Professor of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences
Professor of Management & Organizations
Kellogg School of Management / Relationships in Psychology

Eli Finkel is a Professor of Management and Organizations at Kellogg School of Management, with a joint appointment in Psychology. He earned his BA from Northwestern and his PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been published in 120+ scholarly papers in leading outlets, and has published Op-Ed pieces in the New York Times and feature articles in Scientific American. His research interests center around three key elements of trust in a romantic relationship: predictability, dependability and faith. He examines how redemption is realized subsequent to a trust breach throughout various stages, from the initial apology to the way the breach is recalled years later.

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Videos by Eli Finkel

The Most Important Ingredient in a Healthy Relationship: A Psychologist’s Perspective

Foundations
Contributor / Eli Finkel
Eli Finkel Relationships Vulnerability,Reciprocity,Distrust Sometimes when we think about trust, we think about whether we’d be willing to loan 20 dollars to a friend.

When relationships researchers think about trust, we think about much higher stakes than that. We think about contexts in which our emotional well-being is fundamentally dependent upon the behavior of another person.

So, what is a close relationship? Well, Hal Kelley and his colleagues have defined the close relationship as “one characterized by strong, frequent, and diverse interdependence that lasts over a considerable period of time.”

And it turns out that if you want to predict whether people have meaningful, happy lives, the single most important factor tends to be the quality of our close relationships.

The problem is that sustaining high-quality close relationships is difficult. In particular, it requires that we’re willing to make ourselves be vulnerable to somebody who could really hurt us.

Trust is arguably the most important ingredient in a healthy close relationship—it’s the ingredient that allows us to prioritize the well-being of the relationship over the protection of the self.

When relationships researchers study trust, we tend to be especially interested in cases where the stakes are especially high—cases where, for example, we’re looking to the same person to meet the large majority of our psychological needs, our emotional needs, our monetary needs, even our co-parenting needs.

It’s scary to be vulnerable in close relationships, so early on, we tend to calibrate our level of vulnerability to our partner’s actual behavior.

Eventually, if we can establish high trust, we stop monitoring our partner’s behavior because we’re confident that he or she is willing to make sacrifices and take care of us when we need it.

2 Indicators That You Can Develop Strong Trust in a Relationship

Close relationships researchers tend to emphasize two factors in determining whether we’ll develop strong trust over time: the first is how our partner behaves in diagnostic situations, and the second is the extent to which we feel that we are worthy of being loved.

Let’s talk first about diagnostic situations. Ironically, it’s hard to develop trust in a partner unless our interests diverge from one another.

If our interests always align, we can’t know whether our partner’s nice treatment toward us results from the partner’s own preferences for him or herself versus a willingness to make sacrifices to benefit us—that is, we can’t know whether our partner’s behavior is an indicator of his or her trustworthiness.

When our interests diverge, we can witness our partner make sacrifices for us, which is indeed the central ingredient that we need in order to develop strong levels of trust.

Situations in which our interests diverge are called “diagnostic situations” because they allow us to diagnose the extent to which we can trust our partner.

A second factor that’s crucial in determining whether we can develop strong trust over time involves our trait level of insecurity.

For example, people who have relatively low self-esteem tend to feel unlovable, and consequently, they have a hard time coming to believe that their partner actually loves them.

This skepticism causes them to misperceive rejection when it’s not intended and to dismiss their partner’s expressions of affection, ultimately undermining the quality of the relationship.

Major theories of close relationships, including John Bowlby’s attachment theory, suggest that our tendencies to trust other people derives in large part from how responsive our caregivers were when we were children.

Those of us fortunate enough to have responsive caregivers develop an understanding about the world that we are loveable and that other people are reliable, and therefore, we find it easier to trust people throughout our lifetimes.

Arthur Schopenhauer considers the case of porcupines who wish to huddle together to remain warm but are concerned about getting too close because they could be stabbed by one another’s quills.

This is an excellent parable for intimacy in relationships: We can keep our distance to make sure that we’re not vulnerable to pain, but it’s pretty cold when we’re out there on our own. Or we can draw close in order to keep warm, but it’s pretty scary when we’re vulnerable.

Trust, if we can develop it, helps us resolve this porcupine dilemma by allowing us to enjoy the warmth of closeness while avoiding the perils of vulnerability.

How We Understand Trust in Romantic Relationships: Key Findings

Research
Contributor / Eli Finkel
Eli Finkel Relationships Trust Formation,Definitions,Breaches If we’re focusing on the modern relationship signs of trust, the best place to start is probably with John Bowlby’s seminal monograph on attachment theory.

In this monograph, published in 1969, Bowlby observes that when we’re infants, we are extremely dependent on our caregivers for sensitive support.

If our parents provide us with sensitive support, we tend to conclude that we ourselves are worthy of love and that our significant others can be trusted. If we’re not treated with sensitive support, we draw just the opposite conclusions.

To an extent, we carry these lessons with us throughout the rest of our lives.

Three Dimensions of Trust in Romantic Relationships

The first major theoretical and empirical piece laying out the framework for understanding trust in romantic relationships was Rempel, Holmes, and Zanna’s 1985 paper.

Rempel and colleagues argued that there are three dimensions underlying trust, and they built a self-report instrument to assess each of these three dimensions.

The first dimension is predictability, and they assess it with items like “I am familiar with the patterns of behavior my partner has established, and I can rely on him or her to behave in certain ways.”

The second dimension is dependability, which they assess with items like “I can count on my partner to be concerned about my welfare.”

The third dimension is faith, which they assess with items like “Though times may change and the future is uncertain, I know my partner will always be ready and willing to offer me strength and support.”

The reason why faith is so crucial is that we can never know what situations we’re going to face—whether our partner might encounter some temptation or whether circumstances might get difficult financially and so forth.

And so, it’s really when we have faith in the partner that we’re willing to take this flying leap and make ourselves vulnerable despite all of that uncertainty about the future.

Importance of Diagnostic Situations

Four years later, John Holmes and John Rempel published another piece, a chapter that really served as the first major theory of trust in romantic relationships.

Perhaps the most important thing that it did was it introduced the idea of the diagnostic situation.

If we watch our partner behave nicely to us in a way that happens to be what he or she would like to do anyway, it’s not diagnostic about whether we can trust our partner, whether he’s behaving in a way that warrants us developing faith in him or her.

It’s really when we see situations where the partner is willing to make a sacrifice for us that we can then conclude that we are safe depending upon our partner, that we in fact trust our partner.

Whitewashing the Past Enhances Trust

One of the major ways in which our level of trust in our partner influences our lives is that it biases our memories in ways that benefit our relationship.

In a project that we spearheaded here at Northwestern, we were interested in how trust can bias people’s memories of actual relationship events.

Building on the idea that trust is ultimately a leap of faith, a determination that we can rely on our partner in the future, we explored the idea that trust makes us misremember our partner’s transgressions in a way that makes them seem more benign than they really were.

We conducted four longitudinal studies where we had people record in real time each instance in which their partner did something that hurt or offended them.

What this method allowed us to do is to compare the extent to which they felt hurt and angry at the time with their memory two weeks, four weeks, eight weeks later about how much they thought they were hurt at the time.

What was interesting in these results is that the extent to which we trust our partner predicts our misremembering of the past in a way that makes us more fulfilled in our relationship.

"To be clear, this isn’t forgiveness in the sense that you say, “Well, I’m not as upset as I used to be”; this is a whitewashing of the past. You are in fact misremembering your own personal experience about how you felt at the time of the event.

And it is precisely this whitewashing that helps trust make our relationship as strong as possible.