Trust in relationships is really complicated but also a very important topic. This article is a bit philosophical, and political, but also has great advice.
What is trust?
Just like consent and love, trust is something we do and give, not just something we say. It’s vital for connection, intimacy, bonding, and ethics. Trust in relationships can come from evidence of the ways in which someone has been trustworthy in the past. But also trust is more of a ‘spidey sense’ kind of concept. We feel it in our bodies before we can say it in our heads. Much in the same way that we might feel love, or safe, or horny.
What makes trust in relationships harder are a lot of the common sense stories we are told about who we should trust, with what, and in what circumstances. This means it can be harder to develop our ‘spidey sense’ of when to trust someone and leads us to think of trust as being something fixed and doesn’t change. ‘I can trust this person’ or ‘I can’t trust this person.’
Mostly people are trustworthy and we often underestimate how trustworthy other people are, particularly people we don’t know. However, because of what we are taught about trust, we tend to be too quick to trust people that we do know, particularly if we are shagging them.
If you want to skip ahead to the practical tips click here. But this stuff below is really interesting and important I think.
Philosophy of trust
This section is a little bit complicated so you can skip ahead if you want. There’s a lot of really interesting philosophical thought about Trust (which if you have an hour or so you could read about at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). It’s thought that trust is more than just being reliant on someone. When we are reliant on someone and they let us down, we feel disappointed. But if we trusted someone and they didn’t come through then we feel betrayed, which is harder. So there’s a big risk at stake when we trust someone. In order to trust someone they have to be competent in doing the thing we want them to do and willing to do so.
There are a lot of motivations for why a trustee (the person being trusted) might want to give the trustor (the person doing the trusting) their trust. If they want to be trusted. If they think it’s important for the relationship. Because they could and wanted to show they could be good at it. Also to be thought of as distrustworthy is really bad, so people might want to prove that they are not to be distrusted.
Why trust someone back?
The philosophers argue about whether the trustee needs to act in good faith or not. For example if the trustor trusted the trustee because they were friends, but the trustee repaid the trust because they actually fancied the trustor – would that be trustworthy behaviour? Interesting stuff right?
Also they discuss whether trust is internal or external. Do we look at external evidence of whether we can trust someone (their competency, their past behaviour, our own experience of trust from both sides)? Can you really trust someone if you have to go looking for evidence of it?
Internal trust is about our own view of the other person and also our view of trust. We might trust someone because we want them to be trustworthy and by making it clear that we trust them they become more trustworthy. However is it right that someone is motivated to be trusting because they are being trusted? What if someone doesn’t want to be a trustee? Can we be made to be a trustee without our explicit consent? What if someone asked you to hide a murder weapon because they trust you? Is that trust?
There’s loads more in that article about our belief in trust itself and its role in morality in general, I’ll talk a bit more about that in the next few paragraphs. Maybe you could chat about some of these things with your mates. (Hint – you should probably chat about some of these things with your mates).
When do we need trust?
I had a look at some of the articles I’ve written on here to see where I’ve mentioned trust. It’s important for safer sex: both for unplanned pregnancy or for being put at risk of STIs. See also coronavirus safety and bubbles. Trust is important when we’re sexting and privacy risks generally. Sharing our phone password (which I think we shouldn’t do, even if we trust someone lots). Negotiating relationships and how much we want to share with other people, as well as trusting each other through break ups. Trust is also vital for actually enjoying sex too, consent is the key to enjoying sex and consent and agreement is also about trust.
So it’s extremely relevant to lots of different situations and each of those different situations requires a different thing from trust. For example, lending someone a fiver requires a different kind of trust than sending someone a nude. As even philosophers can’t agree on what trust means, it’s probably the case that trust is something we have to work out for ourselves. One of the things we can do is to learn from the feelings we get from one situation requiring trust and remembering those feelings in other situations.
As with a lot of things to do with sex and relationships, society gives us lots of rules about trust: stories about the way that we ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ do things. People use these ‘normative expectations’ in order to judge whether someone is trustworthy or not. Having these expectations is a problem because it distracts us from our own experiences and our own judgements. Here are some of these ‘should stories’ that I think we should be a bit careful about.
‘You should always trust someone you love’
I think that we can love someone we trust, but just because we love someone doesn’t mean we should trust them all the time. Our trust is often broken by people we love and people we love can often hurt us the most. For example, non-consensual sex and abuse is more likely to happen with someone we are in a relationship with.
‘Once the trust has gone in a relationship that’s it’
Similarly, just because you have lost trust doesn’t mean that the relationship is over. Part of getting trust is about how to deal with breakdowns in trust and showing that you are learning and growing. Ironically having our trust broken and mended means we can trust people more.
‘Trust is about someone always being there for you’
Sometimes people can’t always be there for you. People get ill, or down, or ‘just can’t today.’ Trust is when people feel they can tell you when they do or don’t have the capacity to be there for you that day. Can we have trust when we don’t have honesty? This is where we need to be careful to distinguish the difference between trust and reliance: because we can’t always rely on people (shit happens) but that doesn’t mean we can’t trust them. We shouldn’t treat our peoples like omnipotent gods, or superheroes, who can move heaven and earth to be there for us.
‘When you love someone you can tell them everything’
In the early days of a new romantic or intimate or close relationship we can rush to tell them everything, but why? Why do we trust someone we’ve known for 3 months just as much as we trust someone we’ve known for 3 years? Sometimes people are just waiting for ‘The One’ to show up so that they can be their best friend, lover, parent, and therapist all in one human. Let’s not do that, eh?
All of these can interfere with our trust spidey sense, or your WiFi signal, or radio reception. The stories get in the way of your ability to tune into how you know when you can trust someone. Your own ability to trust is determined by how much you can trust you can trust.
Your own experiences of trust
We learn trust from our experiences of trust, so for some of us it’s going to be harder to trust than others. Flakey parents, abusive experiences, school bullying, bad experiences with authority, shitty relationships can all leave people feeling raw and vulnerable, and not wanting to trust people. There’s a risk to trusting people and that puts us in a very vulnerable position. If you’ve had really bad experiences of trust then you might be really wary about being a trustor again.
This is something to remember when you have relationships (any kind of relationship) with other people. Their capacity for being able to do trust is probably not going to be the same as yours. Don’t just make someone follow a ‘should story’ of when people should trust you. Deciding to trust someone is very personal and based on their own understanding of risk. Just as with all other risks, like STIs or Coronavirus, the risks of something bad happening depend on someone’s underlying conditions.
What makes this worse is that we shame people for being ‘too trusting’. This is wrong for a couple of important reasons. One, most people are actually trustworthy and more trustworthy than we think. So shaming people for being ‘too trusting’ is to paint a picture of a world where most people are just out for themselves. Many studies, and this really great book, shows that this isn’t true.
Trust is vital for cooperation in society, for doing the right thing, for behaving well with each other, and for believing in humanity in general. There’s always going to be the odd dickhead here and there, but most people are trustworthy and want to do the right thing. Our belief in that is really important and should be nurtured not a source of shame.
Blaming someone for being too trusting is also just classic victim blaming, which we shouldn’t do. There are always going to be some people who, in certain situations, can’t be trusted, so yes we should be careful. However, the person doing the trusting shouldn’t be blamed. If someone has broken your trust I say to you ‘well that sucks, I’m sorry they did that to you. I’ve got some advice about how you can learn from this and how you can be more careful. However, trusting people and seeing people with kind eyes means you’re a great human, so don’t give up on that, just learn to do it better.’
I’m not saying that we should be immediately trusting of everyone all the time. However there is a sweet spot of being trusting (and distrusting) enough. The more we learn to trust the greater our capacity is for trust. And if someone betrays our trust then this should prove that we were in the right all those other times and that this time we were just unlucky. If you’ve never been betrayed, maybe you’re just not trusting enough?
If you’re a regular reader of BISH, rather than just googling to find out what a ‘Top’ is, you’ll know that I talk about power a lot. Trust is another topic where power is relevant. As I said above, everyone has different early experiences of trust and distrust but these experiences are unfairly distributed.
Inequality of trusting experiences
For example, someone who has experienced sexual violence may find it hard to trust again. Especially if that was with someone they trusted. They may experience trauma, which may be on-going, where trust is going to be much harder for them to feel sure of when it comes to anything to do with sex. As women experience sexual violence way more than men and most commonly perpetrated by men, you can see that as a whole, the capacity to trust can be unfairly distributed.
You might be thinking ‘not all men are rapists’ and you’d be right. It’s also true that many men have experienced sexual violence themselves. If you are a man who is not being trusted because of the behaviour of other men in the past, it might feel unfair. But not being trusted yet is not the same as being distrusted. It’s a scale. Your response should be to demonstrate that you are trustworthy, that you understand how to do consent, and that you are up for chatting about this kind of stuff. Be the kind of man that other men haven’t been.
Sexism and misogyny can affect how much someone can trust and how much someone can trust. Not always, and certainly not in all situations, but it can. See also experiences of racism, transphobia, homophobia, biphobia ableism, classism. It’s not cool to just assume that someone who has experienced oppression can’t trust, but it’s just good to be aware of. As I explain in this article about solidarity, it’s not useful to think about this kind of privilege as something to feel guilty about. Instead think about it as something you might use to help others. If you can trust people they might trust you. Maybe the more trust we see in the world the more we might believe we can trust too.
‘These people can’t be trusted’
Another way that shame and oppression can affect our judgements about trust are the broader messages we receive about various groups in society. As you can see in this Ask Bish from years ago ‘should I trust her’ the reader finds it harder to trust someone whose family are poorer than his. What his family and society more generally taught him about poor people affected his judgement about this girl he really fancied. I gently told him off about it, it’s fine. Again different oppressions will also be in play here meaning that some of the discriminations that we are fed by society might feed into our judgements about whether we can trust others.
Breakdowns in trust
So I said above that one of the should stories is that ‘once the trust has gone in a relationship that’s it’ and yes that is something we should be careful about. We also just can’t will ourselves into trusting someone if we just can’t. If our bodies are saying no (more on this below) and the other person isn’t able to make us feel any different, then yes a relationship might have to end. They do that sometimes.
However, if you’re in a relationship where there has never been a breakdown and then a mending of trust, there might be less trust in this relationship than in one where there has. If you are able to mend trust and move on your relationship can be a lot stronger.
I’ve written quite a bit about this kind of stuff here and this article is already way too long as it is. But if you are able to talk about exactly what the expectations were in the first place, what commitments you want to have and are actually able to keep going forward, then you might be able to move forward. This might mean that you have to move to a different kind of relationship. Or slow things down a bit, or understand that you have come out of your ‘new relationship energy’ phase.
So how can we be more careful about trust in relationships? If I just told you what to do that would a) be another trust should story and b) not help you to train your spidey sense. Here are a few questions to help you become an expert for yourself about how to trust someone.
What is happening in your body?
Sometimes our bodily responses happen so quickly we don’t realise it’s happened, but can you press rewind and go back to what happened in your body? Can you describe where you first felt anything happen? Did it remind you of another time when you felt these feelings? It could be a warm tingle in the back of your neck and cheeks, or a shiver. Was there a dull ache in your stomach or a tension in your chest? Did you just want to close your eyes or did you want to keep them wide open.
How much time and choice are you being given?
If you’re being pressured into making a decision that requires you to trust someone, you might just want to take a pause. As I said before, you shouldn’t be put in a trust situation, without your consent. Are you being given more than just the option of ‘do this or don’t do this’? And are you being given time to decide. As I said above you need to remember that people have different experiences of trust.
New relationships energy
If you’re in the early phases of a new relationship you need to gently remind yourself that this isn’t real. Oxytocin is kicking in, which helps you to regulate your heartbeat. Your ears are tuning into the frequency of the other person. Your pupils are dilating, and your neural pathways are mirroring each other. All of this will convince you that you’re in love when you’re not. Love isn’t just chemistry, it’s biopsychosocial, but the biology tricks you into thinking you can trust this person. So if you are in new relationship energy, enjoy it (if you must). But don’t let it trick you into believing that this person is more worthy of your love or trust than the people you’ve known for years. So go slow.
You don’t have to tell everyone everything. Your inner life isn’t necessarily ‘the real you’ that you only reveal to ‘the one’. In order to trust someone and to have them trust you, I don’t think that you have to tell people that your real name is Dick Whitman (lol, I said Dick). You could say ‘look there’s some stuff that I can’t really tell you about, and you’ll have to trust me to only let you know about it if I think you really need to know’. Also it might be really unfair, or too much, to share some of your inner world with other people in your life. Boundaries are important in all aspects of our lives. We can still have them and also have trust and intimacy.
Just like consent, trust in relationships isn’t just something you decide on the once and then that’s it. Trust is on-going because we and our relationships are always changing and moving. The things that we are being asked to have trust around are also always changing. Being trusted about being sent a nude is different to the trust involved in being lent a fiver. So remember this and perhaps just have some check-ins with yourself and the other person from time to time.
That’s it! Leave a comment below if you have any questions or need some advice. I pre-moderate them all, so rude comments just go in the bin.
Comment below if you like. I moderate all comments before they appear, so don’t be cheeky!
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health.