Trust: Creating a Flexible, Non-binary Model

When I was in high school, I was a Theatre Arts Nerd. We had a Drama teacher in my first year who gave us a trust exercise: we paired up with one partner facing away from the other, and then we leaned back with our eyes closed until we toppled, to be caught by our partner. Reverse and repeat a few times, until the teacher said, “Great! Now that you all trust each other, we can begin!” I distinctly remember thinking, “Wait, what? I trust my partner to catch me while the teacher’s looking, but I wouldn’t trust ANY of them to catch me if we did the same thing outside on the yard after school, say; I wouldn’t trust [X] with my locker combination. And I *certainly* wouldn’t trust [Y] alone with my cat.”

I didn’t know it then, but that was my first introduction to the idea that trust is not best viewed as a binary state. Fast forward 30+ years, and now, based on ongoing client work, I’m starting to come to new conclusions about the problems I’m seeing when we (culturally and relationally) view trust as ONLY a binary state in which trust either exists, or it does not, where it has been earned and granted, or it has not.

It’s my experience that a lot of people around me seem to treat trust as a “one and done” kind of arrangement: once you have earned my trust, you have it till you lose it. But too often I encounter vast differences in how people define “trust”, so I’ve come to treat it as “umbrella terminology”, or a word that encompasses many different meanings and interpretations to different people, and which can be broken out of absolutist thinking to apply to smaller concepts: it becomes less of a question of “do I trust you or not”, and more a case of recognizing that there are things that I trust in you (or trust you to do), and things I do not.

When clients come into the office and say, “I don’t trust my partner”, my first question is always seeking clarity: “Don’t trust them to what?” There’s usually a laundry list of complaints from an aggrieved partner, so the counterbalance is always to ask, “Is there anything about your partner that you do trust, especially as a positive engagement or encouragement?” (so the litany of complaints doesn’t get reworded and repeated). At that point, we can reframe the conversation so that it’s not an absolute, all-encompassing lack of trust, but rather specific areas that need work. We’re not trying to fix a massive problem, but rather something smaller, more specific.

Recently, a number of client conversations drove home for me that trust really isn’t best viewed as a “grant once till it breaks” scenario; that’s too big, and honestly impossible for a partner to hold our trust on all fronts all the time without ever once disappointing us. Instead, like acts of faith and grace, I’m coming to see trust as something that works best when approached as an active, conscious, daily practice. “Today, I CHOOSE to trust [X]. In this moment, I choose to trust [X] to do [Y].” I’ve watched, over and over, as people struggle with the notion that trust must be an all-encompassing, binary state where it’s either on or off, and if trust has been compromised in one area, then the corollary belief is that there is NO TRUST anywhere in the relationship, period. It’s just all broken. As one might imagine, that’s a hard thing to manage within a relationship, viewed on that kind of absolute scale. Also, the pressure between partners to trust absolutely when one partner might not have have the capacity to do so for any number of reasons, is a pressure that becomes toxic and corrosive in a hurry (as much because of the pressure itself, even if implied rather than explicit, as because of the request to trust, specifically).

It’s a part of the Mythology of Love that “trusting someone with your whole head and heart” is how love *should* work. I think many of us want to trust that way, or believe that we *should* because that’s what all the romance novels and movies tell us is right and true. Ergo, failing to engage with absolute trust somehow becomes a subliminal, internalized message of failure on our part in relationship. The more I do this work (as a client as well as a therapist), however, the more I realize how much of our own selves we simply can’t see, so how can we trust someone else to hold what we ourselves don’t always know is there? How can we ask for, let alone trust, someone’s informed consent to try to hold parts of us that they maybe can’t see or understand, either?

But when we can break the idea of “trust” down to smaller, more manageable pieces of identifiable and articulated expectations, and we can break the process of trusting down to conscious and deliberate daily practice of choice, I’m seeing amazing shifts in how people connect to the idea of “trust” when reframed this way. It reduces the pressure to embrace trust as an absolute state when, because of personal anxieties or insecurities and vulnerabilities, trust may be a difficult thing to engage on ANY level. It’s proving to be much easier to get to an acceptance of a more nuanced *state* or process of trusting once we break out a more nuanced definition or suite of definitions, for the word itself.

A friend of mine wrote, “I’ve tried to work with building trust through a series of small risks and commitments. You commit to do a thing, you do it, that increases my trust that when you commit to do some other thing you will. The more times there is risk and success, the more trust builds, the greater the variety of risks and success, the more deep and varied the trust.” I think a lot of people work this way, though even in this model, I see people still practicing it in a binary fashion: trust builds in a linear manner, but failure at a task up the chain compromises or destroys all of the trust built to that point, rather than establishing trust for an array of individual tasks of qualities. My ex and I, for example, found there were all kinds of things I trusted him to do, but “I trust you to tell me what I’ve asked to be informed about in a timely manner” was often not one of them, nor was “I trust you to respect my needs around time management and communication thereof”. (And in reverse, sometimes there wasn’t a lot of trust directed to me around “I trust you to match actions congruent to the labels you have assigned people/places/situations/etc.”, so the contextualized trust challenges went both ways. Therapists are often imperfect humans too.)

I’m going to have to do more pondering on this, but remodeling “trust” as a persistent and flexible decision process rather than a rigid binary state is getting a surprising amount of traction with clients, so clearly there’s something there. Developing better tools for implementing this kind of conceptual shift on a value that is so deep in the core of many individuals and their relationships remains a work in progress, so stay tuned for updates!

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