Healthy vs. Unhealthy Trust

Note:  I am using the word trust in the most fluid sense of the word.  You can replace the word "trust" (the one that I like for this kind of conscious thinking) and use any of the following if they fit better for you:  faith, hope, confidence and/or expectation.  You can also use words like intimacy or connection if it makes sense for you.  When I use the word trust, I am not talking about an agreed upon or assumed  obligation. When we think about trusting someone, we tend to think of it in terms of all or nothing.  Either we trust this person or we don't.   We trust ourselves or we don't.  We trust that we will be taken care of or we don't.  We think it's like a switch we can turn on or off on a whim.  It's not.  I label that kind of all or nothing trust as "unhealthy trust."     And if you change the way you think about trust and learn the difference between healthy and unhealthy trust, you will save yourself a lot of heartache because trust is at the core of all of our relationships.

Healthy trust is actually a process that happens over time and it's helpful to think of it on a continuum.  I like to think of the continuum as vertical instead of horizontal, so a "trust ladder" is a metaphor that works for me.  There are two principles that you must know if you want to understand how to develop healthy, trusting relationships or if you want to get out of pain in any of your relationships.   The two principles are:

1.  Trust is a ladder and you give your trust to others (and they give it to you) rung by rung.  Healthy people can risk giving the first rung as an offering of kindness and connection.

2.  People are always, always, always teaching you how to treat them by their behaviors.  They are constantly communicating with you with their behavior about how the relationship will continue to be.

I've found that it's easiest to understand healthy vs. unhealthy trust through story (It's a completely made up story, not based on any real people).    I'll tell the story and deconstruct it using the two principles, so you can see them in action.  (Another note:  I used a couple for my example - but it works in ALL relationships). Once upon a time......

Let's say there's a woman (we'll call her Sam) and she is in her 30's and she has started dating using an online dating service after a relationship ended 5 months ago because of trust issues.  She has found out about the 2 principles and refuses to partake in unhealthy trust ever again.  She will only give her trust one rung at a time and will pay attention to behavior of people and allow that to be the truth teller in relationships.

She finds John's profile and likes what she reads and sends him an email.  (This is Healthy Trust from a healthy person.  She is putting herself out there, taking a risk and using principle #1, she offers John the first rung of the trust ladder.) He does not reply.  (Principle #2 He is teaching her with his behavior that he is not interested in returning her interest.  He does not offer a rung of his ladder.) She decides that she will not email him again.  She feels disappointed and wants to email him again, but prefers to stay in healthy trust land so she moves on.  (Very impressive, she is committed to responding to his behavior decided to learn the lesson he is teaching her about himself and she withdraws her rung).

A few weeks later she finds Stephen and emails him.  (She offers her first rung.) He emails her back (He offers her a rung of his ladder) and they have a few exchanges that seem promising.   She decides she would like to speak with him on the phone (She offers the next rung, taking a risk).  He agrees and she calls him and they talk for a couple of hours where they both seem to enjoy the conversation and take turns disclosing information.  (They are climbing the ladder together rung by rung.) Then one day, he doesn't call when he said he would.   She calls him, but it goes to voice mail and her call isn't returned within the week.  She knows something is up and starts thinking about her vow to stop unhealthy trust.  She is not sure what her next move is, but decides to email him a note stating that she called and was checking on him and hopes everything is okay and requests a return call or email and Stephen does not reply.  (Stephen is teaching her that he no longer is offering her rungs of his ladder and no longer interested in moving forward.  Sam knows that if she continues to call him or email him, she is acting out of unhealthy trust, which is when you continually offer more trust than what the person has taught you they are capable of receiving.  When a person continues to trust, and the person has not earned it or even asked for it, then the relationship is out of balance and therefore, unhealthy trust is afoot and that is when the pain begins.  The space between the last rung that the other person gave you and your next rung is pain. She could continue to call and email, but that will only cause pain and drama on her part - and only her part.  Shephen has taught her that he is not interested in continuing, but if she chose not to learn the lesson and continues to offer the next rung of trust, then pain is on the way.  She may have feelings of confusion and disappointment that Stephen did not continue with her and that would make sense and be healthy, but to try to force continuing would be unhealthy. )

After another month Preston emails her (He offers her a rung), she responds and it proceeds to regular emails, then calls and then a few dates  They take turns offering the next rung on the ladder of trust and there have been no red flags, no unreturned calls, they do what they say they are going to do, disclose appropriately, follow through and are enjoying each other.  (This is healthy trust and yes, they live happily ever after.  In the real life fairy tale, there are going to be issues and hard times, but they honor each other by offering rung after rung to each other, one rung at a time).

Happy people practice healthy trust and pay attention to what the people in their lives are teaching them and they honor that.  If you are tired of the pain,  drama, mixed messages,  chaos of unhealthy trust you can start right now with a vow, just like our heroine, Sam and take a vow to practice healthy trust.

Resource:  Kotler, Stephen (1995).  Trust Me, Please.  SELF, Vol. 17, No. 11 158-159.