[This is the continuance of last week’s post, available here.]
Last week we ended with the most basic of relational repair questions:
Do you trust that your partner is NOT in this relationship to hurt you?
Letting Them Out of the Doghouse: Choosing Trust
By the time we get to a relational crisis state, that can be a difficult question to answer honestly. Ultimately most people who make it as far as a therapist’s office ARE struggling to salvage something, so more often than not, we find that at least THIS basic trust is intact enough to let us move forward. I like to use David Richo’s definitions of trust when we get to this part of the conversation:
“Adult trust is based on the proven trustworthiness of the other. Our adult trust grows best in an atmosphere of continuity and consistency. […] Thus trust takes hold in a relationship when someone shows himself to be reliable. It ends when it turns out that he is not. It begins again if he changes for the better. It ends if he changes for the worse. Yearning for someone to trust absolutely is how we keep ourselves feeling unhappy. We are forgetting the first teaching of Buddhism, that all is ultimately unreliable, impermanent, and therefore unsatisfactory, and that we suffer when we cling to something with the illusory belief that such is not so. […] Adults know that trust cannot be based on expectations or projections. Nor can others be presumed to be trustworthy because we believe we are entitled to their loyalty or have merited it. The ego has to bow in total surrender to the ruthless record of of real instances of trustworthiness or betrayal.” – David Richo, Daring to Trust: Opening Ourselves to Real Love & Intimacy, pgs. 62-3
The act of choosing to trust – and it is an active, moment-to-moment, deliberate (if not always conscious) choice – is one we work hard to break down into smaller chunks, rather than stay stuck in a nonhelpful, binary, all-or-nothing definition. But by creating a list of all the places one partner DOES chose trust, there is a clearer base for clients to review their state and the general emotional faith in the relationship. It’s hard to build hope on nothing, but rooting faith in *existing* places of trust makes it much easier to rebalance the places that hurt, with the places that don’t. Many clients will report feeling more secure once they have someone reframe their struggles in terms of this faith, because it’s so easy to lose perspective under the slow onslaught of the little cuts, and they forget the places where the relationship still has strength and resiliency.
Doing the work of discovering the places where the relationship is still good does have the effect of throwing a harsher light by contrast on the places where it is NOT good. Gottman’s work on helping couples identify core issues underlying (or undermining) repeat arguments in particular helps provide language around resolvable versus unresolvable issues, and gives us a framework for separating out the symptomatic, repetitive fights that lead to that corrosive hurt and slow disconnection from deeper issues tied to core values and the expectations we form around them. We spend a LOT of time in the reconnection and repair stage of relationship work by looking at how those expectations are thwarted over time, assuming they were ever clearly articulated and consented to in the first place. And in longer-term relationships, those expectations themselves can change over time, though it’s been my observation that core values generally do not.
One of the key tools Gottman also introduces is shifting HOW these conversations happen. In his book, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he describes the difference between the harsh startup and the soft startup. If we’re challenging our clients to stay present emotionally, to be vulnerable with each other in the heart of their emotional rawness, then it would be a REALLY COOL IDEA if we could help those conversations happen without the additional challenge of one or both partners charging out of the starting gates with all guns a-blazin’.
“In contrast, a harsh startup usually begins the cycle of the four horsemen, which leads to flooding [emotional overwhelm], and, in turn, to increased emotional distance and loneliness that lets the marriage wither. Only 40 percent of the time do couples divorce because they are having frequent, devastating fights. More often, marriages end because, to avoid constant skirmishes, [partners] distance themselves so much that their friendship and sense of connection are lost. […] Softening the startup is crucial to resolving conflicts because, my research finds, discussions invariably end on the same note as they begin. That’s why 96 percent of the time I can predict the fate of a conflict discussion in the first three minutes! If you start an argument harshly–meaning you attack your [partner] verbally — you’ll end up with at least as much tension as you begin.” – John Gottman, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, pgs. 160-1
Bennett Wong & Jock McKeen recognize that one partner may have better emotional expression than the other, and recognize how disappointed expectations that the “unemotional” partner may often feel unsafe in a relationship once the more emotional partner’s expectations have reached levels of disappointment that become damaging. We have to restore relational safety in the sense of equipping both partners with an understanding that in spite of the current state of things, hurting each other is not the overarching intent. They are also big on developing explicit understandings of each other’s expectations, and while they don’t use the concept of explicit consent the way I do, that’s exactly what they are talking around:
“[P]eople learn to trust their own evaluations of others. If someone else wants to trust you, you should ask for a definition; if you are being trusted to do something you don’t want to do, don’t agree to it. Many problems in relationship could be averted if couples did not [blindly, binarily] trust each other but, rather, clarified their expectations of each other.
In place of [blind, binary] trust, couples can clarify their expectations of one another, define their boundaries and bottom lines, and enunciate the consequences that would result from breaking any of the agreements. …[E]ach person must be prepared to exercise the consequences of broken promises and generally accept any accompanying pain without blame.” – Wong & McKeen, pg. 111
Wong & McKeen’s version of trust is a little harder to swallow when understood in full (the advantage of editorializing excerpts is being able to cherry-pick my content and leave the more challenging parts out for now), but it’s a nice description of shifting the focus from opting for a default all-or-nothing trust in favour of a more nuanced set of understandings and consent boundaries. That gives us much more to work with, within the framework of making deliberate choices around WHAT do we trust our partners to do, and rebuilding faith on the basis of those agreements.
Rebuilding trust that our partners are not here to hurt us is a whole lot easier when we’re not, in fact, feeling hurt as a result of our highly-charged engagements. The truth, however, is that most of us have to be in active crisis before we recognize there’s even a problem, let alone think about doing the work to change anything that’s feeling out of sync or broken outright. David Richo writes, “The breakdown of trust in a relationship is a much more hurtful moment than the breakup of a relationship” (Richo, pg 122), making trust the central pillar in a restoration of loving intimacy. Gottman’s work is just one set of tools we use for that exploration; at a future point, I’ll also look at how Sue Johnson’s emotionally-focused approach can also strengthen existing attributes of faith as a tool for reacquainting partners with their own vulnerable intimacy.
We acknowledge at every step of the change process that it’s going to seem easier to quit and start fresh with someone than it is to re-establish secure vulnerability in an already-eroded relationship. The “starting over” process doesn’t guarantee we won’t make the same mistakes again, but the perceived lower risk of being hurt by someone we already believe will hurt us is recognized as an attractive trade off. So as therapists, we also acknowledge the unspoken aspects of desire and commitment (and, yes, stubbornness) that keeps a couple engaged in the attempt to connect and repair in spite of the fear of further pain. And in doing so, we reinforce some encouraging modelling for the partners, because if WE can see it from out here in the cheap seats, we can likely help our clients see it from deep in the muck on the inside.