Trust-Testing in Your Relationships


How do you know if you can trust someone? The answer is you must rely on trust-testing. The definition of trust-testing is to test for trust or trustworthiness. All relationships include trust-testing. Children do it; co-workers do it, parents, partners, etc.

We constantly test each other to determine reliable levels of intimacy and degrees of safety within relationships. I even notice it when coaching clients. Understandably, they are trying to figure out if they can trust me.

We use trust-testing to gauge congruency between what a partner says (communication) with what he or she does (behaviors or actions). We gather this data then compare it to our own internal barometer of safety. While the process includes the rational, logical mind, it mostly relies on a felt-sense in the body. The result is based less on, "Do I think he is trustworthy?" and, more on, "Do I feel he is trustworthy?"

This felt-sense explains why on the surface everything can look fine between you and your partner, but underneath your safety barometer points toward high-anxiety. Again, you either feel it or you don’t; you can’t think yourself into trusting someone.

So how do you build trust in relationships? First of all, both partners need to be open to building trust together.

Assuming this is true, my favorite example comes from the French children’s book The Little Prince. You might be thinking a children’s story is too elementary for something as complex as trust; but it is not – trust me! To quote a famous line from the book, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

A great recipe for trust-building can be found in the exchange between the little prince and the fox. Upon meeting, the fox asks the little prince if he will tame him. The little prince replies, “What does that mean – tame?” And the fox says, “It is an act too often neglected. It means to establish ties.” The word tame here does not mean dominance or mastery but means friendship. We learn from the fox that to establish ties is an act or process requiring attention.

The fox continues to instruct the little prince, "You must be very patient. First you will sit down at a little distance from me – like that in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day.”

We learn here that trusting a friend is gradual and based on intentional actions, not words. This means, there’s no such thing as an instant boyfriend/girlfriend/partner – trust takes time.

Finally, the fox says, "…Come back at the same hour. If you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is ready to greet you…One must observe the proper rites."

Here we learn the importance of consistency. There needs to be a predictable pattern or rhythm of exchange between partners when building trust. This pattern needs to include both closeness and separation, coming together and spending time apart.

When coaching clients, I've noticed over the years that many people want to rush into getting to know a potential partner. They are quick to skip the steps of observing the "proper rites." In other language, they want to skip over the courtship and jump into commitment.

Also, I've noticed that for some married couples the two partners become lazy, ignoring the signs when trust-testing would actually strengthen and revitalize stale relating. These couples are often taking each other for granted. 

So to review, here is the recipe according to the fox: invitation of friendship, acceptance of invitation, patiently hold distance, gradually get closer, focus on actions not words, connect consistently, and respect trust-building as a proper ritual. And like any good recipe, sprinkle in some of your own spice and season to taste - voila!


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