Trust: The Psychology of What Shapes Relationships

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trust psychology

The success of any coaching or therapeutic process depends on a large degree of the relationship between therapist and client. Without trust, there simply is no relationship and there can be no progress.

Friendships, partnerships, marriages and businesses are built with this fundamental element.

In organizations, there’s an association between trust and achievement of goals.

But what exactly are we talking about and what builds or destroys trust?

Trust is confidence that one will find what is desired from another rather than what is feared.

– Morton Deutsch

 Defining Trust

When psychologists go about researching something, they first start off by clearly defining the concept they’re studying. So far, they haven’t reached an agreement about trust. The different meanings of trust range from a personality trait to a structural phenomenon.

We’ll look at trust from this perspective: trust assesses the extent and reliability of someone else’s behavior and motivation towards something that is important to you.

When you trust someone you’re sharing something relevant to you, therefore making yourself vulnerable to another person and expecting they will respond in a way that takes into account your own well-being, as well as the bond between you.

It’s saying I’m scared to death of giving this lecture to an audience of 100 people and expecting that confession will be met with kindness.

But it goes a little bit beyond that, it’s expecting that what I shared with you, stays with you. And, at no point, you can use that information in a circumstance that serves you but undermines my own well-being or the relationship between us.

Many years ago l had a group of girlfriends and one of them had recently started dating this guy.  One day I met up with both of them and a bunch of his friends.

While we were just making small talk and getting to know each other, my girlfriend shared something about another friend of ours who wasn’t present.

Now, it wasn’t something super personal or very specific, it was more of a general statement. And I think her intention was to connect with the other guys, but she ended up doing so at the cost of her own friend.

I never forgot this episode even though it wasn’t directed at me. I could never trust her again. And our friendship ended that day.

The opposite of trust is the feeling that what is important to me and I share with you, is not safe.

This is so central to any interaction that it can determine whether or not there is interaction.

Testing Trust

The more he treated her as though she were really very nice, the more Lotty expanded and became really very nice, and the more he, affected in his turn, became really very nice himself; so that they went round and round, not in a vicious but in a highly virtuous circle.

– Elizabeth von Arnim, The Enchanted April

I was having lunch with a friend one time and we were talking about relationships. He said: all relationships need to be tested. It kind of blew me away because I haven’t thought about it like that until that point. But the same holds true for trust.

You can’t develop trust until it is truly tested.

In psychology, researchers refer to it as diagnostic situations or strain tests.

It’s basically a situation that involves conflicting motives.

It’s when you’re going on a date for the first time with this really awesome guy, you went to the gym 7 days in a row, bought killer new heels, manage to do a decent smokey eye makeup. And then…… you get a text from your friend saying she broke up and she’s devastated.

Between couples, it’s when your boyfriend makes a nasty remark and you want to get back at him and return the favor.

If you only think of your own interests, your gut reaction will be to up his game and make an even nastier remark. The I’ll show him kind of reaction.

This impulse for revenge is often quite strong. You might feel a need to defend yourself and reclaim your dignity.

If you choose to pursue your self-interest and retaliate, there’s good chance things will escalate and this can potentially harm the relationship.

So there’s a motivation clash between pursuing your own self-interest or acting in the relationship’s best interest.

Choosing the later will require a good amount of effort and a personal sacrifice.

But it’s choosing the later that allows the other person to feel safe and know that, even though you had an impulse to retaliate, you chose to act in the interest of the relationship.

It’s choosing to do what’s right over what’s easier.

Trust and Commitment

Trust and commitment meet in a nerdy psychology bar (bear with me, I’m allowed to have dreams) and ask each other…

What makes some people willing to put in the effort for the well-being of their relationships?

When you move away from the impulse, and you remember your long-term goals, the well-being of your partner and of the relationship, a transformation takes place.

You move from your own self-interest to your shared interest and your long-term goals. This is what happens in healthy relationships.

When you place self-interest above the relationship, the gap between them grows larger. What I mean is your self-interest will increasingly be at odds with the well-being of the relationship. In this case, a transformation also takes place, an anti-relationship one.

Here’s where commitment comes in.

Commitment promotes motivation and behavior towards the well-being of the relationship. It’s a long-term orientation towards the relationship that includes the intention to persist and feelings of attachment.

Commitment develops as a result of changes in 3 aspects of dependence. People will become more dependent, and increasingly committed to the extent that:

  1. The satisfaction level is high
  2. The quality of alternatives is poor
  3. The investment (effort, time, possessions, etc.) in the relationship is high

Commitment promotes persistence in the relationship, willingness to sacrifice and tendency to act kindly instead of retaliating. It also promotes the tendency to think in terms of We, Us, Our rather than I, Me, Mine.

So we can also say that trust is a reflection of someone else’s commitment and benevolent intentions.

The Components of Trust

What exactly is trust made of, right? What are the necessary ingredients for trust?

Let’s think of trust level as the expectation that someone reliably acts in a benevolent way and is responsive to our needs.

Trust implies:

  1. Predictability: a belief that the person’s behavior is consistent.
  2. Dependability: a belief that you can count on that person, to be honest, reliable and benevolent.
  3. Faith: you need to believe that person is intrinsically motivated to be kind, caring and responsive.

The next question is: how do we come to believe these things?

Building Trust

It’s when the going gets tough, that we assess whether or not we can truly trust someone.

When you ask people, how do you know if you can trust someone? They’ll say things like:

  • Because he showed up at my dad’s funeral.
  • Because I was in bed with the flu for a week and she called every day and made sure I was ok.
  • Because he left in the middle of his company’s Christmas dinner to give me a hug when I broke up with my ex.
  •  Because if she says she’s going to do something, I know she will.

Brené Brown, the author and vulnerability researcher, studied trust and developed an acronym for what trust is.

She called it Braving. Because trusting someone involves vulnerability, it’s placing something important to us in the hands of another. She refers to it as braving connection. Here’s what it stands for:

1. Boundaries

I can trust you and you can trust me if we each know our own boundaries, limits,  and needs and honor them, in ourselves and in the other.

2. Reliability

I can trust you and you can trust me if you do what you say you’re going to do over and over again, and I do the same.

3. Accountability

I can trust you and you can trust me if when you make a mistake, you own it, apologize and make amends. When I make a mistake I have a chance of owning it, apologizing and making amends.

4. Vault

I can trust you and you can trust me if what I and other people share with you is safe with you, and I do the same with not only your story but everyone else’s story.

5. Integrity

I can trust you and you can trust me if we both:

  • Choose courage over fear
  • Choose right over easy, comfortable or fun
  • Live our values rather than claiming them

6. Non-judgment

I can trust you and you can trust me if when things get messy and we struggle, we can meet each other and help each other without judgment.

7. Generosity

I can trust you and you can trust me if  when we fail to meet each other’s expectations, we make generous assumptions about the intentions, thoughts, and actions behind it and we can check in on that.

You can watch Brené Brown explaining trust here, and trust me, you won’t regret it.


Wrapping It Up

To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.
– George MacDonald

Trust is essential to any type of relationship. We all have a deep need for connection and safety that can only grow to the extent that trust exists.

To the degree that we’re committed to a long-term relationship, we’re more likely to act in line with the well-being of that relationship.

But trust can only grow if it’s tested.

When we face a crossroads and we have to choose between the easy (the I) or the right thing to do (the We), we’re also choosing to pinch or build trust.

However, it’s very hard to trust someone else if we’re not acting in line with our own values and long-term goals.

If you haven’t stood at the crossroads and geared towards the trust lane, how are you going to believe that someone else will?

So trust always starts with us. Knowing what we need in order to trust someone else, also tells us what we need in order to trust ourselves.

Because one thing is sure, we all want fulfilling relationships (whether they’re friendship, romantic or professional) and trust is what builds them.

None of us know what might happen even the next minute, yet still, we go forward. Because we trust.

– Paulo Coelho

With love,


Next, I’d love to hear from you. Why do you trust the people in your life? Leave a comment below, I love learning from you guys.


Simpson, J. A. (2007). Psychological foundations of trust. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16 (5), 264–268.

Wieselquist, J., Rusbult, C.E., Foster, C.A., & Agnew, C.R. (1999). Commitment, pro-relationship behavior, and trust in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 942– 966.

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