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The One Essential Ingredient for a Happy Relationship

  • Research highlights the importance of trust as a foundation for couples

Key points

  • Research suggests that building a successful relationship requires first establishing trust.
  • When trust is shaky in a relationship, partners are uncertain and on constant alert.
  • A betrayal of trust, whether real or perceived, can cause damaging negative reactions.
  • When trust is present, partners feel safe and are more likely to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

John Gottman is a researcher who looks more like a kindly grandfather than a rock star, but scholars swoon and doctoral students ask him to sign their dissertations when he wanders by. For over 50 years he has observed and coded couple interactions. Much of this has been done in his “love lab,” which is an apartment at the University of Washington where couples live while being observed, measured, and monitored. He has described the most minute interactions of couples, learning what helps them succeed or fail. After decades of poring through data and squinting at statistics, what has he found? That most of the crucial accomplishments in a successful relationship “have to do with establishing trust.” Trust is at the heart of a healthy partnership, and nurturing it and repairing it when it gets damaged is a must. Stephen Covey agrees: “Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.” Many studies back this up. Trust is one of the most sought-after traits in a partner, and most relationships will not progress without it.

In one of my projects, we asked low-income urban women about their attitudes towards marriage. These women valued many things, but trust and faithfulness were at the top. Ironically, this prevented many of them from getting married because they had bad experiences getting hurt in the past. One had what she called a “baseball policy”: Three strikes, you’re out. Trust is highly valued, because if you aren’t sure whether your partner will hurt or abandon you, then your brain is literally on high alert all the time. This is a tense and miserable way to live.

Trust and Security

Sue Johnson researches couples and change, and argues that the need for safe connection is wired into our biology. Babies’ lives literally depend on having a responsive caregiver that will meet their needs, and as people grow up, they still want someone to be there, respond to their signals, and show them they are important. Johnson suggests this is why people react in dramatic ways when their lover lets them down. A betrayal feels like a blade, cutting ties of security. People panic when they feel abandoned, and this is particularly true for those who have been badly hurt. For many, growing trust takes time and responsiveness. When emotions go off like alarms, it is time to reassure, not back away. If your partner becomes agitated, resist the temptation to flee or fight back. Instead, try to stay calm and empathetic; this will help solidify trust.

A secure relationship has less stress than one without trust. As Gottman says, partners who trust each other can operate with incomplete information. Spouses who have each other’s back are as content as well-loved children, secure in the cocoon of a relationship that isn’t going to disappear or cause deliberate pain. There may be fights or hurt feelings, but energy is not drained by worry and suspicion. There is an old saying that it is better to be trusted than to be loved. Even when people don’t feel in love, they need to know their relationship is safe and honest.

Adapted from Love Me True: Overcoming the Surprising Ways We Deceive in Relationships.

First published in Psychology Today

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