On the surface, trust may seem like a pretty simple feat, especially in intimate relationships. We promise our trustworthiness and our loyalty and expect it in return. We declare we are honest through and through– “You can trust me”. “I know I can trust him/her”. “Of course I trust you.” “ I trust you with my life.” “ I trust you with my most intimate secrets”. “I’ll be true to you.” We want to believe that what we say or declare to another is enduring, forever unchanging and truthful – the bedrock of the shared trust we have together. We believe we will never betray our trust and in turn we won’t be betrayed by the other who we believe without a doubt that we know absolutely, inside and out.
My position on the topic of trust is taken largely from my 25 years of clinical experience with individuals and couples but also from various writings in Contemporary Psychoanalysis and Relationality. I’ve also researched articles that explore the need to keep aspects of ourselves banished from our real life due to fears of rejection, humiliation, or other negative responses by those we need and love. P. Bromberg in his article “ The Gorilla Did It. -Some thoughts on Dissociation, the Real, and the Really Real”, refers to a children’s story of a little boy that has an imaginary Gorilla that makes a mess. It’s too unbearable for the child to recognize that he himself has made the mess –never mind sharing this with his parent. He can’t yet trust that the boy who makes a mess will be loved as much as the boy who doesn’t make messes. The link I want to make here, is how we feel about different aspects of ourselves our feelings; wishes; desires; beliefs, needs, will greatly determine our ability to trust another with those various painful or devalued self truths. And if we can’t risk revealing those truths – when we have to hide these aspects to ourselves, and others, we can’t be known intimately for who we are.
Our ability to be trustworthy is related to how authentic and self-aware we are and having to hide aspects of our being severely limits our trustworthiness. Consequently trust looks very different in relationships that allow honest self- expression and self –discovery from those that limit or disallow these experiences. One example or measure of a limiting way of relating to preserve the illusion our partner or ourselves have of us – is if we feel locked into a role. For example one partner is the emotional person and the other is the rational, one is the aggressive or dominant and the other is more submissive peace- maker. Individuals who restrict their self- expression in such complimentary role dynamics are very likely to harbour hidden but yearned for other self-experiences. The ease with which one falls into a particular role dynamic is likely but not always, due to their own family’s relationship patterns and conditions. Perhaps in childhood we were encouraged to express only certain qualities of our personalities – ideas, behaviours, interests, needs, desires and feelings to the exclusion of others.
In relationships where both individuals are able to manage, even encourage changes in each other and in their tried and true versions of each other, trust is not as brittle or easily broken because each partner’s acceptance and value isn’t based on the illusion of “I know everything about you”, “you can’t surprise me or upset my certainty.” Stephen Mitchell wrote about feeling safe and secure – in the trusted illusory view of each other as predictable and well known in his book “ Can Love Last”. This illusion seems to protect us from the scary fact that we are not always truly as we seem and neither is our partner. There are internal unconscious unknowns about us all and we can only tell the truth about ourselves when we can bear knowing it!!!.
Understandably it comes as a shock- a trauma at times - to discover that someone we thought we knew for certain has lived a secret life where forbidden elements of their personality are kept away from the everyday mainstream reality of their lives. This other realm can exist only in some hidden way. This is the realm of affairs across a spectrum of possibilities such as: a compulsive fantasy life; a secret attachment or emotional affair; a cyberspace relationship, and of course, a sexual and separate actual relationship. Often, but not always, such behaviours have a kind of unreal “not me” quality to them. The individual doesn’t even really feel connected to the aspects of their personalities that have gone so long hidden and forbidden. “Is this really happening? What am I doing? I don’t even know myself anymore. I can’t believe this is really me”. In many situations the escape to this kind of hidden expression masks a much deeper pain, fear or loss that remains more deeply hidden from self-awareness behind the layer of a distraction or compulsive behaviour.
I have worked with individuals who suffer profoundly on both sides of the lost trust continuum – those who acted out their hidden desires or carried on some secret expression, and those who discovered the truth. In my view it is no less shattering discovering that you are capable of being so untrustworthy, so untrue, “How could I do this?” ( And we have all experienced this in some degree) than it is to be the recipient of lost trust, “How could she/he do this to me”. “What has happened, how could I not have seen this coming, why did I trust her/him/her” “ How will I ever trust anyone again.” This is the aftermath – something about oneself and/or another that could not be known or even talked about – a part of the self that had to be hidden, sequestered – perhaps totally dissociated from awareness has come crashing through the gates of the unknown or unconscious into the real relationship and known experiences of daily life. It doesn’t matter if this formerly unknown, undesirable or unwelcome aspect of the self existed outside the radar – maybe in fantasy, compulsions or even in ardent self-denial or self-loathing and guilt. Eventually the particular aspect of your personality that you likely didn’t want to know about or at the very least – didn’t want your partner to know about, dared not, could not trust to be known, has forced itself into your “real” life and you are discovered. This is the point that many seek therapy, individual and or couples work – the truth is out and it is a devastating experience of lost trust. Can it be recovered? Yes and No.
Each individual has to look at making significant changes. Changes at the very least involve their expectations and beliefs about each other as well as their fantasy idealized versions of what a long- term relationship is. Changes may also apply to the inflexible unyielding roles and rules that have pervaded their family systems and their intimate relationships. There also needs to be time to mourn the losses that accompany the need to have certainty – to believe that safety and happiness rests in not changing or developing those aspects of oneself that were once disallowed. This is the point of despair, rage, hurt, hatred and such sorrow for some that it feels as it the person they thought they knew – never really existed. Some describe the experience of discovery of the lost trust – as a kind of death. “It’s like she/he wasn’t who I thought he/she was” “Was anything real?” These are deep and painful losses that take a long time to mourn and then to develop something new together or in some cases – one or both realize that their growth and development requires an end to their relationship. For those who discover they want to stay together this is a time to let go of role relationships; game playing; and fantasy versions of marital bliss. This is a lot to change but couples and individuals change all the time – despite how painful it can be at first. Through therapy and intimate understandings couples discover that their experience of trust has often been illusive – maybe even deceptive at times as we can only promise another what we are aware of in ourselves in the present.
Many couples discover much to their surprise, that conflict and differences aren’t the defining feature of unhealthy relationships. Rather, trust is actually enhanced by relationships that foster different perspectives and yes even conflict. Intimacy is very much improved when we can trust another with our vulnerability, imperfections, deep needs and desires and with disclosures of new discoveries about our differences and ourselves. If couples can experience these moments as opportunities to discover more of who each person is becoming rather then defensively rejecting one another’s newly emerging self expressions, this greatly enhances a deeper more enduring kind of trust. Think about it, if I tell you something that I am embarrassed about and, in addition to having your own feelings, you respond not with outright disapproval but with an understanding that I am human and maybe you can even relate to what I’m feeling. In this case I won’t feel only shame or defect. If we can relate together honestly about this experience and arrive at an understanding, not necessarily an agreement, then trust deepens and is grounded on something more then illusion or a one- dimensional unattainable version of each other.
Individuals in a healthy relationship built on real trust (not illusion based trust) aren’t so fearful and protective of the truth about making a mess. These relationships can tolerate the messiness and tolerate what isn’t ideal, but real. These relationships can endure the inevitable disappointments and shifting versions of who we really are rather then the static unchanging versions of who we think we should be. Working through the messes together believe it or not, allows for a kind of trust that goes far beyond the claims of the superficial or naively deluded romantic. With truthful relating there is a shared experience of having been through it before together and that despite the upset – the couple has endured something meaningful. This deepens the bond of trust – you really know something about me that I am not thrilled about and yet you still love me, although maybe you don’t see me as the ideal you once had –at least I can be more real.
This is the goal of relational psychotherapy – moving couples from relating to each other like objects or part persons where they are stuck and locked into patterns. Where for many reasons, one can’t know his or herself as fully as they wish to and can’t trust that the other will accept, respect and understand their disowned or dissociated experiences. If our truths can’t be known, then we can’t really trust or be trusted. Relational psychotherapy aims to move people from this kind of one dimensional relating to a multi dimensional level of intimate relating that allows the presence of our fuller selves – messes and all – subject to subject.
For more information contact Judith E. Beale