How to Build Trust in a Relationship

Building or rebuilding trust in a relationship can seem like such a difficult task, especially when one or both people in the relationship have been hurt, by each other, or by others in the past. Part of why building trust seems so hard is because it’s a somewhat abstract term. What is trust? What does it mean to trust someone? Does it mean I believe you no matter what? Does it mean I’m confident you’ll never hurt me? Do you build trust by being completely transparent with your partner? Or does trusting your partner mean giving them the benefit of the doubt?
Rear view young couple walking between pillars in Rome; Italy
While it seems abstract, research has been able to clarify how trust is built, and offers us a clear path to a stronger relationship. Dr. John Gottman and his team have spent decades studying couples, and tracking their relationships over many years. By comparing the relationships that have lasted to those that haven’t, he’s discovered valuable insights into many important aspects of relationships – including trust. The truth is that trust is not built or earned by grand gestures, but little by little over a span of time. Trust is built by the way that you respond to your partner in small every day moments.

Bids for Emotional Connection

According to Gottman, relationships are comprised of hundreds of daily bids for emotional connection between partners. A bid for emotional connection is anything we do to seek acknowledgement from our partner. Sometimes it might be conscious, like when you reach to hold your partner’s hand. Other times we might not even realizing we’re signaling for our partner’s attention, like when we let out an exasperated breath for them to hear. Every time we smile at our partner. Every time we respond to them with a sadness in our voice. Every text message. Every invitation to a work function. Every game of footsy under the covers. Every thing we do that our partner could respond to is a bid for connection. In each of these micro moments, the questions are asked “will you respond to me?”, “are you there for me?”, “do you care?”. For each bid, the partner on the receiving end has a chance to respond in a positive or negative way. It’s these seemingly insignificant moments, that across time build trust in a relationship. Each response to a bid representing but a small drop in the pot of trust or mistrust, that over the years determine the balance of the relationship.
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Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Janince Driver have identified nine different types of bids
● Bids for emotional support (“I feel so upset about my mother…”)
● Bids for interest (“I read this interesting article today…”)
● Bids for enthusiastic engagement (“What do you think about trying that new restaurant?”)
● Bids for extended conversation (“Did I tell you about that conversation I had with Mary?”)
● Bids for attention (“Look what I found at the store!”)
● Bids for play (tickling, teasing, a game of backgammon)
● Bids for humor (“How funny is this video?”)
● Bids for affection (hugging, cuddling)
● Bids for self-disclosure (“How was work today?”)

Turning Towards vs. Turning Away

Every time an emotional bid is offered, the partner on the receiving end has a choice to make “do I turn towards my partner, and respond in a loving affectionate way?”,”do I turn away, and ignore my partner’s bid?” or even”do I turn against them and respond negatively?” Of course we all know we should be there for our partner, and it’s common sense that a successful relationship involves responding to your partner in a positive, loving way. However, small and subtle bids for affection can be easy to miss or ignore, especially when we ourselves are feeling in need, and even more so when our needs are in conflict with our partners. On a dramatic scale this could look like your partner asking you to spend the weekend with them, when you’re really feeling the need for some alone time with friends. On a more subtle scale this could be recognizing that your partner is tired, and offering to cook dinner even though you’ve had a long day yourself.

None of us will respond perfectly to 100% of our partner’s needs, and letting a bid for connection slip through the cracks here or there is not going to make or break a relationship. However according to Gottman’s research, the frequency with which partners respond to a bid for connection by turning towards each other is significantly related to whether the relationship will last or not. He found that 6 years after marriage, couples who were still together turned towards each other 86% of the time, while couples that divorced turned towards each other about 33% of the time.

So How Do I Build Trust?

  • Be on the look out for bids for connection, and as much as possible turn towards your partner
  • If you’re not sure what your partner is looking for – ask them! (“What can I do for you sweetie? Do you want to talk? Or would you just like a hug?”)
  • Help your partner meet your needs, by being direct with your bids (instead of an aggravated roll of the eyes, say “honey I’m so stressed, I’d love if you could just listen while I vent”)
  • When your partner seems to be on the offensive or defensive, rather than responding to the content of what they’re saying, ask your self what their deeper need might be. (Her words might say “I’m fine”, but her tone might say “I need to know you really care right now”)
  • Be patient. As mentioned, each bid for connection gives you the opportunity to add a drop to your relationship’s trust. The more you respond positively to your partner’s bids, the more you’ve invested in your relationship’s trust, and the more reserves you have. It takes time to build up strong reserves. When trust and mistrust are equal, or there’s more mistrust than trust – every transgression feels intolerable. When your relationship is heavily weighted towards trust, mistakes are more easily forgiven.

    Learn More!

  • Gottman.com: Turn Towards Instead of Away
  • Thefishybowl: The best Offense is No Defense
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3 thoughts on “How to Build Trust in a Relationship

  1. Pingback: Advice Roundup: Being Close to Your Partner Doesn’t Require Knowing Them | Kowalke Coaching

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