The key to building trust in relationships is for both people to make their expectations clear and then commit to meeting those expectations.

When we look back on our early romance, we note how quick we were to trust each other, even recklessly so. We dived into the relationship with ready abandon and little thought for the risks of rejection or disappointment.

Since then, our trust levels have strengthened in many areas – and declined in others – as we’ve experienced ups and downs in our relationship.

It leads us to ponder: what builds trust between couples? Or, more importantly, what breaks it?

Explicit and Implicit Expectations

One interesting idea is the role of expectations. Married couples bring all sorts of expectations to their marriage. Some of these are reasonable and legitimate. Some are even explicitly vowed at the wedding, such as sexual fidelity and wealth sharing.

These explicit expectations are generally well understood by couples, who willingly make promises to fulfil them. When these promises are broken, there is a devastating breach of trust.

However, most expectations are implicit. They are never explicitly expressed nor promised. A good example is the expectation that our spouse will listen to us.

We assume that when we promise to ‘love and honour’ each other, it includes listening, kindness, care and support. But these acts are not explicitly defined, which means they are open to interpretation. What one of us thinks is reasonable, the other may feel is inadequate – or conversely, excessive.

For example, Francine often processes her thoughts verbally. She likes being able to talk through issues with a listening, non-judgemental ear.

For Byron, being expected to listen without a purpose or helping to move towards a conclusion is frustrating. He feels disrespected when she rejects his input. Meanwhile, Francine feels unloved when he avoids conversations out of frustration.

Both are Right and Both are Wrong

What seems simple in practice can be pretty complicated. This is especially so when a couple’s expectations of each other are implicit, poorly defined and changing over time.

Such interactions erode our trust. We can interpret our spouse as unreliable, selfish or uncaring. The other sees the expectant spouse as demanding, unreasonable and judgemental.

It’s the perfect breeding ground for trouble, whether it manifests as arguments or sullen withdrawal. Both are right, and both are wrong in these situations.

Two people are right to have expectations of each other. Still, they are wrong to assume the other automatically knows how this translates. A married couple is correct in interpreting ‘love and honour’ to mean the other will meet their needs. But they are wrong to assume that the other interprets it the same way.

Communication is the Key

One obvious way to address this destructive dynamic is to make as many of our implicit expectations explicit. But we must do so without being demanding. How can we do this effectively?

We need to understand ourselves and the other person. Exploring our different perspectives and motivations is vital.

Byron is happy to be a ‘non-judgemental listening ear’ to Francine, but he needs her to be explicit that this is what she is seeking. Instead of blaming Byron for not listening, Francine needs to own that she sometimes isn’t clear about what she wants from him when she begins a complex conversation.

For his part, Byron needs to remember that listening to Francine is a powerful way to communicate his care for her. He can help by seeking clarification when he’s unsure of what she needs.

Over time, we can learn from these patterns, especially if we help each other understand them.

Our trust deepens as we get better at establishing this rhythm of need, outreach, response, and support. We learn to anticipate each other’s needs, recognise the cues, and adjust our response to what we understand will be supportive.

Originally published at Image by Giang Vu at Unsplash.

About the Author: Byron and Francine Pirola

Married for 25 years, with 5 children, Byron & Francine Pirola are the founders and co-authors of the SmartLoving Series – marriage enrichment and marriage preparation courses designed to help build successful and resilient marriages. International speakers and authors of numerous articles on marriage, more than 3000 couples have attended their programs, workshops and conferences in Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain Byron & Francine are Executive Directors of the Marriage Resource Centre from which they run SmartLoving programs and produce digital resources. Francine graduated from Fordham University with a Masters in Religion and Religious Education. Byron is a founding partner of the strategic consulting firm, Port Jackson Partners Limited, and a Director of both listed and unlisted companies. He holds a PhD from the Commonwealth Centre for Gene Technology, Adelaide University.

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