In a previous blog, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-older-dad/201303/do-i-trust-you-anymore, we looked at trust and mistrust. The blog provided the basics about how trust, and mistrust, develops in relationships. Many of us know the sadness of mistrust, growing like a weed as it takes over more and more of the garden of our love for each other. The question becomes, “How do we get trust back?”
Gottman’s work on trust provides many valuable insights into how trust can be restored after we lose our faith in each other. We can learn skills that tune us into each other, or what Gottman calls attunement. But, before learning those skills, we must first know when to use them in everyday moments of our relationships.
The Tests of Trust
In his book The Science of Trust, Gottman describes three kinds of moments that provide the chances to build trust. These situations create real-life tests for us to tune into our partners—to build trust or allow mistrust to grow.
- Sliding Doors: Gottman used a quirky romantic comedy to illustrate the first of the tests of trust. The movie, Sliding Doors, (http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/160211/Sliding-Doors/overview) tells the story of two outcomes to a tiny moment during which the main character either catches a train, or misses it. The movie illustrates how tiny moments can mean so much in our lives. Sliding door moments represent the threads of everyday life…the times when we ask our partner to listen to our feelings or help us do something. These seemingly insignificant bids to connect through expressing our needs easily clash with our partner’s needs and bids. The first kind of test consists of these sliding doors in which one, or the other, of us can express love through sacrificing our own needs in the moment and care for our partner.
- Negative Emotional Moments: The second test occurs when we hear our partner expressing negative feelings. These feelings could be about us, or about something else. In either case, when we hear the negative emotions, many of us want to recoil and turn away. If mistrust has taken root, we likely have learned to withdraw and stonewall, or become defensive, in response. To build trust, we must recognize how we can connect to our partner through such negative feelings. When we keep ourselves calm and embrace these feelings, we avoid the regrettable outcome of mistrust.
- Debates: Our third chance to build trust exists within anxiety-provoking discussions. We all know these “talks.” Situations develop that make us talk to each other about something that we know will cause us to fight. We begin these conversations with “Listen, we need to talk.” These moments can devolve into debates, creating a win-lose dynamic. One of us wants to win at the expense of the other losing—the very definition of a mistrust moment. If we turn the tables on our history of conflicts, these moments can build trust. Through tuning into our partner’s real issues (not the arguments in the debate), we can learn to understand more about our partner’s vulnerabilities. We can decide that the inevitable disagreements aren’t about winning….instead, they are about giving understanding and connection. We pass this test when we look for the win-win, not the win-lose.
What to Do When We Don’t Pass One of the Tests
Fly fishing requires lots of work to catch (and release) a trout. A key to good fly fishing is mending the line—keeping the line that’s back from the fly moving the right way so the fish thinks that the lure is really a fly. Mending takes constant work to repair how that line moves. When we don’t pass one of these three tests, we too must mend the line of our connections and repair.
When we repair, our approach includes the key element of forgiveness. Often, both partners make mistakes at the worst possible moments. These mistakes can lead to “I knew it!!” moments that further our isolation from each other while building mistrust. Forgiveness, in these moments, moves away from self-protection, and toward self-sacrifice. We give our partner the gift of a second chance.
When we decide to rebuild trust, we also must recognize that we’ve learned a habit of negative thinking about our partner. One critical task will be the creation of a belief that mistakes are inevitable, and learn to assume the best in the face of these errors. Usually, we must change our thinking on purpose, the way we would change any unhealthy habit, by confronting our beliefs and ideas head-on. Often, these beliefs include very negative ideas about our partner’s character…and we see the situation as hopeless.
We create the opportunity for trust when we consider that there are two sides to every situation. One of the keys includes trying to see what happened from the other person’s perspective. And, we adopt the view that we can build trust (it’s never hopeless) through talking about our feelings and needs in a non-defensive way. A major basis for repair is new ways of thinking about mistakes that occur during the tests.
A Final Word
In future blogs, we will look at the skills of attunement and sacredness of a commitment to each other. Tuning into our partners requires that we know what contexts create opportunities for attunement. The three tests in this blog are those contexts: they are the situations in which trust, or mistrust, can most easily build.
But, regardless of how trusting or mistrustful things have become, repair is a fundamental process. We all are rewarded by things that go well, but most of us are even more excited when we fix something that could have gone badly. When teams come from behind, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, even the losing team’s fans applaud. We will feel a sense of pride when we learn how to build trust when faced with the tests….and to repair our connections when we make mistakes.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SqPvgDYmJnY (Gottman on Repair)