Over and over again in my clinical practice and in my advice column, I often hear from people wanting to build or rebuild trust in a significant relationship, whether it’s a sexual relationship or a relationship with a friend or family member.
Trust is one of the most crucial building blocks of becoming emotionally intimate with someone; it’s absolutely fundamental for a healthy, close relationship. And yet it is far easier, and takes a lot less time, to lose trust than to build it back up. The rebuilding of trust takes time, patience, and work, just as it does to establish it in the first place.
If so, here are some steps to take.
1. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.
Even as young children, we pick up very quickly on the clues that someone is saying things that aren’t really true. The parent who always threatens to make us leave the restaurant, but we know will never actually follow through; the sister who always promises to share her cookie, but invariably eats the whole thing anyway we start not to buy what they’re claiming anymore. Even what seem like minor lies, when chronic, will tell the other person that they should no longer trust the things that come out of your mouth.
2. Be vulnerable gradually.
Two distant coworkers who spend 20 years just chatting about the weather and not ever working closely together on projects never need to rely on each other for anything other than idle small talk or a returned “Good morning” when passing each other in the hallway. Building trust takes a willingness to open yourself up to the potential risk of hurt talking about something embarrassing from your past, letting them in on what scares you in the here and now, showing parts of yourself that you don’t think are “attractive” enough for a first-date reveal. Trust is built when our partners have the opportunity to let us down or hurt us but do not. And in order for them to pass the test and build that trust, we must make ourselves vulnerable to that letdown. Gradually is best, of course, to protect ourselves along the way.
3. Remember the role of respect.
One of the most emotionally lasting ways that our partners can damage us and our trust is by belittling us, making us feel less-than, or viewing us with condescension or contempt rather than respect. Think of a basic level of respect as the common denominator in any relationship, whether between a cashier and customer or a mother and son. This does not mean that you must be formal or perfectly polite always with your partner. But it does mean that you must remember that every time you treat them in a way that demeans them or violates that basic minimum of dignity and respect, you harm your connection a bit and make it more difficult for them to trust you over time.
4. Give the benefit of the doubt.
Let’s say you’ve had a doctor for 10 years that you really respect and have grown to trust. Now compare how you feel about that doctor’s opinion, versus the opinion of a doctor that you’ve never seen before. While you may be willing to rely on the medical credentials of both, chances are, you’ll feel far more comfortable with the one you’ve developed trust with. And in fact, that doctor may make some difficult or surprising medical news easier for you to swallow, because you are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt given your trust and history together. But over time, if you ever hope to truly rebuild trust, you must be willing to string together some moments of letting the doubt go or at least suspending it and seeing if they come through for you. (If they don’t, of course, then it is them who is sabotaging the trust-building.)
5. Express your feelings functionally, especially when it’s tough.
Emotional intimacy comes in part from knowing that you can express your feelings to someone, and that they will still care about you, that they will not dismiss you out of hand that they will be willing to listen. It means that you know they will make time to understand your viewpoint, not to shut it down. This entails the maturity of being able to talk about feelings without escalating into shouting, verbally attacking, or closing down the conversation.
6. Take a risk together.
Being vulnerable with each other can also be a mutual endeavor, and it doesn’t just involve revealing parts of yourself. It can also involve a joint effort toward something rewarding an adventurous experience on a vacation, a joint lifestyle change toward healthier habits, an attempt to expand your mutual social circle, or even just expanding your minds together with new ideas in the form of thought-provoking books or movies.
7. Be willing to give as well as receive.
The friendship research bears out just how important reciprocity is to a solid relationship. And it’s not necessarily that each person is giving exactly as much as they are receiving, but rather that both partners are comfortable with the levels, and they feel relatively equal. Of course, in a truly close emotional partnership, it is expected and understood that this balance may shift once in a while — one person leans on the other when it is most needed, and there’s no bean-counting necessary. Take the big picture, and let both processes happen, being willing to both give and receive. Of course, if you’re willing to give just a little bit more, and your partner is as well, then you create a comfortable, caring cushion for you both and a safeguard against feeling chronically undervalued or unappreciated.