I have a problem with the word trust. It may have started when I was a teen and my parents said they didn’t trust me after being away for a weekend. I had invited some people over after work on Saturday night, and one guy ended up staying until morning playing cards with my sister and I. There was no booze whatsoever. The next-door neighbour told on me because she saw his car outside.

I was angry about the neighbour tattling on me, but I was also mad because I didn’t know what there was about my behaviour not to trust. It seemed like a stupid word to me because it carried a lot of emotional weight but it was actually just a euphemism. What they really meant by saying, “we don’t trust you” was: “we’re concerned about your behaviour in our absence” or “we expected you to act in a certain way when we’re not here.”

Throwing the word ‘trust’ around was an attempt to make THEIR upset all about me. Seems they were worried about me, my sister, their home. But instead of being honest about that (“Kerri, we feel worried and want to talk to you about our concerns so that next time we leave town for the weekend we feel more comfortable.”) they slap the label of untrustworthy on me and suddenly I’m the one at fault and I’m the one with the responsibility of making them feel better.

Communication is a huge part of my work in conflict resolution. I am very hard-line about accurate word choice and saying what you really mean. So using the word ‘trust’ when you actually mean something else is not only errant, it impedes discussion.

By definition, trust is a belief or hope. It is always future-oriented and there are no guarantees. Basically it is a prediction about how you think someone is going to behave, which almost puts us in the realm of wishful thinking. We take a risk when we place our trust in someone, and hopefully we do some mental calculations about their past behaviour when attempting to predict their future behaviour.

I use the word trust very rarely, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never used it in the context of a relationship with someone else, including my son. To me it’s just not a precise term; and I like precision when I speak. So instead of talking about ‘trust’ I’m inclined to say things like:

  • What I hope is…
  • My expectations are…
  • If _______ then I will __________.
  • I feel confident that __________ will happen, but if not then _______.
  • What’s your intention?
  • How do you expect this to go?
  • I’m scared. What if _____________ happens? We need to plan for contingencies.
  • I feel caught off guard. I expected you to _________.
  • This is disappointing for me. I was hoping ______________.
  • I’m upset about ____________. Let me work through that today and we can talk again tomorrow about how we’re going to go forward.
  • This arrangement didn’t work out for me so next time I propose __________.

If someone says to me “I don’t trust you” I get virtually no information from their words. It’s likely I’ll pick up some non-verbal cues, and obviously they are troubled by something or they wouldn’t be telling me this. But my first response to this person has to be, “Tell me more,” because they’ve given me nothing! Isn’t it just easier to cut to the chase and say, “I’m upset about something in our relationship and I’d like us to talk about it” instead? Another benefit of this approach is that I’m less likely to be defensive because he/she is using ‘I’ language instead of ‘you’ and he/she is expressing a collaborative intent.

We’re always recalibrating trust. We’ll do a better job at trust if we can unpack the stories we tell ourselves about others and their thoughts, feelings, intentions. The future is always undetermined and people are going to continually surprise us. Don’t rely on something as flimsy as a hope or belief (the definition of trust) to hold your marriage together or your relationship with your teenager.  I recommend putting energy into open communication, actively listening, having fun together, and being emotionally vulnerable. In my experience these are far more likely to keep your connection flourishing.

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