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.