The Impact Of Trust In Established Relationships
Trust is a dynamic process. Even after a solid foundation of trust has been established, feelings of confidence continue to respond to changes and transitions in the relationship. Just as trust has been built up, it can also wear down. The impact that different levels of trust have on the nature of a close relationship has only recently become the subject of study, and much still remains to be learned. However, from the evidence that already exists, it is clear that the relationships of people with higher levels of trust are categorically different from relationships where trust levels are lower. In an important set of longitudinal studies of commitment and trust, Jennifer Wieselquist and her colleagues (1999) have provided evidence that changes in trust are related to the perception of a partner's positive actions. Individuals come to trust their partners when they are committed to them and when they perceive that their partners have acted in positive ways. Additionally, it has been shown that changes in trust must ultimately reflect changes in attributions to the partner's motives (Miller and Rempel 2000). People must not only notice their partner's behavior, they must interpret it differently from how they have in the past. In this respect, trust can act as a "filter" through which new events and experiences are interpreted.
The beliefs of high-trust people are anchored both by positive conclusions about their partner's motives drawn from past evidence and by faith in what the future holds. They expect their partner to act in ways that are motivated by a desire to improve the relationship. Even when faced with events that could potentially challenge their convictions, such as a conflict or disagreement, people in high-trust relationships are unlikely to call their partner's motives into question. Rather, as much as possible, negative events are seen as less significant when compared against the large accumulation of positive experiences. Negative incidents are likely to be explained in less harmful ways, treated as isolated events, or understood to reflect an unfortunate, but less significant component of the relationship. This is not to say that trusting people are unaware of or naïvely ignore the negative events that occur in their relationship. However, unless an incident truly merits suspicion, they tend to place some limits on the negative implications the event could have for their relationship. Thus, a high-trust relationship is one in which partners share openly with each other and give each other the benefit of the doubt.
For many couples, a trusting relationship remains an elusive goal. For some, past experiences with parents or former partners have left them unable to completely set their doubts aside and confidently relinquish control to an intimate partner. Others, who started out with high levels of trust, may have run out of convincing charitable explanations for their partner's negative behaviors. Worn down from the accumulated weight of evidence, they increasingly entertain doubts and concerns about their partner's caring motives.
Whatever the cause, people in medium-trust relationships are uncertain about their partner's intentions and they are alert for signs that indicate further risk. They still have hope for their relationship and they may long to achieve the elusive sense of security. Yet, ironically, despite a desire for positive convictions, people in medium-trust relationships appear to place greater emphasis on negative events in their relationship. Recent studies have shown that medium-trust couples are more likely than high- or low-trust couples to use manipulative and coercive power tactics during a conflict interaction (Rempel, Hiller, and Cocivera 2000). Thus, it seems that medium-trust individuals are hesitant to dismiss warning signs that signal the potential for disappointment. In order to avoid making unwarranted positive attributions for their partner's behavior, and running the greater risk of having their hopes undermined, these individuals protect themselves with a risk-avoidant strategy that leads them to adopt more stringent criteria before inferring positive motives for their partner's positive behaviors (Holmes and Rempel 1989). Thus, medium-trust couples may, paradoxically, overemphasize the diagnostic importance of negative events and underestimate the importance of events that could advance their hopes.
As feelings of confidence continue to diminish, people arrive at the point where they no longer expect the events in their relationship to reflect motives of concern and caring. Instead, they are more likely to expect indifference, or even hostility. Low-trust people cannot, with any confidence, embrace residual hopes that their partner is concerned about them or the relationship. Thus, they are likely to confront positive incidents with skepticism, discounting the encouraging implications such events might have for the future of their relationship. Negative events, on the other hand, serve to confirm the belief that confidence in the partner is not warranted—they represent one more piece of data in support of the conclusion that the partner no longer cares.
The sad irony is that, once trust has been betrayed, it may be doubly difficult to restore. Lurking close to the surface of most low-trust relationships is a history of broken promises, unmet expectations, and emotional disappointments. Even if the offending partner "turns over a new leaf" and begins to work at the relationship, it is all too easy for these positive events to be explained away. The reluctance of low-trust individuals to accept their partner's positive behaviors is understandable—they have taken risks and lost. To protect themselves from the danger of drawing unwarranted positive conclusions and to minimize the pain of involvement with an unconcerned partner, low-trust people may attempt to reduce emotional investment in their relationship. Indeed, recent studies indicate that low-trust couples act in ways that minimize the potential for conflict (Rempel, Hiller, and Cocivera 2000). Thus, at least when the issues do not demand a confrontation, the interactions of low-trust couples appear to be characterized by indifference and emotional distance. In such a climate, the potential for rebuilding a trusting relationship represents a daunting prospect.
The scenario is not hopeless, of course, but no one should underestimate the difficulty of rebuilding trust once it has been betrayed. For trust to grow after it has been violated people must resist the natural tendency to jump to harsh conclusions about their partner's motives and character in new situations. Furthermore, people must allow their partner the leeway for occasional unintended missteps. The offending partner, in turn, must make a profound effort to live up to his or her promises of change in ways that clearly signal to the offended partner that these risks are worth taking. To be able to trust, people must take the risk of trusting. By giving their partner a second chance to renew trust in the relationship people risk being wrong, but if they do not try they can never be right.