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

Foundations

Contributor / Eli Finkel

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

Being vulnerable in a relationship today involves the hope that many different kinds of needs will be met by just one person, and that is no small display of trust. That trust becomes even more meaningful when interests diverge in a relationship, and there is opportunity to see if the person you’re trusting is willing to look out for your best interest even at the expense of their own. With a poignant analogy, Finkel emphasizes how developing trust in the right person can resolve the dilemma between falling prey to vulnerability and being isolated.

Transcript

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.

Keep up with the latest insights on trust

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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.
The mall is a good place to see an established buyer-seller relationship.

3 Components of Trust in Buyer-Seller Relationships: A Marketer’s Perspective

Foundations
Contributor / Kent Grayson
Kent Grayson Marketing Breaches,Definitions,Economic Exchange,Legal Guarantees,Mergers and Acquisitions,Regulation,Vulnerability The first thing that people think about when they think about marketing is advertising because that’s the primary way that companies communicate with customers.

And because of that, a lot of people think that if you study marketing, you probably study advertising. And there are marketing researchers who do study advertising. But there are also marketing researchers who study a lot of other things.

And a common interest that unifies all marketing researchers is not an interest in advertising but an interest in what makes economic exchange possible, an interest in the conditions that facilitate economic exchange.

By economic exchange I mean any buyer-seller relationship. So, it could be a relationship between a consumer-products firm and a shopper in a grocery store. It could be a raw-material supplier and an automobile manufacturer. It could be a client and a lawyer. It could be a lemonade stand and a neighbor.

Any buyer-seller relationship like that, marketing researchers are interested in, what factors facilitate that exchange, make it happen, make sure that the buyer and seller are happy at the end? And also, what factors might hinder that exchange?

So, among people who study marketing, there is a bunch of us who study trust. And what’s interesting about trust and trust in marketing is that trust can be broken. We can get burned by trust. And for me, one of the most interesting things is understanding how we as consumers navigate this minefield of the possibility that trust might be broken.

One of the key things that makes it possible for trust to get broken in economic exchanges is this thing called “information asymmetry.” Information asymmetry refers to the fact that buyers know more about themselves than the sellers do, and sellers know more about themselves than buyers do.

And buyers and sellers can take advantage of that information asymmetry and create conditions where they get more out of the exchange than maybe they deserve. But let’s look at information asymmetry as a problem from the buyer’s perspective to start with.

So, let’s say you go into the grocery store, and you see on the shelf a product that promises to clean your clothes if you just hang up the article of clothing and you spray it with this bottle three times. And they claim that it’s going to wash your clothes just as well as in a washing machine.

The thing is, you know that when you buy that product, you’re not going to know if it’s going to work until after you give the supermarket its money, after you drive home, and after you try it on maybe a few articles of clothing to make sure that it doesn’t fade certain clothing or stain certain clothing.

And, on the other hand, the company knows a lot more about how well it works and under what conditions it works and under what conditions it doesn’t work — because no product is perfect. And they may take advantage of that.

They may put only in the fine print that it doesn’t work on jeans or it doesn’t work on cotton, or they may create a formulation that makes it look like your clothes are clean, smell like they are clean, but it actually doesn’t clean as well as a washing machine does.

So, when you as a buyer are about to make that purchase, you have to have a level of trust in the purchase and in the person selling the product. And marketing researchers are interested in what brings you to that point of trusting the product.

Now, the really cool thing about buyer-seller relationships and information asymmetry is the fact that it goes both ways. So, the information asymmetry is a problem for sellers as well as for buyers.

One example is, when you rent out your apartment or you do an apartment share, you’re the seller in that situation, and the buyers are the people coming in to use your apartment. Now, you’re not going to know what they’re doing in your apartment. There is information asymmetry there.

They may use it in ways that you don’t want them to use it, or they may break something without you knowing — you might not find out until later. In business-to-business relationships, if you’re a supplier selling to a manufacturer, they may agree to, for example, pay you in 90 days. They do a big contract with you for a year, and they agree to pay you in 90 days.

But after you work with them for a while, you realize — they’re not actually paying you in 90 days. And they know that you’re not necessarily going to break off that relationship, and they’ve taken advantage of information asymmetry.

So, marketing researchers who study trust are interested in how buyers and sellers can think about all these questions, can navigate all these problems, to minimize these concerns about information asymmetry. And trust is one way that they can do that.

So, as you look across research that’s done by marketing researchers on trust, it comes really in two types. The first type is more psychological in orientation. This research looks at how people think or feel or attitudes towards trust, and how those attitudes towards trust influence their likelihood of exchange or keep them from wanting to exchange.

There is another group of research, or another area of research, where people take more of an economic perspective. And here, the focus is on the kinds of contracts or agreements or norms or expectations that buyers and sellers can bring to the exchange that keep people from taking advantage of information asymmetries and encourage them, or incentivize them, to live up to the expectations of the exchange.

So, what is trust? In marketing, we define trust in the way that many other disciplines define it — which is, it’s a willingness to depend on someone else to do something under conditions where they may not actually do the thing that you want them to do.

And marketers understand that willingness in terms of three dimensions — or three factors influence people’s willingness to depend on someone else to do something that they don’t necessarily have to do or they’re not required to do.

The first dimension, or the first influence, is competence, perceived competence: a belief that your exchange partner is competent to deliver the kinds of things that they’ve promised to do as part of the agreement.

The second dimension is honesty. It’s a belief that your exchange partner is going to tell the truth and keep their promises. The more you believe they’re honest, the more you trust them and the more the economic exchange is enhanced.

The last dimension of trust, or the last factor of trust, is benevolence. It’s a belief that your exchange partner will think about you at critical times in the exchange when they can use information asymmetry for their own benefit, and they’re willing to think about your needs and wants.

And they’re maybe even willing to make sacrifices because they know that making you happy in the exchange is part of making a successful exchange.

Now, these three dimensions are interrelated, but honesty and benevolence are particularly highly correlated, and it’s very hard to tease them apart because a benevolent partner is often thought to be honest, and an honest partner is often thought to be benevolent.
Trust building begins by showing you care and are willing to comfort and support another.

Building Trust by Learning to Listen

Applications
Contributor / Kelly Michelson
Kelly Michelson Pediatrics Healthcare,Reciprocity,Regulation The pediatric intensive care unit can be a very complicated place with a lot of players — there’s doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains; there’s a lot of people just in the PICU itself.

And then for a particular patient, there may be even more physicians — subspecialists, other providers, just a lot of people running around all the time and people changing over.

I think each component of this VALUE mnemonic is important: we want to value what the family is saying; we want to acknowledge whatever emotions the family is going through; we want to listen; we want to understand where the family is coming from; and we want to elicit questions from the family so that we know that they understand as well.

If I had to focus in on one or two things, I would highlight two. And the first is the L for listen.

When we’re having these conversations, one of the ways that we can help support families is to stop talking and hear what they have to say, even if it means silence, because sometimes it’s in the periods of silence that families realize what they can or feel like they need to say.

And then, the other piece of it that I think is really important and sometimes doesn’t get as much attention is the piece about getting to know the patient or the family or what their issues are — asking them sometimes personal questions about why they feel a certain way, why they’re making a particular choice, and even personal questions about what their situation is like, whether it’s unrelated to the actual decision or discussion that’s going on.

I think it’s really helpful to know that the patient likes to swing on the swing.

And that kind of conversation fosters a lot of trust and support from both sides. So, now the mother knows that I care about her child, or the father knows that we care about their child.

And the healthcare provider also has a personal investment in this particular patient because now I can see what this patient looks like swinging on the swing, and I have a whole different perspective after that kind of information.

BUMPER: Learning to Trust Your Patients

In pediatrics, it’s rarely the patient who decides — sometimes, but rarely — it’s often the parent.

In an ideal world, we’re all making decisions that are important for this patient; we’re not even making decisions necessarily about ourselves. So, when you feel like you don’t have trust for a parent who’s making a decision about a patient, it can be very challenging.

And I think that one of the things that can help mitigate some of those challenges and help smooth things over is to really focus on understanding why the parent is doing or saying what they’re doing, where their behavior comes from.

And I can give you an example. There’s a parent in the intensive care unit whose child has a cancer that’s metastasized and who will likely die — their child will likely die.

And this parent has very difficult interactions with the healthcare team and is often questioning things and doing things in a way that you can’t imagine how that’s helping their child.

But I think that if we understand what the perspective of that particular parent is and why he or she feels that way, and if we look back and we realize that maybe it took this particular parent two months to get their child into the hospital and they feel guilty about that and that they impacted the outcome and that a lot of those emotions influence how they behave, I think it can help unpack the situation.

Really trying to understand the perspective of the parent can be useful when there’s a sense of distrust about what the parent is doing and why.

Other pages in Videos:

Pages in The Trust Project at Northwestern University