Do you ever wonder why you can’t trust your spouse? Especially when you think you should be able to?
Before we start, we want to make it clear who this episode is for because it may not be immediately apparent from the title.
We’re speaking to men and women who are struggling to trust their spouse and recognize that this trust issue lies primarily within themselves at this point. There may have been a past betrayal or not. If there was you might say something like, “I know in my head that I can trust him or her now, but I just can’t get past the doubts.”
You know your spouse is trustworthy, but you can’t get there yourself as far as trusting them.
So, if you’re struggling to trust and you cannot, and you are sure this is about something happening within yourself, this article is for you.
On the other hand, if you’ve gone through a betrayal and you’re struggling to trust and maybe your spouse is continuing to act in ways that are concealing or suspicious in nature and your lack of trust is legitimate, this is not for you. Trust your gut.
But if it’s more like you feel something’s wrong in you rather than in your relationship, we’d like to help you.
Finally, if you’ve betrayed your spouse and you can’t get them to trust you, don’t just stick your spouse in the bucket we are discussing today. A severe betrayal takes a long time to recover from. In fact, their discovery of your betrayal was probably a traumatic event and your spouse may be suffering from a variation of PTDS called Post Infidelity Stress Disorder.
Remember, everything said here should be seen as a self-help tool and not as a replacement for counselling!
Trust has been defined as the “confidence that [one] will find what is desired [from another] rather than what is feared.[i] It’s the idea that when I turn to Caleb for something I have this innate confidence that he will provide what I desire. He’s safe. He’s reliable. He’s predictable. Now, if he’s all those things but I cannot trust him, then I have a problem that I need to address.
Trust is implicit in love. 1 Corinthians 13 talks about love, and verse 7 says,
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Do you hear the trust implicit in that?
Proverbs 31:11 has this really neat little statement talking about the virtuous woman: “The heart of her husband trusts in her”. Trust is an emotional confidence in another person.
That’s why betrayal hurts so bad and why it takes time to hear – because it touches you to the core.
On the other hand, when you can’t trust but you should be able to, then this affects your marriage bond because of that fact that trust is implicit in love.
In terms of why you can’t trust your spouse, here are a few different possibilities that may apply to you.
Lack of Trust as Means of Maintaining Control
The first possibility is that you may be holding onto a lack of trust as a means of maintaining control.
In 2015, some researchers looked at the influence of trust on conflict discussions.
Typically, if you’re a trusting person you tend to make positive attributions about your spouse even in questionable circumstances. You also tend to display more positive emotions than negative when you’re in conflict. On the other hand, if you’re a low-trust individual, you tend towards pessimistic views.[ii]
For example, if you find a long black hair on your husband’s sweater and no one in your family has long black hair, a trusting spouse would remove the hair and that’s it. Instead, a low trust spouse may start the conversation with, “Who does this belong to?”
When you’re less trusting, you often move very quickly towards tactics that really destabilize the relationship or even harm it because you have this underlying belief that your spouse is concealing negative events from you.
In marriage then, low-trust spouses are more influential than high-trust spouses. They tend to pull down the high-trust spouse towards more negative outcomes. There is more power on their side.
These researchers found that when one spouse was low on trust, both spouses felt less close following the conflict discussions. Only when both spouses scored high in trust did the conflict end up drawing them closer.[iii]
You might be engaging in conflict to reduce your uncertainty, but if you are the low-trust spouse you already are on the high side of the power imbalance. It puts you on moral high ground and requires your spouse to defend themselves before the court. That’s a natural power imbalance in your favor.
Is it possible that there was a period of time in your life where things felt really out on control? It could have been a betrayal or something very different like a traumatic medical situation. Were you able to bring some sense of sanity back to that crazy situation by leveraging a lack of trust? Perhaps you find yourself today somewhat entrenched in that position and it’s really scary to think about trusting again because it takes you back to a very real sense of vulnerability.
Unfortunately, while that lack of trust can be a means of maintaining control, it is also harming your relationship to your spouse. So, while it’s an attempt to create safety, it’s also undermining your safety and if you can see that, you may find the motivation you need in order to consider making a shift if indeed this is the source of your lack of trust.
Lack of Trust as a Means of Self-Protection
Another possible source of lack of trust is related to maintaining control and that is your lack of trust could be a means of self-protection.
Research in 2013 showed that people with low trust in their spouse feel compelled to remember the past in a way that prioritizes self-protection over relationship dependence.[iv]
How this works is this: say there are transgressions on the part of your spouse in the past. If you have a lack of trust, you will continue to act in ways that protect yourself rather than protect the relationship.
This is tricky, because who wouldn’t want to protect themselves? Unfortunately, this is eroding the relationship and therefore is ultimately not self-protective. That’s why it’s hard to get unstuck from this issue. The most natural sense of self-protection is what you resort to, but it doesn’t work and there’s a way that this continues to reinforce your belief you’re not safe.
It’s a self-fulfilling, vicious cycle.
These researchers found that “the greater a person’s trust in their partner, the more positively then tend to remember the number, severity, and consequentiality of their partner’s past transgressions.”[v]
They also found that people with high trust “tend to expect that their partner will act in accordance with their interests. Consequently, …they have the luxury of remembering the past in a way that prioritizes relationship dependence over self-protection. In particular, they tend to exhibit relationship-promoting memory biases regarding transgressions the partner has enacted in the past.”[vi]
If you’re having trouble trusting your spouse, you may just be trying to protect yourself. You know this isn’t working well for you, even though at a superficial level it makes sense to protect yourself.
Lack of Trust as a Core Relationship Belief
This may be the deepest level of trust issues that we’re discussing today.
In our very early experiences with our primary caregiver, usually our parents, there are ways that we come to see the world at a very fundamental level that are largely informed by how we are related to by our parents.
That, in turn, affects how we relate to our significant others as adults. This is called attachment theory.
If you learned in the early years of your life that the most important people in your world were not reliable, you will now naturally believe the same thing about your spouse even if the very opposite is true of your spouse.
Again, we’re talking about why you can’t trust your spouse in the context where you know your spouse is a trustworthy person but you are having trouble trusting him or her.
We all face this issue where we bring ways of seeing our significant other to the marriage that are more informed by the realities of our family of origin that the realities of our spouse.
This could be another source of a lack of trust that is present but not actually a result of anything your spouse has done.
How to Trust Again
So, how do you start trusting again?
That is a difficult question to answer in this context.
There are a few things we do know. One is that you have to watch for cycles and learn how to break out of them.
For example, if your lack of trust has created a level of suspicion in your marriage, your spouse may actually be concealing ordinary, legitimate things just to escape some of the burden of suspicion. If you perceive this, it increases your lack of trust. Can you see the cycle?
This cycle of self-concealment by your spouse, resulting in a lack of trust, is hard to break out of. One approach might be to actually take the initiative to acknowledge to your spouse how your behaviour is promoting this cycle and asking for his or her gentle engagement in working with you to step out of this cycle.[vii]
Another thing to note is that trusting behaviours come before feelings of trust. Another study actually showed this![viii] They asked 64 dating couples to allow their partner to dance with a stranger. If a person said yes, this was seen as a trusting behaviour. What they found was that when Partner A said yes, Partner B can dance, then feelings of trust were induced in Partner A.[ix]
What is fascinating is that the impact of this was greater than the impact of trustworthy behaviours by Partner B. You actually may infer more trust from your own actions toward your spouse than your spouse’s actions.
If you struggle with trust, rather than starting with trying to change how you feel, try changing how you act. Take baby steps to demonstrate trusting behaviours toward your spouse.
Finally, if you feel that the attachment issue most speaks to your situation, I would first recommend you to counselling. Find someone who can help you shift your attachment style to secure attachment.
Your spouse can actually help you with this too, but don’t put too much pressure on them to do this. You’ll want to really educate yourselves with regards to attachment and then learn how to create a healthy marriage relationship that disconfirms those early models of relating to important others in your life, and replaces them with healthy, functional models that keep you safe but also allow you to be more trusting.
[i] John S. Kim et al., “Ruining It for Both of Us: The Disruptive Role of Low-Trust Partners on Conflict Resolution in Romantic Relationships,” Social Cognition 33, no. 5 (October 2015): 520–42, doi:http://dx.doi.org/101521soco2015335520.
[iv] Laura B. Luchies et al., “Trust and Biased Memory of Transgressions in Romantic Relationships,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 104, no. 4 (April 2013): 673.
[vii] Ahmet Uysal, Helen Lee Lin, and Amber L. Bush, “The Reciprocal Cycle of Self-Concealment and Trust in Romantic Relationships,” European Journal of Social Psychology 42, no. 7 (December 2012): 844.
[viii] Ann Marie Zak et al., “Assessments of Trust in Intimate Relationships and the Self-Perception Process,” The Journal of Social Psychology 138, no. 2 (April 1998): 217–28.