Can You Trust Your Romantic Partner?
How to build trust in a relationship.
Posted June 18, 2019 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
It can be difficult to trust a romantic partner. At times, it is a challenge to get over dating anxiety and fear of rejection to even connect with someone. After all, dating and relationships can sometimes be a punishing experience. Beyond that, in longer-term relationships, dealing with commitment issues and navigating through disagreements can be problematic as well.
Despite the difficulties in establishing trust, however, it is an essential aspect of happy and satisfying relationships—especially long-term and committed ones. Trust helps to ensure there is a positive feeling of rapport and connection between partners. Trust also impacts the level of fairness and equity in a relationship.
Given that, trust is an important aspect to consider in a romantic relationship. Nevertheless, it can be challenging to figure out whether you can trust your date, partner, or spouse. It can also be unclear how to build trust with them. Fortunately, research has answers.
Research on Trust in Relationships
In my searching, I found a recent article by Campbell and Stanton (2019) summarizing the research and theory on trust in romantic relationships. In that article, the authors break down the explanations for how and why someone may trust a romantic partner into two main components. The first component, known as attachment theory, helps to explain why an individual may trust (or not trust) romantic partners in general. The second component, which they label Dyadic Trust, explores reasons why an individual may trust a specific relationship partner—particularly with regard to how that romantic partner treats them. Therefore, how a person trusts in general, combined with the level of trustworthiness of a specific partner's behaviors, interact to establish the overall level of trust in a romantic relationship.
Describing the basics of Attachment Theory, Campbell and Stanton explain the idea that experiences in significant relationships throughout life help to shape a person's expectations about future relationships. As a result, if past relationships have been good, then the individual will likely be able to build trust in the future (called secure sttachment). If past relationships with parents or significant others have gone poorly, however, then an individual may have negative expectations for future relationships. This can lead to difficulty trusting romantic partners, and they may experience:
- Attachment Avoidance. They do not feel comfortable relying on their partner or having their partner rely on them.
- Attachment Anxiety. where They worry about being abandoned by their partner or rejected by them.
These personal expectations, brought about by past experiences, are then added to how the current romantic partner is actually treating the individual. Here Campbell and Stanton explain that trust is developed over time as a couple interacts. When a partner chooses to be helpful and maintain the relationship, trust develops. Nevertheless, when they make selfish choices, which are detrimental to the relationship, then trust is weakened.
Simpson (2007) offers the following four points regarding the development of trust in romantic relationships:
- Individuals evaluate their ability to trust a partner by observing how that partner behaves toward them and the relationship. Trust is increased, over time, by situations when a partner sacrifices against their own self-interest and supports the relationship instead.
- Situations where a partner must choose between what is best for them alone and what is best for the relationship (called Trust-Diagnostic Situations) often occur naturally as a relationship progresses. Nevertheless, from time to time, individuals may choose to create such situations as well, in order to purposefully test their romantic partner (especially when they are unsure about trusting that partner).
- The development of trust over time is also impacted by an individual's attachment orientation. Specifically, a secure individual will tend to trust a partner more over time—as that partner makes positive choices to support them and the relationship. Nevertheless, more insecure or avoidant individuals may have more difficulty trusting, even when their partner makes those same positive choices.
- This trust process is taking place as an interaction between both partners. Therefore, whether both individuals choose to sacrifice for the relationship (or not) is important to consider—as is the attachment orientation of each partner. If either of the partners is chronically selfish, anxious, or avoidant, then the overall trust in the relationship will likely decline.
Establishing Trust in Your Relationship
Given the above, we can understand building trust in a relationship as a combination of emotional factors for both partners and the actual ways they behave toward one another. Therefore, to establish trust, it is essential that partners behave in ways that support the overall relationship and each other (rather than being selfish). It is also important that both partners recognize and appreciate the positive behaviors of each other—even when they have had a difficult time in relationships with other partners in the past.
To do so, the following steps may be of help:
1. Building Trust. As already noted, building trust is mostly about behavior—specifically, both partners choosing behaviors that prioritize the well-being of the relationship. This is true especially when it would be easier for one, or both, to be selfish instead. To make that type of behavior happen more often, it is important that partners disclose personal feelings with one another to build intimacy and communicate what they need from one another. Using body language that builds comfort and trust during this process can help. Beyond that, behaviors to keep a mate happy and faithful can be beneficial here—especially showing love and care for each other and being responsive to each other's emotional and physical needs. Overall, then, the goal is to try to create a positive and rewarding relationship between you both.
2. Testing Trust. Sometimes it is difficult to know whether a partner can be trusted—especially when a relationship is new and everyone is still on their best behavior. Therefore, it may help to test your partner to see whether they are really committed to the relationship or simply going along because it is easy and rewarding. One of the best ways to do this is to ask your partner to invest in the relationship from time to time. Expect them to contribute and put in their fair share. If they seem less committed and invested than you are, then you might consider pulling back and playing hard to get a bit yourself. Or, if they have acted selfishly, then you might want to provide them with an opportunity to earn your forgiveness instead—and test whether they will rebuild the trust that has been broken.
3. Evaluating Trust. Once trusting behaviors have been established and tested, it is important to take a step back and evaluate the trustworthiness of both your partner and yourself. Are you both conscientious toward one another, delaying your own interests for the good of the relationship? Do you share with one another for win-win solutions, rather than punish or belittle each other into compliance? Overall, is your relationship fair and balanced, with both of you satisfied? If so, then your trust for one another should be high—unless there are attachment issues.
4. Feeling Trust. If actual behavior toward one another is good, yet trust still is lacking, then attachment issues may be the cause instead. This is particularly true when someone is being treated well, yet they still have a hard time trusting their partner. In that case, both partners might benefit from improving their own self-worth as they focus on building the relationship. Also, even when past relationships have been negative, you both can stay focused on the good things you are doing for each other by being grateful and looking for gratitude from one another. Therefore, with some patience and effort on the part of both partners, it is possible to begin to see your relationship as more sacred and special.
© 2019 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Campbell, L., & Stanton, S. C. E. (2019). Adult attachment and trust in romantic relationships. Current Opinion in Psychology, 25, 148-151.
Simpson, J. A. (2007). Psychological foundations of trust. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(5), 264-268.