To some people you may not give your hand,

only a paw:

and I desire that your paw

should also have claws.

- Friedrich Nietzsche

n the olden days of my youth, when one opened a bank account one would get a free toaster. Wasn’t that nice? The banks – whose only products were service and trustworthiness – were trying to convince us that our money was safe with them using a toaster as a trust trope. It symbolized a tiny bit of the warm, fuzzy breakfast ritual – a petite, electrical rendition of hearth and home. I find that people often have a similarly physical image of interpersonal trust, but instead of an appliance, they visualize trust to be like a Waterford vase that comes free with each new relationship. If things go well, this stunning crystal trust will remain whole and pure and true. If something goes wrong, then the trust is shattered.

No. No. No. No. No. No. No!

Trust doesn’t come free, glittering and flawless when you meet someone. There is no trust at the beginning of a relationship because there has been no construction of it. Trust is also never glittering and flawless because it is made up of relational scar tissue. Nor is it fragile. It is exceedingly flexible and resilient.

If you want an image that better captures the truth of trust, picture the gnarled root system of an old tree that is clinging to the side of a rock cliff.

Despite the fact that that last sentence might seem bleak, I hope to make clear to you through this article that it actually presents great news. When we understand why trust does not and cannot exist fully formed and sparkling at the beginning of a relationship, and that trust is co-created between people only by grappling together, we then have much greater control over the trust levels that exist everywhere in our lives.

Trust me

When you approach another person to whom you might want to relate – be it for fun, business, assistance or love – you make assumptions based on the data at hand. A crucial part of the decision to commit on any level to that person is: Do I imagine this person to be reliable? Can he be counted on to be a nifty addition to our softball team, drive my children safely to their track meet, impress our customers with thoughtful contributions, help me sort through my tax questions or stand by me through to old age? At the early stages of a relationship you only have conjecture about the reliability of another based on the contextual data you can gather. Using social group short hand, you review things like how you came across them (e.g. introduced by a trustworthy friend or found them on the Internet), what they look like (e.g. kempt or unkempt) or what they say (e.g. well-spoken or bloviating). To the extent their reliability is vital (your children's lives), you will likely put in a little extra research (talk with other parents). And to the extent you decide to make an ongoing connection to them, you will start to spend time with them. If they maintain their reliability, you will feel justified in your decision to affiliate with them. If they let you down, you will start to rethink your decision. Nowhere in that scenario is preordained trust.

Back to the tree roots. Approaching another person as a possible trustworthy connection is like buying a tree. If you have gone to a reputable nursery rather than the dollar store, you will feel reasonably certain that the tree you are purchasing has the beginnings of a root system. So far, so good. But can you trust that your newly purchased tree will flourish where you need it to, provide you will shade, oxygen, and fruit for the next 50 years, or withstand heavy winter storms? No. Until it has survived the transplanting, grown through all four seasons, fought off pests and borne fruit, you cannot trust this tree.

Nor can the tree trust you. Can you be relied upon to provide this tree with what it needs to create a strong and resilient root system?

All right. Before I commit metaphor abuse, let me get to the point.

Trust is a sinewy, gristly bond that is built between two people who are both willing and capable of enduring the life trials that determine whether or not it is plausible for them to rely on each other. Each episode of duress that is successfully – if lurchingly – navigated builds trust. When well constructed and carefully maintained, this bond is strong, flexible and resilient. It can stretch thin and still hold tough. It can handle quite a bit of damage and still be rebuilt. But it is always possible for a situation to arise that will cause one or both of the members of the dyad to bolt out of the relationship and into either self-loyalty or ineptness. Therefore trust is always vulnerable to Humpty-Dumpty style destruction.


What about the old saw “what you don’t know won’t hurt you?” Should you be completely honest with your partner in order to build trust?

Both of these questions deal with the concept of secrets and their effect on trust. To some extent this is a philosophical question about the value of honesty that we each have to decide for ourselves...


If you build it

Let’s walk through the process of building trust. For non-gendered-pronoun-tedium’s sake, we’ll use Molly and Barbra as our models. When Molly meets Barbra she instantly starts to analyze whether or not Babs is a match in terms of both intentions and integrity. In other words, does Barbra want the same thing out of the relationship as Molly does and, if so, is she capable of co-creating a strong bond? There will be a bunch of testing going on initially. Molly will watch how Barbra speaks of herself and of others, what anecdotes she chooses to share and what they say about her, how interested she seems in Molly and so forth. Over time both women will gather loads of data about the other person. Subconsciously, Molly will start to compare Barbra’s behavior and Barbra’s words. Is there consistency there? Does she show up how and when she says she will? How does she treat other people? How does she act when she thinks no one is looking? And, importantly, Molly will assess how Babs handles herself when the going gets tough. Does Barbra respond well to criticism, assertiveness, requests for help and emergencies? Finally, Molly will look for evidence that Barbra cares for her and values the friendship. If there are good data pouring in relative to all these concerns, Molly will start to believe that Barbra can be relied on in most circumstances. Now, unless these two women are undercover CIA operatives, neither will be able to trust too deeply that the other will be able to thwart a carjacking, but, within the scope of normal friendship, Molly and Barbra can plausibly rely on each other. The longer they know each other, the broader the range of their experiences together and the gnarlier the tests they have passed as a pair, the deeper the trust grows.

To summarize, Molly builds deeply rooted trust when she:

• Gathers data on how Barbra handles her life, especially adversity such as mistakes, anger, and emergencies.

• Assesses Barbra’s willingness to bring her best self to the relationship, including some sacrificial behavior on Barbra’s part.

• Is brave enough to challenge Barbra with appropriate demands and limit setting.

• Decides whether or not she believes there has been enough transparency to justify believing Barbra.

• Recognizes and appreciates that Barbra is appropriately expecting the same things from her.

But how far does the trust extend? Not as far as the romantics would have us believe. Remember that the definition of trust says that reliability becomes plausible. That is all we can ever achieve. Trust signifies that our belief in the other person’s reliability is warranted, not guaranteed. Essentially, then, trust is a matter of faith in the ongoing goodness and efficacy of the person we are counting on, and of hope that we have been accurate in our assessment of the skill, willingness and personal resources of that person.

Reviewing the truths about trust

1. Trust cannot exist in a new relationship. At the beginning of a relationship the conditions for trust simply do not exist. Trust is only established over time because trustworthiness is an earned state. The three “C’s” must be present in both members: Competent, committed and caring. What we are assessing relative to these three traits is consistency over time. In view of that, maybe it should be the four “C’s.”

2. Trust is never whole or finished or perfect. It is always in the process of being made. This means you can never say, “I trust him completely.” Extrapolate that out. You trust him completely to what? Give effective CPR, skillfully process dangerous emotions, carefully water the houseplants while you’re gone, or donate one of his kidneys? Or, less hyperbolically, you trust him to never take one or two little inebriated steps toward betrayal and then perhaps slip down the slope? There are black-ice situations in all relationships that can precipitate a new and unexpected disaster before we even realize we are spinning out of control. If you haven't ridden with someone through one of the snowstorms of life, you cannot yet have confidence in her ability to navigate an extremely challenging terrain.

3. Trust is never pure and lovely. It is going to have scars and lumps and debris scattered through it. Remember that trust is forged in trials and trials are usually messy. One of the most common ordeals that fosters trust is the post-mistake behavior of the two participants. Although mistakes can lead to greater trust (see Trust Repair below), they commonly cause a wound that needs to heal, leaving at least a soupçon of scar tissue.

4. Trust must be maintained. Because life challenges us relentlessly, our trustworthiness will wax and wane as our focus gets pulled in and out of appropriate narcissism. In other words, everyone will legitimately need to be self-centered from time to time in ways that can negatively affect the process of building trust. Wise partners pay attention to the effect their behavior is having on the trust status quo. As needed, they clear up misunderstandings, apologize, recommit to appropriate transparency and continually feed the relationship with caring behaviors that are meaningful to each other. See? Lots of work needed to hold up our end of the trust-building bargain.

5. Trust is proportional. To what degree and in what circumstances can you trust this other person to be safe for you to care about? It is neither cruel nor fickle to parse the trust in the relationships in your life on a regular basis. Your buddy Joe may be a real chowderhead, but you can rely on him to be a fantastic and safe rock-climbing partner.

6. Transparency fosters trust. The more I know about what you are thinking, the better able I am to know what you’re about. That is to say, the better I know you, the better I can assess the magnitude of the three (or four) “C’s” in you. For example, if we want to trust that someone loves us, the phrase “I love you” will be nothing compared to the sentiment “I love you when you scrunch up your face trying to think of just the right word to say. You are so effortful in how you use words. That both tickles and inspires me.” The depth of their communication reassures us of the depth of their caring which reassures us of the depth of their willingness to put the work into the relationship on an ongoing basis.

7. Not having developed trust is not the same thing as being untrustworthy. Although you cannot be said to be trustworthy without some significant proof, the absence of such does not make you undependable. When it comes to creating reliability in a relationship, people should do as the engineers do: Build a little, test a little. We need to extend an opportunity for another to establish themselves as trustworthy, but we need to do so carefully and thoughtfully. Therefore, even as you are making the extension to another, you would be wise to think of the opportunity you are providing as a test. If you think of the synonyms for trustworthy (dependable, upright, faithful, steadfast, unwavering, safe, etc.), you can see how no small amount of proof goes into getting to those words.

8. Trust virginity isn’t a thing. It’s not that you can trust someone until he or she makes a mistake. It’s that you can only trust people after you see how they behave after they have made a mistake. If you say, “I trust him completely because he’s never let me down.” you are describing an unchallenged relationship. It may be that his behavior is a function of his trustworthiness or it may be that the relationship has stayed within very narrow and safe bounds. Until the relationship has challenged each member of it, no one can truly count on the safety of the bond. Just because a bridge has been built and looks gorgeous, it doesn’t mean you would want to be the first person to drive over it.

9. The tendency to instantly trust another person is not necessarily a positive personality trait. It very often reflects a decision to replace self-loyalty with magical thinking. In other words, when people pride themselves on being “trusting people,” they are indicating that they will voluntarily expose themselves to potentially hurtful situations in the name of offering someone the benefit of the doubt. In many circumstances this is not only unwise but also unfair to the person being offered a get-out-of-jail-free card. When we preemptively take people off the hook for putting the effort into earning our trust, we can make it much harder for them to sidestep the temptation to take advantage of the situation. Metaphorically speaking, it’s not necessarily a kindness to leave our money lying around. So, while being a trusting person is a choice people are entitled to make, it does raise some red flags. Is this someone who doesn’t want to work to build trust or doesn't understand how to work to build trust? If so, how deeply can you ever trust him or her?

10. Oxytocin is not trust. The hormone oxytocin facilitates the bond that grows between humans, hence the pleasure of appropriate touch. But it reflects physical compatibility and comfort, not reliability. The salesman with his hand “warmly” placed on your shoulder is trying to end-run the trust-building procedure by co-opting this bonding hormone. The mother who routinely holds her baby daughter, however, is building a reputation for reliability with the help of oxytocin. Note: It is wise to remind your teenage daughter that the feelings she may have after making out with her boyfriend are intrigue and arousal not trust! Trust isn’t a feeling, it’s a state of being. And oxytocin is a drug.

Trust repair

All that is needed to repair non-fatally compromised trust is a complete apology followed by sincere forgiveness. That statement may appear glib, but it’s not. A complete apology has six profound steps that encompass all the behaviors that heal a breach of trust. The details needed to formulate this restorative act are described in the article on the topic. Forgiveness is a natural human reaction to a thorough apology. It also has its own article. Both acts – apology and forgiveness – are simple to understand but sometimes extremely challenging to implement. If a relationship you are in has foundered on the shoals of a betrayal, it might be empowering to read these two articles together.

Upping your trustworthiness

We are all capable of disloyal behavior. If you are batting one thousand in the trust department, it is wiser to think: “There but for the caprice of Fate go I.” rather than “Ain’t I the best damn thing around?” So, it’s not a matter of “if” you will misstep during the construction of trust, but “when.”

When, then, you have misstepped in a relationship and have left someone important to you feeling disappointed or even betrayed, what can you do beyond offering a complete apology? There are two strategies that can effectively reassure your partner that you are holding yourself accountable for the breach: upping your transparency and overtly attending to good relationship building skills.

Interpersonal transparency is nothing more than providing your partner with a running commentary describing what you are doing and what you are thinking. “I’m going out for a while” does not reassure while “I’m going to run a couple of errands to get the materials for the drip system. I should be back in about an hour and a half. I’ll have my phone.” does. When there is tension in the relationship, “I am in a bad mood this evening because I am having a hard time coping with the long commute lately.” is clarifying and “I’m fine.” is not. Knowledge is power, especially when trying to heal after a significant trust breach.

After wounding someone, not putting extra effort into relationship skills (which have been helpfully listed and described in Section V of this website) is dismissive of the pain of the injured partner. Paying more attention to the behaviors that build intimacy, on the other hand, feels remarkably soothing and reassuring to your partner. When you can create a climate of affective abundance with overt effort, your partner will simply rebound faster. It’s your choice how generous and honorable you want to be once you’ve stepped in it and cleaned off the soles of your shoes with an apology. Therapists will tell you that the stink of betrayal can hang around long after the bottom of the shoes are clean, so it’s wise to bring in some fresh air with a little doting.

Building trust with teens

Teenagers are particularly prickly when it comes to issues of reliability. They want to be seen as grownup and trustworthy, but they very often aren’t. This is partly due to the fact that their brains aren’t finished yet (which leads to inconsistent behavior) and partly due to the fact that they haven’t been through enough experiences to have strong reliability track records. The false belief that they are supposed to come prepackaged with trustworthiness will create unreasonable expectations between teens and their parental systems.

When parents are hit with the teenagery whine “Don’t you trust me???” they usually do one of two things: sidestep the issue by ignoring the very sincere question, or bluster by expressing a level of trust that can’t, in reality, exist. The latter often appears in sentences that start out with “We trust you, it’s the other kids we don’t trust…” I can remember using that hedge a couple of times myself. A stronger response might be: Well, I’d sure like to trust you, but I’ve never experienced you in this situation before. How can we know how you will handle things when there are circumstances coming that you have never encountered? What would you do it someone at the party drank too much and stopped breathing? How would you handle it if the police came and took everyone to jail? What if a bunch of older boys crashed the party? My job is to keep you safe while letting you take appropriate risks. We need to decide together if the risks here are reasonable. I trust you to be able to do that.

Trust but verify is an extremely valid tactic to use with teenagers. Try to let them take risks but let them know that you will be checking in with them and with other adults to ensure that the teen is staying on track.

Your teenager might respond well to a discussion precipitated by all family members reading:

One last point

I have mentioned several times in this article that we should avoid the sentence “I trust so-and-so completely.” Let me clarify why I have done so. We hear ourselves when we speak. Despite how obvious that sounds, few people actually think about it, and yet misspeaking is quite a problem in the mental health department of our lives. When we state facts not in evidence, our brain doesn’t automatically object. It will more likely accept what we are saying as truth. When we hear ourselves declare, for example, "I just can't handle this anymore!" our confidence in our resilience takes a hit. And if we say that we trust someone completely, we will start to believe that fact. When we find ourselves out on a limb, though, and turn to rely on that someone automatically, they may not be there for us. It is far wiser to have a realistic and current view of the trustworthiness of those around us so that, when we need something, we are more likely to scan our environment more thoroughly before we jump to any trust conclusions. It is also (I hope obviously) much wiser to try to build trust within oneself by always speaking truth out loud. Again, oddly, folks rarely pay attention to how significant the need is to our own sense of reality to carefully and honestly speak. Our brain is listening to everything we say and the way we say it.

In conclusion

Building trust, like so many relationship tasks in life, is too often left unattended. When we need it in an interpersonal emergency, then, it may be too weak to support us both through the crisis. But building trust, like so many relationship tasks in life, can become a straightforward and intriguing process once we understand that we have the power to do it. Rather than passively hope that the people in our lives will accidentally prove to be reliable, we can work together with them to empower each of us to contribute to an ever growing sense that we have practiced all the skills needed to be reliable.

Like learning and refreshing a CPR training, when we each work to prepare for crises, the partnership acquires an emotional equity that can finance a recovery from almost any threat to the relationship.

© Copyright 2024 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.