person you are placing a huge amount of trust with them. The stakes go up tremendously by allowing your partner to be so important to you. In banking on this one person you are also relying on them to fulfill many more roles than other people you come into contact with. Coordination of time and responsibilities take on more weight. Adding pets or children puts even more on the table.

And now there are two value systems, which also take coordination. You have to trust that your partner knows what’s important to you and why, in so many different ways. How neat should the house be? How important is sex to each of you, and do you know how to turn each other on? How do you prefer (expect!) to be treated when you’re sick? What about special occasions? Do you both like to travel? What do you like on your pizza (or do you even like pizza)? Many of these things evoke the culture and ethnic traditions of your families of origin, all of which have their particular demands and expectations.

And then the mother of all major conflicts: unconscious patterns created by each of your relationships with your parents from infancy. Let’s take the example of how we are treated when we are sick. This is one of many differences that can cause significant tensions in couples. Let’s say one of you was mostly left alone when sick as a child and the other was doted on. One was left to watch TV. The other was brought soup and had a parent sitting with them much or most of the time: talking, playing games, reading stories, soothing the child’s brow with a cool towel.

People tend to give what they want, which in turn is a function of what they either received or were deprived of as kids.

So let’s say the partner who got all the attention gives lots of attention to the one who was left alone. But the one who was left alone may find all that attention annoying. They just want to be left alone! When the tables are turned, and the one who got all the attention is sick, they will want lots of attention and presence. But the one who was left alone will assume they want space and leave them alone. But then the one who got attention as a kid will feel angry and hurt at being abandoned.

Most couples conflicts — and especially the intense ones — are based on expectations that were set and reinforced in childhood. That conditioning in childhood created a kind of trusting expectation that “this is how I will be treated when I’m sick.” And then when your partner treats you differently it becomes a violation of trust. Which amounts to a threat.

Part of what makes the threat worse is that the partner violating the other’s trust doesn’t see it that way. They just think they’re doing the normal thing! “I’m giving you space when you’re sick because that was normal for me.” When I talk about appreciating each other’s differences at a deep level, this is what I’m referring to. It’s understanding that what’s normal for you isn’t necessarily normal for your partner. It may in fact be the opposite!

One of the features of trust is that, generally speaking, it’s slow to build, but fast to break. And once bitten, twice shy, which is to say that once it’s broken trust may be even harder to rebuild.

Trust can be broken either by repetition or intensity.

Let’s stay with the example of being sick. If you expect to be cared for by me when you’re sick, and every time you get sick I leave you alone, eventually you will learn that you can’t trust me to care for you in that way. If how you’re cared for when you’re sick is important to you, then on top of not trusting me, you are likely to build resentment. This is trust broken by repetition.

The resentment is accumulated anger. Not only for the repeated injury, but also for my not learning what’s important to you. That may then transform into a larger worry or belief that I don’t care about you in general. If there are other areas where I don’t learn what’s important to you, then things may get to the point of putting our relationship in jeopardy. Threat begins to outweigh trust.

The obvious example of trust breaking via intensity is infidelity. Here again there is a huge range of degree, from brief flirtation with a stranger to having a long-term affair with a close relative or best friend. If the intensity is too great, the threat can kill the relationship in one shot. If it’s of a lesser degree, then it’s up to the couple to determine if it’s reparable. Transparency and authenticity on the part of the unfaithful partner are key to any possibility of repair. Repeated episodes of obfuscation or deception make repair exponentially more difficult. They compound the threat by repeating a false sense of trust. It’s the opposite of crying wolf.

The problem with broken trust is that it creates a Catch-22. In order to restore trust, you need…trust! But trust is broken.

Well known couples therapist Terry Real relates the parallel that if your food needs salt you can add salt. But if your salt needs salt, you’re in trouble.

These examples show ways that trust can be disrupted by things that happen in the relationship. But each individual also brings their own baseline level of trust into the relationship, and there is a wide range of possible trust levels. With some exceptions, a person who has had a chaotic or abusive childhood will tend to be less trusting. Some people who think their childhoods were “fine” and consider themselves self-sufficient may also be less trusting. When one or both partners’ trust levels are lower to start with, they are likely to have more disruptions together. Plus, people tend to find partners at a similar baseline to their own, so chances are that if one is mistrusting, both are — albeit in different ways.

All of which brings us to a thing that people who study children and relationships call “attachment.” And that is a big enough topic that it will require another article…

Thanks for reading! ~ * ~ If you found this interesting or helpful I would love your ❤.

[Image credits, all from The Stocks: Brown Lab, Lick, Sick]