Thinking Out Loud

Holding the Other in Trust

For real communication to take place in an intimate friendship or love relationship, there must be trust. Trust is one of those states that we experience—we must be able to trust and the other must demonstrate trustworthiness. So what does it mean “to be able to trust” and to “demonstrate trustworthiness”?

To be able to trust means you have the ability and desire to open up and discuss your vulnerabilities for the purpose of getting emotionally closer to another person. It’s not so much about trusting the other person as it is about trusting yourself. Here’s what that can look like: “Joe, I’m going through a really hard time and have conflicting feelings about everything—even you (smile). Seriously, it’s confusing. Right now specifically I both love and hate my brother. I’ve always been like this, even as a kid, and know it has something to do with having expectations for others and then being disappointed.”

The speaker, we’ll call her Mary, is talking to her husband, Joe. Mary is opening herself up, reflecting on herself, telling Joe how she is confused and unhappy about something within her—the way she always seems to have expectations. She’s not complaining about or reflecting on her brother’s behavior. She’s talking about herself. To do this, she has to be trusting enough internally to risk opening up, discovering whatever she may learn about herself, and hearing whatever may be returned by Joe.

If Joe has never demonstrated his trustworthiness, then Mary will likely not open up in this manner. So what does “demonstrating his trustworthiness look like for Joe. For the sake of our example, Joe would say something like this: “Yeah, we’ve talked about the expectation thing at other times and I know how hard that is for you. On one hand you’d like to see a particular outcome, but the likelihood of that happening just the way you want it to isn’t good? Would it be helpful to talk about expectations in general right now? Or about your brother…or me? (smile)”

First, Joe acknowledged that he remembers this issue coming up before and that it plagues Mary. Remembering is a way of letting the other person know you are aware of something very important to them. In this case it involves her vulnerability. Joe “holds” that vulnerability with care and sensitivity, demonstrating his trustworthiness. This is part of loving another—being aware of the issues they struggle with and demonstrating genuine interest and compassion.

Second, Joe’s last statement demonstrates fearlessness. He let Mary know that he is willing to bring this difficult issue into their relationship, giving her more opportunity to talk openly about it. The metamessage is that he is willing to listen to her struggles with him, in the spirit of being helpful to her. In doing this he also implies trust and confidence in the relationship.

This type of intimate conversation gets to the heart of what is emotionally difficult in relationships—establishing trust. Trust creates a holding environment that is emotionally safe, meaning that each individual recognizes and stays attentive to the vulnerabilities of the other. When that occurs, respect is palpable—you don’t fear being ridiculed, attacked, or having your feelings minimized. It’s that simple: You want to come back for more because the relationship becomes an emotional sanctuary, where you can explore and experience yourself and another person in deeper, more emotionally satisfying ways.

Deeper conversation, however, doesn’t necessarily move as smoothly as our example above implies. Conversations of this type usually have bumps along the way, but with the tone of the conversation established along these lines, it’s easier to stay on track, get back on track, and feel better connected because you know your own intentions and those of the other person are true. Good intentions backed up by consistent effort—even with trip-ups— go a long way in fostering closeness, effective communication, and trust.

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