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How to Assess Trustworthiness in Your Relationships

Asking one question can assess the risk of danger and deceit in relationships.

Key points

  • Research has consistently demonstrated supportive relationships buffer stress and foster resilience.
  • However, betrayal of interpersonal trust in a relationship represents a form of psychological injury from which some may never fully recover.
  • Choosing supportive friends and partners is more challenging than it may seem.
  • One simple question may protect you against disappointment, deceit, and manipulation.
geralt/ Pixabay
Source: geralt/ Pixabay

In the first century A.D., Roman statesman Cicero wrote that friends multiply happiness and divide sadness.

In the late 19th century, Charles Darwin observed healthy, reciprocal relationships to be essential in successful communities and may well be the core fabric of human society itself.

Research in the 20th century revealed supportive relationships to be the single best predictor of human resilience.

But what is the foundation of a supportive relationship? In his “Letters to Lucilius,” the Stoic philosopher and teacher Seneca wrote that trust is the foundation of healthy, mutually supportive relationships. Without trust, relationships are doomed. (Ironically, Seneca was murdered by Roman Emperor Nero for being seen as untrustworthy.)

Despite all of the benefits of interpersonal relationships, no one likes to be deceived or taken advantage of. So, before entering into any important or psychologically intimate relationship, it seems imperative to be sure the other person is worthy of trust.

Max Ehrmann’s 1927 prose poem “Desiderata” underscores this point, noting, “Exercise caution… for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.”

So, it seems the great challenge is how to determine who can be trusted in a world of “trickery.” Sadly, many find this challenge daunting and often choose poorly. Herein, I describe a simple tool that may make that challenge somewhat easier.

The Pain of Betrayal

As noted, relationships are built upon trust. While some people simply trust others almost blindly, most people seem to believe trust is earned or at least given cautiously. Some even spend their lives searching endlessly for the truth of fidelity within their relationships. Reflecting the fragile nature of trust, numerous authors have suggested it takes years to build trust but only minutes to destroy it. Why?

To trust and then to be betrayed, personally or professionally, can be excruciating. Betrayal is treachery, deception, and violated trust. It can appear as duplicity, lies, broken promises in business, and affairs of the heart. The injury can be so great that some people seem to never recover. Betrayal represents a traumatic death—not of a person, but of a relationship. Betrayal can engender a response similar to posttraumatic stress disorder.

The Power of a Simple Question

Henry Murray, M.D., Ph.D., was an iconic figure in the history of psychology in general and at Harvard University more specifically. Co-founder of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Director of the Harvard Psychological Clinic, he co-authored the widely used Thematic Apperception Test, a projective psychological test.

As a student, I was in awe of Murray. Introduced by a mutual friend, I had the opportunity to meet him at his home one evening. He lived only a few blocks from Harvard’s William James Hall. We chatted about different approaches to psychological testing. As the evening was ending, he pulled me down to his chair and said, “Psychological tests are fine, but never forget there is nothing so powerful as the well-phrased question.” Certainly, some questions can be more powerful—or shall we say more revealing—than others.

So, let us now return to the matter of trustworthiness in relationships. Is there a quick, efficient yet powerful question that might shed light on someone’s trustworthiness as a potential partner? I suggest there is, but it derives its power from context, not mere words alone.

As we typically search for clues to assess trustworthiness, we inevitably see someone behave in a manner that might call into question their fidelity, integrity, or trustworthiness. We are usually taught to ignore the action, give the person “the benefit of the doubt,” and often naively assume all is well. I suggest that rather than take such a risk, we can reduce the risk of disappointment and perhaps even betrayal by asking a simple question, “What kind of person behaves that way?” Or, “Why would a person do that now?”

By attempting to objectively answer such questions, we can remove the veil of social convention that can blind us to more ulterior motives. Playing jokes on others might be revealed to be a form of bullying. Inconsistency may be revealed to be a disconcerting lack of reliability. Preoccupation with oneself may portend a lack of reciprocity, interest, or interpersonal respect in a relationship. Duplicity may be revealed to be a form of manipulation or not.

Trustworthy interpersonal relationships such as in business, friendships, or intimate relations can foster happiness and success. But they should not be entered into lightly. The pain of betrayal is not only disruptive, it can last a lifetime. No actions take place in a vacuum. Thus, the actions of others should be assessed within the context of their occurrence.

When we observe actions that seem questionable, potentially out of place, or inappropriate, rather than naively ignore them or, on the other hand, immediately reject the person who acted in such a manner, ask a simple question, “What kind of person behaves that way?” The answers may surprise you.

© 2022, George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D.