Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

“Can I Trust You?”

The Tonto Paradox: Wanting intimate answers when the intimacy is fading.

We generally trust that our intimate partners, friends and colleagues will respect us enough to give us honest answers when we really need them. We don’t have comparable trust when the intimacy is less, which makes it hard to get straight answers from someone we feel drifting away. Our questions often get more urgent and their answers get more iffy.

Can I trust you?
Why don’t you love me any more?
Why don’t you listen to me any more?
Why don’t you care any more?
Are you lying to me?
Why are you leaving me?

We ask such urgent questions of someone who seems halfway out the door. We seek an honest response from someone we no longer trust to care enough to be honest. Such questions represent what I’ll call the Tonto Paradox, based on this classic joke:

Lone Ranger:  Tonto we’re surrounded by Indians.  What should we do?

Tonto:  What do you mean “we” Kemosabe?

The Tonto Paradox is simply the high-stakes personal equivalent of the oldest paradox in the book.  The liar’s paradox (circa 600 BCE):  the statement “I am lying" which is false if its true and true if its false. With the Tonto Paradox trustworthiness boils down to a doubt about whether we’re a “we.” In other words:

“If we’re in this together, I can trust you to be honest about whether we’re in this together.  But if we’re not in this together, I can’t trust you to be honest about whether we’re in this together.”

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In the simple statement “No really!” we hear how ambiguity besets any attempt to resolve doubts about one’s trustworthiness.  “No really!”  translates as the dubious statement, “I know you don’t trust me, but trust me, you can trust me.”

When partners are shaken by conflict, there are only three basic moves either partner can make.  They can assert, accommodate or leave. 

Asserting and accommodating are the give and take within the relationship. If you assume you’re both into maintaining intimacy those are your choices. You can elbows akimbo demanding more room for what you want, or elbows tucked in to make more room for what your partner wants. You can even collaborate on deciding how “we” should handle the give and take. But once leaving becomes a possibility. How should “we” handle the conflict is no longer a stable option.

There are many amusing pop tunes written by rejected lovers complaining earnestly to their exes for not listening. “Why don’t you hear me?” they plea as though the bond was still strong enough that the ex will have to respond caringly. 

I can picture the exes saying,  “Sorry. Are you talking to me? Cause I can’t hear you any more.”

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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