My friend no longer remembers how or when the table leg broke, she just knows that it has been months since it happened. This means that is has been months since her husband said he would fix it. And every time she tries to remind him about it, she hears the echoes of thousand soap-opera- wives nagging their husbands to fix things. She could fix the leg herself, she is fully capable, but it is a matter of principle now, so she refuses. It is currently stacked up on Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (my heart bleeds), which seems as good a solution as any. Apart from, you know, fixing it. During a recent argument about who-can-remember-what, she yelled out something along the lines of: “You are asking me to trust you, but you have been saying you are going to fix that table leg for HOW long now?” “You think I am untrustworthy because of a table?” he yelled back. “You would think I cheated on you or something!” “Wait, I didn’t say anything about cheating, ” she said. [This could turn into another screenplay I think!]
I have been thinking a lot about that exchange lately, and what it says about how trust is built and understood in relationships. Not just romantic ones, but friendships, familial relationships, and professional ones, too. What do we really need in order to trust someone?
I read Gary Chapman’s 1995 bestseller “The Five Love Languages” many years ago. When this book got published, the concept of love language has gone mainstream and found its way into countless shows and discussions. The idea that questions like “Have you eaten?” or comments like “Don’t forget your umbrella!” can be accurately translated as “I love you” has historically seemed too obvious to me to merit further analysis, but I had not thought much about applying the love language concept to trust. Fixing the table leg would have fallen under Chapman’s “Acts of Service” category for ways of expressing love, I guess.
Categories? Chapman suggests five love languages in his theory: Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Receiving Gifts, Quality Time, and Physical Touch. (You can take the quiz here!) I read the book so I would say my friend’s husband would be Words of Affirmation and Quality Time, whereas hers would be Acts of Service. But does it work to apply them this way? I am rather skeptical when it comes to those “quizzes” even though they seem interesting. And are acts of service necessary to build trust? Did my friend really not trust her husband because he hadn’t fixed the table?
Short answer: Yeah, kinda. But to say “I don’t trust my husband” – or even to think it – feels wrong. To me, lack of trust is a marriage-ender or at least a serious warning sign. To me, love cannot exist without trust! However, if you asked me to make a list of people I love, it would be much longer than the list of people I trust. Love can happen unintentionally, but can trust? Not so much. Almost everyone I know has had some sort of a table-leg or cashmere sweater fight. But haven’t we made a lot of progress in our understanding of love and hasn’t Erich Fromm showed us The Art of Loving? The Disney-version of a magical force that rewards perfect beings with perfect partners and terminally happy endings leaves its fingerprints on all of us. But we have to acknowledge that love is hard and not a state of grace to be achieved and forever enjoyed if we don’t do something for and about it. So, here is another question: If we can acknowledge that love is a verb and something that we can choose to cultivate or neglect, then why shouldn’t the same be possible for trust?
If you ever had a relationship of any length, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that the fight about the table leg was not actually about the table leg. If you didn’t, let me enlighten you so you will learn for life. It is the fight about the object or obligation that has become so fraught with emotional baggage that it no longer makes logical sense and needs some work in order for the real issue to be revealed. Applying this knowledge to my friend’s “table- leg-situation”, the fight was not about cheating but because she told him the neglected table leg eroded her trust in him, and if the trust was the issue, then his fidelity must be in question. She hasn’t questioned his loyalty, she just wanted him to do the thing he said he was going to do. Clearly, they weren’t speaking the same language, but at least they knew they were both talking about trust.
With all this in mind, I did some reading, mindfulness, and meditation to find solutions that I can apply to my life. People, of course, have their own definitions of everything, including trust. Culture and how we are raised are a big part of how we understand trust, as well as individual understandings, the society around us, and personal values all play into our personal definitions. From my experience, to build more trust in relationships, self-knowledge is a necessary step. By looking at past relationships I can see a pattern. Usually, all my relationships started to deteriorate when someone lied or tried to hide things (like the cellphone is epoxied to the partner and he constantly writes with others but makes a secret out of it).
Of course, my experience is not the only one that matters. Neither is my definition of things and situations. It is important to figure out what the other person needs to build trust, and is willing to invest in the relationship. I also realize I have to do a lot more work in fully trusting again. But I know someone who is worth it.