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How to Build Trust in Relationships, According to an Expert    

How to Build Trust in Relationships, According to an Expert

Art by FISK

By Caroline Hatchett

What does real trust look like? Someone who has your back and your best interests at heart. It feels safe and honest. You can set boundaries and be your true self.

But establishing that level of trust isn’t always easy, especially when you’ve been hurt before or grew up in a family that couldn’t always meet your needs. “People bring previous issues into new relationships. They come in feeling fragile and vulnerable, which creates a certain dynamic as they try to manage their fear,” says Tory Eletto, a self-described “Imperfect Human / Relatable Therapist” who practices in New York.

Through vulnerable personal posts and helpful reminders, Eletto has built a community on Instagram, and in her own practice as a marriage and family therapist, she helps people improve their relationships with themselves and, in turn, with romantic partners, friends, and family. Trusting others, she says, is often tied to self-worth and how much we trust our own judgment. 

“When we go through something traumatic, if someone breaks our trust or we really couldn’t trust caregivers—whatever the case—it impairs our self trust. We doubt ourselves and don’t really know if we can trust our intuition,” says Eletto. 

We spoke with Eletto about how to build and repair trust, how to quiet relationship anxiety, how to recognize when something feels off—and how to trust yourself to navigate it all. 

How can you start to build self trust?

Self trust is a relationship with ourselves, the ability to feel connected to ourselves apart from other people’s opinions or family dynamics that don’t serve us—for instance, a codependent dynamic where we couldn’t figure out what we thought because we had to worry about someone else. It comes down to figuring out what we really value, as well as our boundaries and how to speak up for them. How do we trust our own intuition to follow a life that feels really good to us?

It starts with our ability to sit with ourselves and decipher what’s yours to heal and manage, and what’s yours to manage with a partner or family member. It’s finding that line. When you get clarity on that, you can work on self healing alongside what you’re doing in your relationships.

What’s a healthy way to approach building trust in new relationships?

Building real trust, especially if you’re starting a new relationship, happens slower than we want. I think we would love for it to happen immediately. It doesn’t mean you don’t start from a place where you’re curious and getting to know someone, but giving someone your full trust right off the bat usually doesn’t go well. It actually goes better when you slowly develop trust.

[Trust develops out of] small moments, when people are able to be vulnerable with each other. Let’s say you had a fight, or something weird happens, but you can come together and openly discuss it. That builds safety and trust you can repair. It can also happen in less intense ways, like you want to share something fun and someone looks up from their phone and gives you that attention. These are the moments when we realize, “Oh, this person is interested and cares about me and shows up in different ways.”

How does building trust vary in romantic, platonic, and familial relationships? 

Intimate relationships always impact us in a more intense way. We’re choosing who we’re going to partner up with so I think there’s a lot more vulnerability. But, in general, it comes down to transparency and being able to be yourself. It’s an energy you build with someone where you feel at ease, even in a work environment. Think about times where you feel like you’re holding yourself back from speaking up on a work assignment because you’re fearful. But when you have a sense of acceptance in an environment, it really allows you to flourish.

When someone lets you down, how do you start to rebuild trust?

First, you have to work through the trauma of what happened. You have to go through that and build trust afterwards. I like to describe trust like a pencil jar; each pencil or pen in the jar is something that allows you to trust and feel safe with someone. And when you’re feeling a little less trustful, like when someone’s words and actions don’t match, you take out a pen. Then when something big happens, the whole jar goes empty. From there you have to figure out what it would take to put a pen back in and start building again. What people tend to say is transparency and honesty – what you’re saying is what you’re doing. Another one is presence and attunement. That comes with being able to communicate, [and someone] listening and being present. When we clarify what these “pens” are for people, we start to help them slowly build back their trust.

How can you start to repair broken family trust? 

A lot of it is tied to self-worth. When we’re kids, we don’t see past ourselves. So when our parents can’t meet us in certain ways, we start to doubt ourselves. As we become adults, and we start to see these things differently, there’s a really important healing process. I call it grieving—grieving the parts of our parents that they can’t give us. Grieving allows us to accept, and acceptance helps us move forward and decide: Well, what does this mean? Can I have a limited relationship? Do I cut them off? Is it too toxic? How do I reclaim my worth that they couldn’t recognize because they struggle with that themselves? 

It’s grieving not only the dynamic you had with a parent but also how that affected you and your relationship. There’s always that craving for your parents to see you and accept and love you. When they can’t give that to you, it’s so important to see that as an extension of their relationship to themselves, so that we can work on reclaiming our worth and bringing that into our other relationships. 

If your default mode is untrusting, what steps can you take at the beginning of a relationship to overcome that impulse?

You want to be able to be transparent about what’s happening for you. Say you’re starting to date someone and they want to go out with their friends. All of the sudden you’re filled with anxiety because you’re scared. Being able to talk about it is important, so the person you’re with knows what’s happening and you own this thing that you’re working on. I also like to teach self-soothing techniques. I often suggest writing. So let’s say the person is going out and you’re filled with anxiety. Instead of texting them and trying to control the situation, you sit with yourself and figure out what’s going on for you, what’s happening in your body, what’s going on in your mind. Usually, that exercise will lead you to areas of healing that you might need to pay more attention to.

But not everyone is trustworthy, right?

When someone is doing something shady, I think our intuition tends to go a little crazy, and that’s when it gets tricky. How do we know if it’s anxiety or intuition? I always describe intuition like a ping, it starts with a little feeling that something is off. Anxiety is this overwhelming sensation, and it has a lot of story and narrative to it [that’s not always true]. So when we have that ping, I work on people learning how to trust that—but not necessarily the stories [they tell from it] because you can get a ping and then assume, “Oh, they’re cheating on me.” But what that ping tells you is that something is off, so you have to decide what to do about that? Do you want to bring it up? Do you want to just observe for a bit? You get to decide how you want to deal with the situation to figure out if this is a person you can actually trust.

How does the digital world impact trust in relationships?

It adds so many more layers. You can find out more, which is generally harder. Sometimes when people feel vulnerable and fearful, they become an investigator of sorts and go digging to find out who someone is liking or following—whatever information they think will ease the anxiety of a vulnerable situation. But that can become problematic because we’re not letting a relationship unfold, we’re seeking information. A lot of people go into that mode with social media and even with dating apps. People make up fake profiles and go to really big efforts to see if people are faithful. The opportunity is there, and I think it’s an attempt to feel safe even if it never really leads to that.

What do you recommend for people tempted to go into investigator mode?

Telling them to resist it is obviously way easier said than done. Find out what’s prompting you to do it instead. Are you unsure of the person and wanting to explore that and figure that out? Or are you feeling insecure, and trying to feel secure by getting information online? I never put pressure on people to do or not do things, but it’s important to know why we’re doing them, what they lead to, and how we can work to build real trust. You want to really rely on yourself and your communication. I think that always leads us to a more honest place than investigating someone for two hours.

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