Trust Is Showing Up Consistently in Small Ways
I have worked with relationships for 25 years. I have something to tell you about relationships that you probably don’t know. In the words of one best-selling business book from years ago, I’m about to seriously move your cheese.
What Is Trust
Ask 1,000 people what trust is in romantic relationships, and they’ll tell you about big stuff, usually sexual.
- Having a second family you go to when your partner thinks you’re going to work
- Hanging out on social media hookup sites
- Carrying on inappropriate conversations with people on Facebook, Snapchat, etc.
- Sending/receiving nudes on your phone
If you’ve caught a partner doing this kind of thing, it’s traumatic and it sucks.
But it’s not how the majority of people damage trust in their relationship. Because trust has a two-part definition (cheese-moving is about to ensue):
a. My partner really is the person they present themself to me as being.
It’s the second part where we really damage trust in our relationships in ways that bring people to therapy and/or end marriages.
b. My partner, when I need them, in big ways and small ways, has my back.
Did you catch it?
Trust is Showing Up — Consistently
Showing up for your partner is part of being trustworthy, and it’s not the “big ways” part, it’s the “small ways” part that’s the issue.
- You damage trust in your relationship when your partner asks you to do them a small favor and you roll your eyes.
- You damage trust in your relationship when your partner asks you what time it is, and you reply, with irritation, “You have a phone, look at it!”
- You damage trust in your relationship when your partner comes home from work, you inquire about his day, he complains about something negative that happened, and you say, “You’re oversensitive. It’s not really that big a deal.”
- You damage trust in your relationship when your partner says they aren’t happy and they want you to go to couples therapy with them, and you say, “We’re fine, it’s not that big of a deal.”
- You damage trust in your relationship when your partner tries to tell you how she’s feeling about something, and you minimize it, downplay it, argue with it, call her dramatic, or otherwise dismiss her concern.
Trust and Abandonment
Everyone knows trust and commitment are the foundations of all intimate relationships. But people don’t realize they are abandoning (okay, often “micro-abandoning,” but those add up) their partner, often dozens or scores of times a week.
Your partner trusts you if they know they can come to you with whatever they are thinking and feeling, and you will be there for them, have their back, listen, and express solidarity with them.
They will not trust you if you abandon them in those moments, leave them feeling unheard, misunderstood, blamed, criticized, or like you hijacked their moment and made it about you and your feelings (this is nearly always the effect of defensiveness).
It’s the Small Stuff
And it’s not usually the big stuff. If your partner comes home bleeding from their eyeballs, you’ll probably call a doctor and help stop the bleeding.
It’s usually the small stuff, and in relationships, you definitely need to sweat the small stuff.
After all, most moments are small moments. Most deals don’t seem like big deals, and most requests are not large requests. We overlook them precisely because they are small. And everything we understand about relationships tells us we overlook them at our own peril, for what is at stake in those moments is nothing less than whether our partner is increasingly coming to perceive us as trustworthy–having their back. Or not.
If not, they are feeling increasingly alone, and this is quite apart from whatever your stated desire or intention may be. You may say you love your partner, care for them, desire their happiness and all good things for them. You may deeply feel this when you say it. You may even reflect on how deeply you feel it and shed a bit of a tear, or feel privately grateful that you are even in the orbit of such an amazing person.
But if when they need you, you don’t notice, do not show up for them, then you leave them abandoned in those moments, feeling alone in the very presence of the one person who has promised to have their back.
They will trust you less and less. They will likely try to communicate this aloneness to you, but the question is, will you hear them? Or will you, as they are telling you of the deep loneliness they feel because of your abandonment, abandon them again by once again not listening, denying them, minimizing their concern, or becoming defensive.
What the Stats Tell Us
Relationship expert John Gottman observes that connected and happy couples respond positively to each others’ requests for attention and connection 87% of the time, while couples who are struggling respond positively only 36% of the time.
87% is pretty close to 100%, but allows room for human imperfection. It seems to me that it indicates a very high level of what can only be intentionality. It indicates that connected couples, surely, are working hard to see the seemingly small moments in life for what they are-–the very place where connection either is or is not being made.
And 36% seems to be the level of responsiveness we will hover around if we’re not aware of how massive those moments actually are, and if we’re just doing whatever comes naturally.
Summary and Conclusion
Your relationship is not what you think it is. It isn’t primarily about how you feel about your partner, it’s about what you say and what you do in the small moments. It’s about how, in fact, THERE ARE NO SMALL MOMENTS. With every interaction, every word, every behavior, you are communicating to your partner whether they are safe with you, whether they can trust you. And people will not stay in a relationship with someone they do not feel they can trust.
Of course you need to be criterion A trustworthy and not cheat on your partner, but being sexually faithful does not substitute for actually showing up for your partner emotionally.