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The One Key Element That Can Build Your Relationships

How to build, or rebuild, the trust in your long-term relationships

Learning to trust. It’s so basic to our psychological health that the renowned psychologist Erik Erikson proposed the need to feel a sense of trust as the first hurdle in our psychological journey through life. From infancy onward, we continue to look for, and need, relationships in which we feel we will be cared for, able to express our true selves, and safe.

How do we learn to establish this basic sense of trust in our close relationships? According to SUNY Buffalo psychologist Sandra Murray and her colleagues (2011), trust takes two forms. Reflective trust is the form that operates at the level of your conscious awareness, and refers to the expectations you have about how much your partner is committed to, and cares, about you. This is the relatively easy form of trust for you to understand and articulate. It’s the unconscious form of trust, called impulsive trust, which may be more of a challenge. By definition, you’re not likely to be aware of the automatic ways you evaluate your partner. If your partner turns out to be trustworthy in reality, then you won’t get hurt. However, if your unconscious trust in your partner blinds you to a partner who isn’t worthy of your trust, the outcome could be disastrous.

Murray and her team based their research on what they refer to as the “risk regulation model” of trust in relationships. The model goes something like this. When you trust your partner, you feel that you’ll be safe. You can be with, and depend on, your partner because you feel that you’ll have something to gain. In other words, you will feel that you can approach your partner without putting yourself at risk. You’ll let down your guard, because you won’t feel that you have to protect yourself against this person. By contrast, if you feel that you have something to lose, because your partner isn’t trustworthy, you’ll pull away. The risk you regulate, in other words, is the risk to yourself of getting too close to a person who will cause you harm.

Because trust has unconscious and conscious elements, however, your assessment of risk in the relationship can become distorted. If you follow your impulsive trust alone, you may not take that step of consciously evaluating whether the person is someone who cares for and is committed to you. Lowering your self-protection, you now make yourself vulnerable to a relationship that turns out to be unsafe. Had you thought this through (reflective trust), you would have been more cautious, and ultimately safer. It takes effort to engage your reflective trust, but in the long run it pays off.

In an impressive series of six experiments reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Murray tested the ways in which impulsive and reflective trust influence how likely people are to let down their self-protective guard in relationships. In most of the experiments, participants were selected only if they were in exclusive relationships. The researchers were particularly interested in finding out why people don’t pay attention to the warnings that their reflective sense of trust might provide. Perhaps, they hypothesized, people just aren’t thinking clearly. When your heart is telling you “go,” you need your brain to tell you “stop.” For some people, maybe that brain function isn’t working as well as it could be.

The measure of thinking that Murray and colleagues used was one of working memory, or the ability to keep information in your conscious awareness. Participants saw from 4 to 8 arithmetic problems (e.g. 3+5=8, 11-7=5) which they had to judge as correct or incorrect. At the end of seeing those problems, they had to recall the sequence of results of each of these problems (e.g. 8, 5).

If impulsive trust is unconscious, you may wonder, how can it be measured? In most of the experiments, Murray and team used a well-known test of unconscious feelings toward other people known as the Implicit Association Test. They devised a specific version of this intended to assess trust toward people's partner. Three scales tapped reflective trust: 1. Faith in the partner’s love (“I am confident my partner will always want to stay in our relationship”); 2. Faith in the partner’s closeness (“My partner is closer to me than any other person in my life”); and 3. Evaluations of the partner (“kind,” “affectionate,” “critical,” “judgmental”).

Murray and her collaborators expected that the people most likely to ignore the cautions from their reflective trust voices would be those high on impulsive trust and low on working memory. These were the people most likely to fall into the trap of a high-risk relationship in which they approach a partner who ultimately will reject them.

It’s not only the impulsive trust that draws you to a rejecting partner that can be a problem. What if you fail to have impulsive trust in a partner who is good for you? Murray and team’s study suggested also that people low in both impulsive trust and working memory were less likely to seek out their partner for support. By not taking advantage of the benefit that a trustworthy partner would offer, these individuals were short-changing their chances for future success in the relationship.

These complex and fascinating experiments, and their thought-provoking results, provide several lessons for anyone with trust issues:

1. Tap into your impulsive trust. By definition, it’s hard to know what your unconsciously held feelings might be. You can gain insight, however, by studying your own past pattern of behavior in relationships has been. Do you rush quickly into a new relationship, even before getting to know a person well? In your relationship now, do you often give your partner a “pass” even when it’s undeserved? Or are you unduly suspicious and wary of getting into new relationships? Do you wait a long time before you let someone see your true self?

2. Don’t make relationship decisions when you’re preoccupied. What gave the Murray et al. study a unique focus was the fact that they brought memory into the picture. They showed that people whose cognitive powers are weak or weakened don’t engage in enough reflection about whether they can trust their partners. When you’re mentally fatigued, you may make poor relationship decisions.

3. Find the balance between gains and losses in your levels of trust. We stand the most to gain, or lose, in our closest relationships. Don’t let your impulsive trust drown out your reflective trust or vice versa. You need both to be able to balance your self-protection and your ability to connect with your partner.

Building trust is a never-ending process that continues throughout our entire lives. When we can build trust with our closest partner, we can use this process to keep that relationship strong, vital, and enduring.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013


Murray, S. L., Pinkus, R. T., Holmes, J. G., Harris, B., Gomillion, S., Aloni, M., & ... Leder, S. (2011). Signaling when (and when not) to be cautious and self-protective: Impulsive and reflective trust in close relationships. Journal of Personality And Social Psychology, 101(3), 485-502. doi:10.1037/a0023233

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