Many people think of trust in terms of sexual fidelity in relationships, but trust extends far beyond that. Infidelity is the hot topic when it comes to trust and betrayal. And indeed, as a couples counselor, many couples come into my office because one partner has been unfaithful. But the affair is simply the “presenting problem" that⎯more likely than not⎯points to something more subtle but also more severe.
Look at your arm. Right now. Look at it. Looks pretty simple, right? But it’s more complicated than you think. Skin, nerves, muscle, veins, bones, joints. My left arm has a telltale mole that’s been the same size, shape, and color since I was a boy. I hardly notice it anymore.
I bet you don’t think about your arm very much. Unconsciously, you expect it to be there every morning when you wake up and to behave the same ways it does every day. It’s predictable. And that predictability leads to confidence.
Then one afternoon, something happens⎯a fall maybe⎯and your arm arm doesn’t work like it’s supposed to. It’s no longer predictable, you no longer have confidence, and it hurts really bad. So you go to the doctor.
The pain in your arm is the presenting problem. You’re pretty sure it’s broken and needs a cast. But your doctor runs a few tests. You’re right: It’s broken. But the MRI revealed a couple of tumors that have compromised the integrity of your bones. The fall broke your arm, but it turns out you have cancer.
I took the long way around, I know. But I want you to see this crystal clear: Infidelity is the broken arm. The cancer is a subtle but severe pattern of betrayal. In his book What Makes Love Last?, Dr. John Gottman suggests, “Betrayal is the secret that lies at the heart of every failing relationship⎯it is there even if the couple is unaware of it.”
This means that if your relationship is struggling, it isn’t caused by a deficit in communication, compatibility, or chemistry⎯three of the most popular relationship cliches⎯but rather the presence of betrayal, the one thing you swore you’d never tolerate. It may not be a betrayal like an affair, and in fact, it probably isn’t. It’s more likely an accumulation of small breaches that result in a culture of disappointment, discontent, and ultimately broken trust.
So how do you repair the broken trust?
Just like your broken arm, you need to treat the pain and the cancer. These are two different processes.
To treat the pain, or the affair, you need to do the courageous work of telling the truth. Therapy can help, but so can some good friends who love and support both partners. It’s important that both partners understand the story of the affair and their role in it. While it’s easy to label and blame one partner as the betrayer, both partners actually played a part in creating and tolerating a pattern of betrayal that leads to broken trust in the relationship. This is the cancer.
Treating the cancer, the pattern of betrayal, is the much harder work of reassuring your partner that he or she can trust you with the many small things. Your partner is constantly asking, “Can I trust you?” You need to learn to constantly answer, “Yes.”
Getting to "Yes" requires investing in new patterns of turning toward your partner’s bids. A bid, according to Dr. Gottman, is simply an expression of a need for connection. It’s not complicated. A bid can be a question, a gesture, a comment, a wink, an invitation to cuddle. Trust is built—and rebuilt—as partners make and acknowledge one another's bids.
Think of a bid as a question: Can I trust you? Think of the answer "Yes" as the cure for cancer. It can’t be overstated; this is slow and steady work. Certainly you have to address the pain of the presenting problem, but putting your arm in a cast without first addressing the cancer is futile.
Photo by Shannon Lee Miller