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How Do You Know if You Can Really Trust Someone?

Trust is complicated. How do you decide who to give it to?

Key points

  • Relationships are often important to our happiness – to our very existence, in some ways – and trust is basic to relationships.
  • Confirmation bias, or the tendency to believe what we want to believe, impacts who we choose to trust.
  • Because of confirmation bias, your gut instinct may not always be accurate when it comes to trust.
  • Trust needs to be built -- and sometimes rebuilt -- over time.

“I’ve met a guy who I really, really like,” said Marcella*. “But how do I know if I can trust him? I don’t have a great track record with me, and I’m worried that I like him for all the wrong reasons. How do I figure it out?”

“I have to choose between two job possibilities,” said Isaiah*. “Everybody at both places seems really nice, and the jobs are both good ones.” He laughed. “I know I shouldn’t complain. This is a good problem to have. But I can’t figure out which way to go. My Dad says I should trust my gut and choose the one that I like best, and that’s fine; I can do that. But it’s not my gut that I’m worried about, but whether or not I can trust that these places are really as incredible as they seem. Maybe one – or maybe both – of them is just putting on a good front, and they’re not really all that great once you get to know them.”

Relationships are often important to our happiness – to our very existence, in some ways – and trust is basic to relationships. The online Google dictionary defines trust as a “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.” Esther Perel, the well-known and well-loved authority on relationships, once told an interviewer that trust between two people who love each other “is one of the most magnificent experiences one can have. It's an experience among friends, it's an experience from a child to a parent and a parent to a child later on.”

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Source: 123RF Image ID : 120844200 thevisualsyouneed

So you would think we humans would have figured out a successful formula for knowing who and what we can trust. But we haven’t. Despite all of the articles telling us how to figure out if someone is lying, how to tell what someone really means through facial and body movements, and how to use our own perceptions to suss out the truth about someone else, the truth is that trust is complicated.

The Problem With Our Perceptions

For one thing, many studies that show that our perceptions are seldom either objective or accurate. This is because all of us come at any observation with something called “confirmation bias,” which is a common human “tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions” according to an article in Science Daily. In other words, we look for evidence that affirms what we already believe to be true. (For more about Confirmation Bias, you can take a look at an earlier post that I wrote, as well as a post by my PT colleague Nathan Heflick ). In case you’re wondering if anyone can be an objective observer, you might find it interesting to know that, according to C. James Goodwin, author of Research In Psychology: Methods and Design, even researchers fall victim to confirmation bias. That’s why any research has to be replicated numerous times and by numerous different observers.

Here’s just one example of how our beliefs and expectations can color our observations. You meet someone you really like. You’re attracted to them physically and think they’re funny and smart. The two of you share many common goals, interests, and values. You start dating. Sometime into what feels like the beginning of a really good relationship, you realize that while they’ve met some of your friends, you’ve never met any of theirs. You wonder why that is? Then you start to ask other questions. For instance, why don’t they have any photos of other people or activities in their home? Now that you’re thinking about it, you realize that you’ve never felt completely comfortable in their apartment, which is kind of cluttered and unfinished looking.

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Source: 123RF image ID : 37088638 atic12

What happened here? Simply put, you started a relationship with a set of hopes and expectations that influenced what you allowed yourself to see. As time went on, you started to allow other pieces of information to register. In this case, it happened to be information that contradicted your earlier beliefs that you and this person were a good match. In other cases, it can be the opposite.

For instance, what if you meet someone who you think is an interesting person, but with whom you don’t have any sexual chemistry? I have seen numerous instances in my work with clients, but also in life, where this happens. And yet, over time, in many of these cases, as the two people got to know each other, sexual interest developed and enriched their relationship. This, too, can be an example of confirmation bias, in that we have specific ideas about what is involved in sexual attraction, and if we don’t feel those specific things, we assume (sometimes incorrectly) that attraction is not and will not be there.

Sexual attraction is just one example of one of the aspects of a relationship that can grow as we learn whether or not we can, in truth, trust someone else.

Trust does not exist in a vacuum. You can’t tell if you can trust someone based on how their eyes move or what they do or don’t do with their facial expression. Esther Perel told her NPR interviewer that “trust is our ability in some way to live with what we will never know, but to somehow tolerate that unknown enough that we can move and take risks and love, and all of those things.”

Trust is something that develops over time. It is built, as two people get to know one another. It can be damaged, destroyed, or lost. But it can also be rebuilt. Couples therapists know that relationships can sometimes be stronger than ever when a couple puts genuine effort into rebuilding trust.

Trust Requires Authenticity and Generosity

The important takeaway here is that trust is not something we can give or take blindly. Both people in a relationship have to work to show that they are trustworthy. In a relationship you have to take responsibility for paying attention to what you observe, think, and feel. You also have to take responsibility for how you act. In other words, you have to take care of yourself, to be aware if the other person is behaving in untrustworthy ways; but you also have to behave in trustworthy ways yourself. You can’t expect someone else to trust you if you aren’t trustworthy.

But finally, if you choose to allow yourself to be vulnerable, to tolerate the unknown enough to take the risks that are part of being in a relationship, remember that trust requires strength, authenticity, and generosity on the part of both partners in a relationship. It isn’t something you simply give blindly, but it is something that you build and re-build, together, over time.

*names and identifying info changed for privacy


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