ERP 118: How To Build Trust With Your Partner [Transcript]

ERP 118: How To Build Trust With Your Partner

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Welcome to The Empowered Relationship Podcast, helping you turn relationship challenges into opportunities and setting you up for relationship success. Your host, Dr. Jessica Higgins, is a licensed psychologist and relationship coach who shares valuable tips, tools and resources for you to dramatically improve your relationship.

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Hi, thank you for joining today’s podcast episode. Today’s episode is 118 – How To Build Trust With Your Partner. I’ve been getting a lot of questions about trust, and today I’m going to weave in two listeners’ questions into the five tips that I have to share with you today.

Let’s bring our hearts, our minds and our beings together, as we set the tone for today’s conversation. Most of you listening I imagine have the interest in improving your relationship. In my mind, if you’ve been listening for a while, you’ve heard me talk about wanting to help you expand your capacity for more love, more joy, more passion, more intimacy, and also be able to learn from the challenges, grow from the challenges, use it as curriculum for your development, and also recognizing the consistency, the security and the safety of a very solid bond and partnership, and the importance of that.

In the Empowered Relationship Podcast that’s the goal – to really help you feel set up, more prepared, more equipped to cultivate the type of relationship you long for and you desire. On this show I answer your questions, and if you have a relationship wondering or question you’ve been kind of challenged with, you can reach me on my website, on my contact page. My website is DrJessicaHiggins.com. Also, if you would like to get live, laser coaching and be on the show, you can find more information about that on that page as well.

I also bring relationship topics to you based on my experience working with couples, my training and my education. I also interview other experts in the field of relationship and couplehood.

Again, today’s topic – How To Build Trust With Your Partner, episode 118. As I mentioned, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about trust, and if you listened to episode 116, I talked about trust in self, titled How To Regain Trust And Self-Confidence When You’ve Lost It. I was answering a listener’s question there.

I just want to also say I’ve been getting questions as it relates to building trust after a betrayal. I’m not gonna focus so much on that today; I do think some of the processes are similar, but it’s a different circumstance, so I’m gonna save that for another episode. Today is really about how to build trust with your partner.

One listener reached out to me and he had many different questions. One of his questions related to trust. He writes:

After listening to your podcasts I’ve realized I don’t completely trust my wife’s decisions anymore. That’s something I never consciously was aware of before, but realize it’s been hidden and I’ve felt it, but don’t understand it. How do I manage that?

For me that’s a bigger question about trust, and I’m gonna address that today. As I was preparing notes for this show, I realized trust is an enormous topic. I could actually create a whole program on trust, I’m assuming. And to just bring it down to the fundamentals, I was really curious what the actual definition as far as Google or some search would provide. So I googled “trust”, and the definition that I got was “A firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of someone or something.” I just thought that was a pretty good definition – that firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of someone or something.

As it relates to relationship, trust can be tricky. Trust is what helps couples feel safe to be vulnerable and deepen in their closeness and their connection, yet it takes time and skill to build. Many of us get tripped up along the way, so I’d like to offer you five tips to work with. I’d like for you to bring to mind the exercise of a trust fall. I’m assuming most of you have experienced this at camp when you were young, or in any type of process group that you’ve working on teambuilding… I don’t know if you’ve ever been a part of a work teambuilding experience and they have you do different initiatives or ropes courses, and trust fall is something that is often utilized.

If you are not familiar with a trust fall, you may even wanna google it and I’m certain you’ll see a video about it or an explanation about it. I’ll do my best to describe it here for today’s conversation. A trust fall can be done with two people or more people, and it really involves two components: one person who is falling, and the other person or people are catching. The way this is typically done is the person that is falling has their two feet on the ground, and they typically will fold their arms in front of their chest, and when the cue is given, they basically keep their legs straight, so their body is in one straight kind of board motion, and they just allow themselves to fall backwards. We would never do this without somebody being there to catch us, because that would be painful and cause perhaps some injury. That’s not a safe thing to do by yourself.

There are variations of this. Sometimes people will be on a dock or some type of platform, and if they’re being caught by a group of people, they might actually fall back — they’re a little elevated, so there’s a little more space to catch somebody. But then the person or the people catching – the intention here is that they’re gonna catch the person. The person falling is really relying on them to catch them.
For today’s conversation and the tips that I’m gonna be offering you, I am going to be referencing the trust fall. I think it’s a good example for us to work with that most of us can relate to; whether or not we’ve actually experienced it or we’re just imagining it, most of us have a concrete understanding about what that entails.

The first tip that I wanna suggest is the importance of clear agreements. If people are going to participate in the exercise of a trust fall, the first agreement is “Do you wanna play? Are you interested in participating?” This is true for relationship. Sometimes we have one foot out, one foot in, and we are ambivalent. We’re not really that clear if we wanna play. Or sometimes we feel as though someone else is ambivalent. So to really get explicit and clear, “Do you wanna play?”

The second component I wanna address about agreements is the importance of the roles – who’s doing what? What are we saying yes to? That there’s a clear understanding around what’s involved. This is really designed to set it up more for success. People who are listening, if anybody’s ever facilitated a trust fall knows the importance of setting the stage, and setting the agreements is what helps create the safety. If people don’t know what they’re doing and they’re confused, or some person’s thinking one thing and the other person’s thinking something else, if somebody’s like “Okay, I’m ready to fall” and they fall, and the other person’s like “I wasn’t even ready yet” – that could be an injurous activity, or painful for the person falling. And even for the person that’s catching, it’s like “Oh my god, I wanted to be there and I wasn’t there” and feel bad and feel guilty, and it’s a mess.

As a facilitator, when I have led this, I put extra importance on this initial discussion – what everybody’s doing, making sure people understand, making sure there’s an agreement and that there’s an understanding around timing: when is the cue? When does the person fall? And the pace, and getting clear on this.

How this relates to relationship for me has a lot to do with expectations. A lot of the time we enter into relationship with inexplicit expectations, and we think that they’re agreements. When I was thinking about expectations, it reminded me early on in my husband and I’s relationship, I would say the first year – initially when we were dating he was going back to his hometown quite frequently, I would say once a month, and his hometown is Minneapolis, Minnesota. And when he would travel very early on, I wouldn’t hear from him as much as I would normally. I remember thinking “Oh, that’s too bad…” I enjoyed being more connected.

As time went on and we got closer and our relationship deepened and was more developed, I remember he took a trip – it might have been around the holidays, probably. We officially were dating in March, we had been friends for like 6-7 months, so let’s say this was in the holiday season. Fast-forward to — it must have been November/December, and he was visiting his family again. My mother actually was in town visiting me. I had had the expectation – unbeknownst to me, I wasn’t even aware of it, but I remember feeling disappointed. I remember feeling upset that I hadn’t heard from him as much.

My mother said something pretty insightful to me. She said “Well, what’s he been like in the past?” Just looking at “Maybe this doesn’t mean anything about how he feels towards you. Maybe it’s just kind of how he operates.” When she asked me the question, I said “Well yeah, when he visits his family he’s not super communicative. He’s pretty wrapped up in doing things for his mother, and really attending to all… He’s got a pretty big family, and everybody wants to see him, and there’s lots of nieces and nephews, so it’s pretty packed and full.” So as I reminded myself of how he’s been in the past, it was pretty consistent with how he’s been. But as I thought about it more, I was thinking to myself “Oh, I think I had the expectation that since we were deeper in our relationship, that he would be more communicative”, and I think in some ways that communication, the meaning I had around it was that if he was more connected to me, he would communicate more. That’s how I operate. If I care about somebody, I’m gonna be more communicative… Yet for him, his level of communication was consistent. It wasn’t a reflection of his feelings towards me.

As you can see here, if I have in my mind the expectation that he’s gonna contact me more and then I feel disappointed — but he’s never agreed to it; he never even knew that I was even hopeful of that. So in his mind, he’s just doing what he knows. He’s showing up for his family and thinking we’re good… And everything was good; I don’t even actually know if he knows this, as I’m talking about it now. It’s a little example, but it’s what we do.

This get extra messy when we have an expectation and we feel hurt that it wasn’t met, but we feel like it’s something they should do, or it’s an agreement. Then we feel hurt and pained, and sometimes the way we deal with that pain isn’t always direct and clear. I’m gonna go into that in a moment, but that’s basically alerting your partner to the fact, raising the flag, like “My feelings are hurt.” And then there’s some vulnerability there, because if your partner is not aware, how do we alert them?

Sometimes we get weird about this. We all, I’m sure, have examples, but we’ll get quiet… “What’s wrong?” “Nothing.” Or we’ll get passive/aggressive; we won’t say anything, but we’ll stew and then we’ll maybe do something snide or kind of sideways… Or we’ll come in hot. We’ll come in feeling like “Okay, I’m defensive… You’ve just hurt my feelings. Now we’re going toe-to-toe. I’m mad at you, and I wanna let you know I’m mad at you.”

This is where we will spiral into the more threatened state and a conflict state. I’m not gonna go into any of that today, but I wanna bring us back to the attention of if we’re gonna play together, what are our agreements? And honestly, this is an ever-evolving process. Sometimes we have new challenges – if you add parenting to the mix, or an elderly parent, or whatever the circumstances are; if money changes are… That there’s agreements that might need to be reevaluated, or renegotiated.

Agreements are sometimes easier said than done, and I do have a podcast on agreements. If you’re interested in checking that out, I highly encourage it. You can find the link on my show notes for today’s episode. That can be found on my website, DrJessicaHiggins.com/podcasts. Again, today’s episode is 118.

Agreements typically involve a) Do you wanna play? Are we both a yes? Are we engaged and are we interested? If the idea is “Hey, does anybody wanna do a trust fall?” somebody would say “Yes, I wanna do it”, and you’d get your buy-in.

Then the second level would be “Okay, who wants to do what?” “I wanna fall!” “I wanna catch!” There would be an interest in what people are willing to do.
Then there’s the deciding “How are we going to do it?” There’s some details to this that will be helpful in making it work well. If we’re thinking about a trust fall, perhaps “When do we all know we’re starting? How fast do we go?” And there’s a lot of details that could be really fleshed out here.

This takes a certain level of communication and honesty, to have the level of clarity that actually creates the safety. It’s super important to be able to discuss the details, the how, and what works and what doesn’t work; what you would like, and what you wouldn’t like. As we’re talking about expectations, most of the time we have preferences, we have a way that we think of things, we have different ways of defining things, and most of the time you’re not gonna see eye-to-eye on everything. So it takes a level of discussion, and openness and honesty.

Getting clear how you and your partner operate and how you wanna operate together, and the meaning around it and the significance around it, and the hopes and the dreams – all of that stuff is important throughout the relationship. However, I think it’s particularly important in the beginning stages, as you’re getting to know one another. This helps establish a more solid foundation. It actually helps eliminate all of these crazy tripwires we get into… How we deal with upset, how we deal with feeling hurt and feeling not held, and all of these things.

If we can rewind or even catch this in the beginning stages, it’s so incredibly helpful. Not easy to do, but incredibly helpful. Essentially, it’s alleviating a lot of misunderstandings and missteps. We’re able to really be there for each other. A trust fall would not work well when people don’t know what’s going on. As I said, somebody is ready to fall and the other people aren’t ready to catch, and that could be disastrous.

A question I received from a listener:

I absolutely love your pod and look forward to your posts. I have one big relationship issue at the moment. The issue started when my boyfriend and I decided to live together in the near future and have been discussing finances. His father manages all of his financial decisions and my boyfriend wants his father to manage my finances. We’ve discussed my concerns of his father’s potential bias toward him, his son, which turns into a discussion about “trust” i.e. “Do you not trust me to have our best interest in mind?” I trust him or myself to arrange our finances, but I don’t want to answer to his father about any and all financial decisions. Thank you for sharing your guidance through your pods.

I just wanna acknowledge this listener for reaching out in the early stages. This is, in my mind, negotiating what works and what doesn’t work, and entering into some agreements. Here are a couple of my thoughts in response to your question. Your not wanting his father to manage your finances doesn’t have to be a trust issue. It can be a discussion more or less around what you want and what you don’t want.

As I mentioned, this has a lot to do with rules and agreements, so for you, if I could just clarify what I’m hearing you say, perhaps you’re really wanting to have some clean and clear boundaries with his father or his extended family. And you’re right, his father is going to have bias, even as objective as he possibly can, he’s not a neutral party, and this is a reason why therapists, lawyers, doctors typically do not work with family members. And perhaps you’re saying you wanna make decisions which feel best for you and your boyfriend, what’s best and true for you both, and relationships are complicated enough, and that perhaps you don’t wanna add the extra element of feeling any pressure to impress or please his father. That’s just a whole other layer.

Another thing that perhaps you may be wanting is some privacy. You may not want his father to be privy to all your very personal financial information. I’m gonna use an analogy here – if he were a gynecologist, I doubt that you would want to go to him for your annual exam, a Pap smear per se. There’s a private nature to that, and your financial world could feel as intimate as something like your feminine health.

On his side it might be good to basically ask “What’s the importance of his father managing his finances and making financial decisions?”, to really glean what that does for him. Because if it’s that his father’s really great at finances and he really trusts his input and he’s extremely savvy, I just think that’s a huge resource.

One idea would be that his father teaches him. It’s that idea of “Teach a man to fish, rather than just feed him.” If he could teach his son to learn these skills… It could be a good bonding experience, but then he’s also growing; he’s developing his skills.
Also being able to differentiate from his family of origin. That’s a developmental process – to be able to make your own decisions and to have that sense of autonomy and define who you are as an individual, and not that you’re just doing what you’ve always done, which could be what your parents have always done.

Again, I want to reiterate that if his father is very skilled and knowledgeable and has insight and experience — again, I’m not suggesting to not utilize that, it’s just how it’s being utilized. And that perhaps your boyfriend, if he’s got some reason why someone else can’t do such a good job; is there some reason why only his father could do it? That could be something to explore with him, and as you guys discuss what’s important to you and how you wanna work together, you’re creating some agreements. I love this; this is not easy work, and the goal would be that together you could find a system of how you guys wanna manage your finances together that work for both of you.

Thank you so much for posing this question. I think it’s a really great example of how challenging this work can be, and how important it is to creating a foundation to build trust from.

Let’s move into the second tip to building trust with your partner, and that is creating safety. This has a lot to do with being there for one another. “Can I rely on you? Are you gonna do what you said you’re gonna do? Are you reliable? If I fall back, will you catch me?”

Again, I want to reiterate, this is so much easier to do when we have clear understanding and we’ve discussed explicitly who’s gonna do what. Imagine the trust fall, and a person is up on a platform, heels against the edge, arms crossed over the chest, and they are preparing to fall back. They’re up above the ground, so they’re a little higher, it’s a little scarier, and there’s a group of people ready to catch the person. What if they didn’t talk about it? Perhaps the person is starting to fall and it looks as though nobody’s supporting the head, and the person that’s at the feet said “I thought you had the head” and the other person’s saying “I thought you had the head”, and it’s all this commotion and misunderstanding, and the situation is not safe.

So again, pointing to number one and how critical it is to have clear understandings and agreements and expectations that’s gonna allow for the follow through. Now, it’s not 100% guarantee, it’s always a risk, yet when we have clarity and agreements and understanding, it does set up for a much safer interaction.

In my experience, most people mean well, most people have good intentions and care. Yes, we get weird; all of us have certain things that we do when we feel protective or scared or insecure, and we don’t communicate well and we get reactive… These things happen, yet at the end of the day are we malicious? Are we out to cause harm and are we doing things out of malice? Most of the time that’s not true.

So if we can create the container for safety, that we do care, we mean well, we understand what’s involved and we’re ready… “I’ve got my arms out, I’m ready to catch you!” and taking it seriously… “I want you to feel that you can rely on me, that you can fall into my arms and that I have you.”

Part of what helps create safety is recognizing if you’ve agreed to “I’ve got my arms out and I’m gonna catch you. I’ve got you and I am ready”, that there’s a full “Yes” in that – I mentioned in the first agreement – and that there’s an ability to have some honesty and discernment. If our ability, our confidence, our strength somehow make us waver…

For example, let’s say I agreed to participate in a trust fall with someone who is three times as big as I am. They weigh three times as much as I do, and I have said “Yes” to catching them. For me to be able to say “I’m here, I’m ready, I’m gonna catch you”, and I’m feeling like “Oh, crap! They’re three times as big as I am. I’m not gonna be able to catch them” – that’s not real honesty, and that’s not really safe.

One thing that I could do is say “I’d like some support please” or “I would like backup.” Maybe there could be spotters – a couple people that help spot; or maybe there could be someone behind me, supporting me to help me feel stronger… There’s lots of things that I can do that help get reinforcement.

This is true in relationship. If you’re doubting your ability or you know yourself to have certain tendencies that go against an agreement and you’re not feeling really strong enough… So you have an addictive tendency of some sort, or you tend to get stuck in certain places, that you could be honest about that, and maybe you need reinforcement.

In this scenario it’s possible that if I’m getting ready to catch this person that’s much larger than myself, for it to be very safe, if that’s the priority, I might raise my hand and say “You know what? I really wanted to catch you, but I don’t know that I can do it. I’m afraid that I’m not gonna be strong enough.” That’s such fair game; that’s a way safer interaction than pretending to feel confident.

Or let’s say I’m doing the trust fall and the person that I am catching – let’s say we’ve done it once or twice, and the person has a tendency to flail their arms, or they’re super noodly, they’re super loose, and it’s hard to really hold them up from hitting the ground. Their butt drops and they kind of touch the ground and you’re like “I’m scared you’re gonna get hurt…” I can actually offer feedback… What would help me to catch you would be “Can you bring your arms in and not flail? Can you bring your arms in and stay straight? Can you keep your knees straight, so you can fall straight back?”

To give you an example of what this could look like in a relationship, I have a couple that I’ve been working with for a while. They are married, and the husband works extremely hard at attending emotionally to his wife. He wants to provide her the security, the emotional connection and the safety that she asks for. At the same time, his wife sometimes feels challenged with being vulnerable, letting him know when she’s hurt. What she sometimes does – which we all do – is when she feels hurt, she finds issue with him: “Why did you say it like that? Why did you do that?” and she’s hoping that he will see her pain and pause, and say “Oh my goodness, what’s going on?” and hear her, validate her and say “I am so sorry”, and really just empathize and be connected to her.

While he wants to do that, there’s a part of him that gets defensive when she says “Why did you do that?” or “How come you said it like that?” and she’s perhaps taking issue with him… He is distracted. He is feeling defensive to that. He’s also alert to “Something’s not going right.”

This could be a place of feedback. “When you flail your arms, I have a hard time really being there for you. It’s hard for me to get a secure hold of you and keep you safe. When you come at me and take issue with me, I have a hard time hearing what’s really going on for you and what’s vulnerable, what’s painful. I wanna be there for you, I wanna connect with you, I wanna empathize with you and I want you to feel my love and care.”

There are a lot of things going on in a couple dynamic; I’m not trying to reduce their interaction to just this simple point, but I do believe that the ability to raise your hand and say “Ouch, I’m hurting” allows someone to show up for you, to hold you and to be with you.

There can be nuances to creating safety – what’s working, what’s not working – and again, we can engage in fine-tuning those agreements and how we wanna work together. And around safety, it’s primarily how we can really be there for each other, and be reliable. “Can I rely on you?”

Most of us wanna have the experience of being trustworthy; that’s something to feel proud of… “I made a difference, I showed up for somebody. I caught somebody, and knowing that they were able to have the experience to fall back… It’s a gift that they entrusted in me, that they could really put their life in my hands.” I know it’s not that dramatic, but there’s a sense of that trust that is a gift. So for time I’m actually not gonna give you the three additional tips that I have to offer you, I would love to just give a little more time and space to this, so stay tuned… The second part of this episode, “How To Build Trust With Your Partner.”

To recap, in today’s episode we talked about the first two tips in how to build trust with your partner. Number one, clarify your agreements; getting a “Yes, we wanna do this. Let’s play together, let’s work together, and let’s talk about how we’re gonna do that”, which involves getting explicit in unpacking our expectations that might be hidden, we might not even be aware of, and knowing that these expectations have a great influence and impact on our evaluating trust, safety, satisfaction, fulfillment, and ultimately our happiness. It’s a huge factor.

Number two – creating safety. This involves knowing we’re there for each other, reliability… “Can I be there for you? Can I do what I said I was gonna do? Do I have the ability? Do I have the strength? Can we dial in what helps us be there for each other, care for each other, love each other?” As I mentioned, I get and I know personally that this is easier said and done.

If you’re interested in getting support in uncovering expectations and beliefs and really getting the understanding and the clarity of your agreements, as well as how to cultivate more safety and reliability in your partnership, I’d love for you to hold in mind the possibility of taking the Connected Couple program. In the next few weeks I will be giving you more details on how you can get that support.

If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me, jessica@drjessicahiggins.com. Until next time, I hope you take great care!

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