Trust Busters: There are ample ways to mar and maim belief in someone’s regard for you. Trust marring can be as fleeting as overhearing a derisive comment about you, or as weighty as discovering romantic texts and hotel charges. Like the derma that covers our organs, we have muslin-like layers of protection covering our emotions; the tough outer layers wear away a few threads at a time through daily rubbing against minor disappointments. The deeper layers sear apart and tear when something sharp has been plunged into them. The question here is how to restore trust, the chafing kind and its searing and tearing cousin? Is it possible? Depends.
Owning and Empathy: O and E, the cornerstones of trust restoration. In the role of couples therapist I am privy to descriptions of hurt, disappointment and betrayal that flounder and go splat on the office floor, like a big oil slick, pooling in a puddle of nowhere. The partner who is describing these feelings is met by the partner who is hurling headlong into a giant defensive block. I think of the image of the knights weighed down by armor, with their long lancets propelling them forward; who can knock whom off the horse first. Without the prominence or power of the reigning monarch enthroned above the jousting arena, the couples therapist has the daunting task of proclaiming the battle stalemated and offering an alternative method to decide the winner. In therapeutic couple land, that would be The Coupledom, that third entity, the domicile in which the relationship resides, a wreath of eucalyptus placed on its entrance door.
The O Word: Human behavior reveals a consistent pattern of self protection that involves warding off any hint that we have hurt or betrayed a member of our species. Whether it be governmental leaders or spouses, hairdressers or taxi cab drivers, we all seem to sport a holster ladened with pistols that we draw and aim at anyone who suggests that we had a role in some unhappiness or encumbered them in some way. In couples relationships, where intimacy taps the deepest layers of personal protectiveness, being told that you caused pain to your partner unleashes intense maneuvers of self defense. This hampers what is needed most, owning your stuff.
In the Case of an Affair, outed and on the table, the “cheating party” is usually overcome with guilt (often subconscious and fought against) and its seeming counterpoint, justification, that simply taking responsibility for hurting the other is punctuated with so much “but” and “you” that more anger and hurt is triggered rather than its reverse, healing and forgiveness. True, this is a sticky matter. Recovery from an affair is a complex, multi- faceted process involving increasing understanding of what went awry and small steps of trust building and forgiveness. But at the heart of the process, if the person who wandered afar does not “own” that this was a decision they made and an act that they committed, nothing much good can happen. Of equal significance, and in a timely fashion, the partner who is betrayed, if this is an act within a relationship of decent folk, needs to consider and own components of the resident dissatisfaction in the relationship. They do not need to own the “choice” to go outside the relationship. But it behooves them, over time, to own their role in the “disconnect.” Without this piece, recovery is impossible.
Owning The Small Stuff: Where the majority of ownership needs to occur is over the details of daily living. The disappointments, the non follow through, the undelivered promises to call, to pick up, the over drinking, the flirting at a party, the neglect of a request over and over again. Insensitivity and not listening. Self absorption and competitiveness. This is the minutiae that can polarize a coupledom. In sexual matters, acknowledging that you are not adept at something, or something feels painful, that you do need the sex to discharge the tension. that you felt fat so avoided. Or angry. Or were playing a power game after feeling rejected , “you don’t want me, so I don’t want you”. Admit imperfection. Admit hurt and desire to retaliate. Admit that perhaps a remark was insulting, demeaning, and at its heart lay some anger or revenge. Spite or guilting. “Yes, I was nasty.” It happens. Normal stuff. Yes, you are right. I did drive real fast to get back at you for constantly nagging me. I am sorry that I scared you. Owning it! And most important, listening while the other tells you how it felt. And then you can come up with a compromise, nag less please, I’ll drive slower. Drink less please, I’ll nag less.
Empathy: Owning Opens the Gateway to Empathy. When we claim ownership for our behaviors, and set aside explanations and justifications, the moment for imagining how the behavior effected our partner emerges. Empathy. The cornerstone for trust building. If you get how you hurt me, then maybe I can begin to trust you again, maybe, over time. This is an act that requires dispensing with your “reality” and entering the reality of the other. A leap worth taking.
Intent: Here is the confusion. Often the partner’s intent was not to hurt the other so the accusation of hurtfulness triggers defensiveness. Clarification that the behavior was not designed to hurt, if this is true, may be important to the “perpetrator” but once said, needs to be set aside for the more important business of owning and empathy. If the intent was to hurt, then grappling with why is necessary business for self exploration and when the time is right, to communicate to the other. The hope is that “mutual understanding” provides a building block of trust as well. But timing is key here. Since few of us are true sadists, there is always a reason, even if it may be a misunderstanding, hurting back when hurt, family of origin issues or displacements from other relationships (bosses, siblings and old lovers) for why we hurt someone, anyone, especially the one with whom we bonded. But sharing that perspective, though crucial, should not supersede the impact of the hurt on your partner. That piece comes first. As one perceptive hubby said to me in a session, after his wife responded to his hurt, with her own, “her feelings trump mine”, undermining for the moment the possibility of a healing exchange.
The Pace of Renewed Trust: It is all process here, that much overused but irreplaceable term for going through this………human exchange. Not easy so if you need help, turn to the experts. After all, though we do not have the power of the Monarchy to decide the winner, we are on the side of The Coupledom, which makes us all comrades in the arena of relationship.
If you would like to read more on this subject, please take a moment to check out these posts: The Limber Coupledom: Yielding Postures, Flexible Positions; Tone, Look, Word (TLW); Sex In The Coupledom: A Powerful Absence
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2011
Kim Schneider says
Thank you for all of these wonderful posts, including your own stories! For the first time in a long time I feel like I’ve found someone who can help me, and hopefully help our relationship. After just a few minutes in our first session I felt comfortable and safe and really felt your were listening and understanding. I am really looking forward to future sessions! Among everything else I am learning first hand about respect vs protect with my own young adult kids, and found that blog useful as well.
Kim, Thank you for your generous comments. I am so pleased. I look forward to our work together as well.
Pondering lead me back here. Now I am pondering the role of empathy and mutual understanding in closeness. Or as kinds of closeness.
I added The Limber Coupledom to my reading list this morning…
Love your journey. You nailed it: empathy + mutual understanding = closeness.
So I’m thinking that mutual understanding and empathy are skills that develop along the way. Part of the process?
Absolutely part of the process. Rare do young people walk into marriage with all that intact. Takes age, wisdom and work.