Have you ever snuck a glance at your partner’s phone?
Took a peek at their e-mail when their computer is unattended?
Looked through their friend list on Facebook for any unfamiliar faces?
You’re not alone.
Giving our trust in romantic partnerships can be a challenge. We all have different levels of comfort with offering our trust to others. With some, trust may seem easy, and with others, difficult. Past actions play into this, too, and once our trust is injured, it can be difficult to recover.
Trust injuries can be caused by something as small as openly admiring another person’s appearance or a text from an old flame, or as large as having multiple secret affairs.
For some, trust might be broken via online conversations, friendships outside the relationship, or pornography.
For others, emotional and physical partnerships outside the relationship may be welcome so long as open communication and honesty is part of the arrangement. It all depends on your shared definition of fidelity, and your individual expectations in your romantic partnerships.
But trust is one of those slippery, hard-to-define things (just like love!). In contemporary culture, with an influx of data and technology at our fingertips, many of us have become scientific investigators in our relationships. Things like trust, love, and fidelity seem almost measurable. Social media has made this process even easier – our social lives and relationships are visible, traceable, and very public.
We now have the tools to approach trust as a scientific question – “how much evidence do I need to be certain that my trust is well-placed?”
I have seen friends and clients alike struggle with this question. Feelings of inadequacy (with our bodies, our sexuality, our personal qualities, our careers) and past betrayals (our own, or those we’ve watched our friends and family endure) are just a couple reasons why we might fear losing our partners, and struggle to trust them.
The temptation to turn to surveillance to reassure ourselves of our partners’ fidelity can be powerful. Social media, email, and text messages leave nearly all our conversations traceable. Browsers and apps that save passwords make searching a partner’s smartphone, laptop, tablet, or desktop computer quick and easy. And many people’s first reaction to worry is to seek reassurance that the worst-case scenario is not true.
But there is a fatal problem with this process: It is very hard to prove an absence of a trust breaking activity.
Failing to find evidence of an event does not prove it doesn’t exist.
You set out seeking reassurance, but you can never answer that question by searching emails, social media, or text message histories. There could always be deleted emails or photos, hidden chat conversations, or secret rendezvous. There could always be something you missed.
So you keep looking.
And looking a little bit more.
This cycle can quickly become an obsessive loop, because the search may provide temporary reassurance or relief, but the doubt and worry will always return, leading to another search.
Meanwhile, your anxiety and preoccupation increase. You search more and more often, and the more time you spend searching and questioning your partner’s fidelity, the greater your doubt grows.
The more time you spend combing your partner’s social media for evidence of fidelity, the greater your chances of finding false “evidence” that they are cheating. An innocent text message from an ex, a buried photo of an old flame they never bothered deleting, a new “friend” you don’t recognize, an ambiguous comment by a peer on their Facebook wall….the possibilities are endless.
And with each one, your doubts and insecurities grow, and your anxiety and checking behaviours increase.
We cannot “investigate” our way out of this loop. A simpler way out is to re-frame our idea of trust.
A helpful way to understand trust is as an act of radical faith, rather than a consequence of proof. Faith is choosing to extend our belief without proof, because the process of believing is more valuable to us than objective fact, or being right.
Thus, when we think of trust as faith, we can offer it to our partners as a gift, not as a commodity. We can choose to give it up front, with the hope that they will treat it well (rather than requiring them to earn it via the impossible process of elimination I described above).
Faith can be a scary process, because it opens us to the possibility of making a mistake, or being wrong, or being seen as a “fool.” Many clients I’ve spoken with have revealed fears of being “duped,” or “tricked,” by a romantic partner, and admitted that this fear (combined with fear of loss) drives much of their effort to establish their partner’s fidelity. There is a stigma attached to being cheated on, as if this makes the cheat-ee “stupid” or “naïve” or “oblivious.”
But does it? People are very bad at detecting lies. Even highly trained social experts, like police detectives, private investigators, judges, and psychologists perform no better than chance at detecting deceit. We all have a “truth bias,” or a tendency to assume people are telling us the truth unless we find direct evidence they are lying. This is not a human failing, it is one of our greatest strengths as a species – it fosters cohesion, cooperation, and survival.
So consider - if a police officer or psychologist can’t tell if someone is lying to them, why do we expect ourselves to know? Why is it our job to protect ourselves from being lied to or betrayed, when we are not good at knowing when it is happening? Why is it a source of shame to be lied to, when the wrongdoing was committed by the liar, and when violated trust threatens the very social glue that allows our species to survive?
If you give someone a thoughtful gift because you love them, is it your fault if they smash it and throw it out the window? Does it mean you were foolish or wrong in giving the gift? Does it mean it was a mistake to love them in the first place?
Or does it reflect their character, and their worthiness?
Consider also the meaning of giving something as a gift, versus trading it as a commodity. Which do you feel has more value in a relationship, and why?
The answers to these questions may lead to a shifting understanding of trust.