How We Understand Trust in Romantic Relationships: Key Findings

Research

Contributor / Eli Finkel

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

A breach of trust within a romantic relationship–something that once left you feeling hurt and upset–can be a lot easier to recover from precisely because of the trust that was there in the first place. Finkel discusses how these three dimensions of trust--predictability, dependability and faith--are what allow us to have confidence in our partner in the future, while seemingly minimizing the mistakes they made in the past.

Transcript

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.

Keep up with the latest insights on trust

Related Videos

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.
The philosophy of trust explains why we choose to rely upon others.

The Philosophy of Trust: Key Findings

Research
Contributor / Sanford Goldberg
Sanford Goldberg Philosophy Breaches,Definitions,Government,Reputation Management,Social Psychology Philosophers are very interested in the nature of trust. And, in this brief segment, what I’d like to do is try to give a taxonomy of the variety of positions that philosophers have taken on that nature.

In order to do so, I’m going to make one simplifying assumption, which itself is not uncontroversial but is widely shared, which is the assumption that trust is a kind of reliance: to trust someone is to rely on them in a certain kind of way.

And the question that philosophers ask is, what is the type of reliance that constitutes trust?

So, let’s think about trust as follows: to trust someone to do something is to rely on them to do it and to do so out of a certain attitude towards the proposition that they will do it for the right reasons.

If you think of that as the basic nature of trust, the philosophical questions are two: What is the right attitude? And what are the right reasons? And you can think of philosophical disputes about the nature of trust as disputes along one of those two dimensions.

Let’s begin by focusing first on the attitude question. If to trust someone is to rely on them out of an attitude that you take towards the proposition that they’ll do what you trust them to do for the right reasons, the question is, what is the attitude that you have towards the proposition that they’ll do it for the right reasons?

This view derives from a paper by Diego Gambetta entitled “Can We Trust Trust?” And according to Gambetta, we believe that people will do things for the right reasons, and it’s that belief that underwrites our reliance on them.

I call this the “belief view.” This view came under scrutiny among philosophers in a very influential 1986 paper by Annette Baier entitled “Trust and Antitrust.”

She disagreed with the belief view and thought that the attitude central to trust couldn’t be just believing that the person will do what she’s trusted to do for the right reasons.

The problem with the belief view, according to Baier, was two-fold: first, it failed to distinguish trust from mere reliance, and secondly (and perhaps more importantly), it failed to make sense of the idea that when you trust someone and your trust is violated, you feel a sense of betrayal rather than mere disappointment.

And, in fact, that thought that the violation of trust occasions a sense of betrayal, not mere disappointment, has led many philosophers, after Baier, to think that the belief view is false.

A second view, again concerning the attitude that’s central to trust, is what I would call the “affective attitude view.” This view is owed to a philosopher by the name Karen Jones, who wrote a paper entitled “Trust as Affective Attitude.”

And what she wanted to try to capture was the idea that there is an emotional flavor to trusting. So, her thought was that the attitude central to trust wasn’t mere belief but was something like a felt optimism towards the proposition that the person will do what she’s trusted to do for the right reasons.

That view too has come under some scrutiny. And an objection derives from a 1960 paper by the philosopher Horsburgh entitled “The Ethics of Trust,” suggesting that there are cases in which we trust even though we feel no optimism about the likelihood that the person will do as we’re trusting her to do.

The sort of trust that Horsburgh talked about was what he called “therapeutic trust.” These are cases in which you trust someone not because you’re optimistic that they’ll do as you trust them to do but because you’re hoping that they will recognize that you’re trusting them to do this and that itself will get them to do as you trust them to do.

This sort of therapeutic trust doesn’t conform to the attitude that the affective account lays down. Nevertheless, many philosophers continue to think that there is an affective attitude towards trust, and some have suggested that the best way to think about therapeutic trust, cases where it seems as though there’s no such attitude, are as exceptions to a more general rule.

Cases of the therapeutic trust kind have become interesting to philosophers for another reason, explored at length in Phillip Pettit’s 1996 paper, “The Cunning of Trust.”

Pettit argued that in these kinds of cases, where you trust someone in the hope that their recognition of being trusted will actually make them trustworthy, both gives them a reason to be trustworthy and gives you a reason to believe them — to believe that they’re trustworthy.

So, these kinds of cases have become interesting in their own right.

In reaction to these kinds of cases and in defense of the affective attitude view, two recent papers have suggested that the attitude of optimism is in fact appropriate in all cases of trust that aren’t of the sort that we call therapeutic trust.

For example, Karen Jones in a recent paper entitled “Trust and Terror” and Victoria McGeer in a paper entitled “Trust, Hope and Empowerment” have argued that in all cases of trust that aren’t therapeutic trust, this sort of optimism is in fact appropriate.

A third view about the relevant sort of attitude that constitutes trust is owed to Richard Holton in a paper entitled “Deciding to Trust.” He calls this view the “participant stance view”: to trust someone is to take a participant stance towards them.

The attitude that you have towards the proposition that they’ll do what you trust them to do for the right reason is the attitude of expecting them to do so, with the disposition to feel a sense of betrayal if they don’t.

That view, however, appears to assume one of the things that we would like our theory to explain — namely, why it is that a sense of betrayal is appropriate when one’s trust is violated.

This brings us to the fourth view about the sort of attitude that constitutes trust, a view that’s known as the “normative expectation view.”

To trust someone is to normatively expect them to do what you trust them to do for the right reasons, where to normatively trust someone is to impose a standard on them where you regard them as being such that they ought to do it.

This view, which might be seen as a special case of either the belief view or the participant stance view, has been developed in Walker’s recent book entitled Moral Repair.

Two excellent resources for philosophical approaches to trust are Carolyn McLeod’s entry trust in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Judith Simon’s entry trust in the Oxford Bibliographies online.

I, myself, have relied heavily in this presentation on those two resources.
A breach in trust can destroy your work relationships.

Trust Breaches: Timing and Recovery

Applications
Contributor / J. Keith Murnighan
J. Keith Murnighan Management Breaches,Reputation Management,Social Psychology,Vulnerability We were interested in the long-term development of a relationship. And I’m an old fan of Hollywood movies, in particular, romantic comedies. So, Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant and His Girl Friday and a bunch of these movies.

When you watch them, it’s very easy to see that when there’s discord between the two stars early on, romance later is going to be supreme and fantastic.

One of the theories that we had was that if things are bad early, they may have a higher potential later on. Now, there’s an alternative way to think about it, of course — if things are bad early, they just don’t have a chance and they don’t go anywhere.

So, we actually tried to test the two, and we had interactions between people where there was a trust breach early or a trust breach after many cooperative choices.

And it turned out that the early trust breaches were devastating and led to less future cooperation, less trust.

When we saw breaches late, we thought that this might really, really damage things. It does immediately; it’s a shock when somebody breaches trust.

But our guess — and all we have is a guess at this point because we haven’t studied it enough — is that when someone breaches trust, they exhibit strength. And what happens with strength is we do respect it.

And when someone is trustworthy and strong — i.e., someone who’s trustworthy who doesn’t have to be — we tend to trust them more.

BUMPER: Overcoming a Breach in Trust

One of the things that should happen any time trust is broken is you should pursue and try and find out what happened, simply asking questions, because it can be the result of miscommunication, misunderstandings, a variety of things that are simple explanations that have nothing to do with a person’s trustworthiness.

However, if it was intentional, it tells you a lot about the person. And in business situations, what we find when there’s a serious trust breach, trust is gone, when it really comes to the crunch.

You might work with the other person; you might cooperate with them; you might have a beneficial relationship. But if you have to really trust them, it’s unlikely to happen.

BUMPER: Using the Rational Model to Decide Whom to Trust

The rational model suggests what rational people will do to benefit the most themselves. However, we’re not all completely rational, and we actually use very subtle cues and a lot of information to determine whether someone is trustworthy.

So, if you hire a lawyer, hopefully you’ve done some homework and you found out about that lawyer’s reputation, and that allows the trust process to develop more quickly.

Any time you trust someone, you’re vulnerable. You take the first step in whatever it is — sharing a secret, providing some information about a work project, or loaning money or a car. Any time you trust someone, you’re vulnerable.

The question is, how vulnerable do you want to make yourself?

The model tells you to be very cautious. And if you continuously get positive information, trust can continue to grow — again, to a limit.

At some point, things will level off because you don’t want to trust one person too much. It’s the old saying, “Too many eggs in one basket,” for instance.

In business situations, it truly pays to have many people you can trust a moderate to high amount and nobody you have to depend upon too much.

BUMPER: How Much Vulnerability? It Depends

How much do I actually want to loan my best friend? I’d be happy to loan him 5,000 dollars, 10,000 dollars. But when it starts to hurt me, can hurt me badly, do I really want to loan them 100,000 dollars? That would be tough.

In my classes, I often ask people, “Would you loan me 10 dollars?” And if they say yes, I say, “Would you loan me 20? Would you loan me 100?” There’s always a limit.

One time, I did ask someone if they’d loan me 10, and they said, “No.” I said, “How about 5?” They said, “No.” I said, “How about 2?” They said, “No.” I said, “How about 1?” They said, “Maybe.” That was a very cautious person.

Most of us are willing, with people we know, to take some risks. But there’s always a limit.

Other pages in Videos:

Pages in The Trust Project at Northwestern University