When A Couple Has “Trust Issues”

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Amy: What happens when a couple is plagued by “trust” issues?  This is a pretty common “presenting problem” in my office. I’m not talking about post-affair, where lack of trust comes with the territory. In that case the person who cheated has earned the right not to be trusted. I’m talking about a different kind of trust problem. Without trust it’s hard to build a healthy relationship.  But lack of trust can be made of many things. You often have to look beneath the surface to uncover what’s behind this potentially corrosive force. It often began before the couple even met.

Here’s a quick snapshot of two couples, each with its own brand of trust issues:

Couple # 1Wanda and Terrence had been married for only two years, with one child and another on the way. They hadn’t had much time to develop any equity in the trust department , something that can grow stronger over time through the mistakes/forgiveness/understanding cycle. They were stuck in the “mistakes” phase.

They came to see me because Wanda didn’t trust Terrence; since they met, Wanda  had found various texts on his phone from past girlfriends, and even though there was no flirtation involved, she was angry and wanted him to shut it down. While Terrence appeared to agree with her, and said he was “complying”, Wanda still wasn’t satisfied. She didn’t believe him, and would search his phone. And, unfortunately for both of them, Wanda continued to find an occasional innocuous text from an old girlfriend. Terrence claimed he “forgot” or “overlooked” this text. He looked to Wanda like he was hiding something.

This pattern drove Terrence up a wall; he felt like he was “guilty until proven innocent”, that his wife was just waiting to bust him.  Terrence was furious, claiming he “had nothing to hide.” Wanda was so worried about Terrence cheating on her that she grew anxious when she had to leave town for work, even if it was only for a day.

They were trapped in a very painful cycle. When we looked beneath the surface, we found some clues. Not surprisingly, Wanda talked about her father’s cheating on her mother, which led to their divorce when Wanda was sixteen. Wanda recounted this episode thoughtfully; she had talked about how agonizing this time was for the family, especially for her, her sister and her mother. Wanda knew that this trauma had pre-disposed her to mistrust in men, but said she had worked to deal with it, with both parents, and within herself. Indeed, she sounded like she had courageously addressed this turbulent period,  though I believed she had some residual hyper-vigilance related to this painful disruption of family life.

When observing this couple, I was struck by the multitude of ways Terrence had of both minimizing and deflecting Wanda’s anxiety. He seemed to have become a master of escape and disguise, and I saw how this fueled Wanda’s distrust. Terrence described his home life as being dominated by his mother, who moved to this country from Bosnia to escape the devastation of the war. Both Terrence and Wanda described Terrence’s mom as a force to be reckoned with, someone you only crossed at your own peril. Terrence’s father had passed away ten years earlier.

Because of his mom’s history of trauma from the war, Terrence, along with his three brothers, was very protective of her. “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her”, was his motto. True maybe, but this helped set the stage for Terrence’s tendency to avoid truth-telling, and raised questions about his authenticity, particularly with Wanda. Terrence talked about how he was afraid to tell Wanda anything she didn’t want to hear. By his own admission, Terrence HATED fighting, and would anything to avoid it.

I jokingly BEGGED Terrence  to tell Wanda things she didn’t want to hear; I knew his apparent compliance with Wanda’s “rules” interfered with his authenticity in the relationship. And his wife smelled this, fueling her belief that he was hiding something. What he was in fact hiding, was that he felt that if an ex-girfriend should occasionally text him, he wanted to reply, briefly and cordially. He made it abundantly clear–and I had no reason to doubt his honesty–that he had zero interest in any exes. He talked about his deep feelings for Wanda; indeed, aside from this issue they enjoyed a lively, dynamic relationship, including their erotic connection.

These few sessions opened the door for some real dialogue, moving away from the “trust/distrust” theme, and on to exploring their differences, and what each needed to feel whole, and wholly alive in the relationship. The therapy in on hold at the moment, due to travel schedules.  For this couple, the therapy marks the first time they’ve taken a look at what their duet is made of, and Terrence semi-joked  about how he actually feels relieved to have been “forced” into these sessions. And for Wanda, these sessions will hopefully provide her with an opportunity to further heal the wounds from her father’s betrayal of her mother, and the family. I believe these residual fears still linger, and magnify her anxiety related to her own marriage. But these are intelligent, thoughtful people with humor and the ability to self-reflect, ingredients that bode well for this young couple.

Couple #2:  I worked with John and Sarah for nearly six months,  when the issue of trust reached a crescendo. The couple came to me on the brink of divorce; Sarah was miserable because of what she experienced as John’s belittling of her, his distrust of her, as well as his emotional coldness. These were essentially good people, a couple in their 30’s , devoted parents with two young daughters.

Early on in the sessions, John’s distrust of his wife was hard to get away from. It permeated their interactions, with matters small and large. If she was sad, he questioned it. If she was happy, he questioned it. If she was mad at him, or pleased with him, same. It’s like he couldn’t let himself relax into the relationship. John was aware of his distrust, talked openly about it, knew it was a problem, but had many levels and layers of justification for his reactions. I couldn’t observed anything in Sarah’s way of being that could foster this distrust: She was open about her wants and needs, both a good talker and a good listener.

In this case, both husband and wife took to the therapy experience in a big way. They came to see me on a regular basis, and were fully engaged in the process, and open to looking at what was underneath their collective unhappiness. Slowly, John’s constant distrust of his wife yielded a bit, became softer. Then one day we had a session that cracked the case wide open.

John was talking about his father, a larger-than-life man, who had emigrated to the U.S.  from Egypt and proceeded to build a life and a family here. John’s father was a true patriarch, mostly in a good way. John Sr.  was a “Family First” kind of guy, the sort of man who worried and fretted over the well-being of his wife and kids. But John’s father carried with him enormous anxiety, related to trauma within his own family. When John’s father was seven  years old, his ten-year old brother, who was his protector, was killed in a hit-and-run accident. John Sr., only a kid at the time,  was supposed to be with his brother, but had stayed inside to watch cartoons. This unexpected, tragic death tore the family apart emotionally, the parents ended up in divorcing, and John and his older sister remained with their mother. Their father moved to another village.

John found out the details of this story in the course of our work together. As John told this sombre story, he remembered how his father had always insisted that he  should always put his sibling’s needs ahead of his own. As a way of demonstrating this, John’s father would hold out some candy and ask if John wanted any. The correct response–according to the father– was for John to say, “Give it to my brother.” The father applied this model to many situations in John’s life. I believe it was the father’s ongoing, unconscious attempt at atonement for his own brother’s death.

This powerful reflection gave way to a new way of thinking about “trust”. John talked about how he learned not to trust himself, his own desires, his needs. This led him to wonder about his relationships with others, including Sarah. He realized that, since he had “learned” at an early age to lie about his desires, and to hide his needs, maybe other people were doing the same. How could he know that other people were saying what they meant? Maybe they were just saying what he wanted to hear. Uh oh. You can understand the confusion and tension that this caused within him. And what it meant for Sarah. This revelation proved eye-opening for John’s wife, who now saw her husband with different eyes. And I think John began to regard his “trust issues” very differently; can I say he no longer trusted his distrust?

These are two snapshots of very different ways “distrust” manifests in relationships. There are many other stories, different than these, but with similar themes. A pre-disposition toward trust seems to be born and nourished–or not–in the families in which we were raised. These echo throughout our lives, and find a home in our new relationships. How we handle these issues can become some of the most important work we ever do.




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