Trigger warnings: Brief and non-graphic mentions of sexual assault, child abuse, and domestic abuse.
“Won’t Get Fooled Again” isn’t just a catchy lyric by The Who—it’s also a prevalent mindset for many of us on the dating scene. Trust issues are our mind’s way of protecting ourselves, much like any other cognitive process. After all, if you don’t allow yourself to be “fooled,” then you can’t get hurt…right?
Most of us have been burned at some point in our lives, and some degree of caution can certainly be useful. But constantly being on the lookout for red flags and questioning your partner’s every move never ends well. Finding a healthy middle ground is key to laying the foundation for a healthy relationship.
Here’s how to increase your capacity for trust over time.
Understanding how trust issues present themselves
Trust issues typically stem from past traumas, most commonly abuse. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, an average of 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner. Factor in child abuse, sexual assault, and other traumatic experiences, and it’s little wonder why trust issues come into play for so many.
Others have experienced loss and betrayal within relationships—whether that be a friendship that ended, getting ghosted by a promising dating prospect, or a deep romantic relationship cut short by infidelity—and have a difficult time letting their guard down as a result. Cheating, in particular, can cause deep-rooted self-esteem issues and even affect your ability to trust yourself.
“Some common roots of trust issues are unhealed wounds and experiences from the past that have left their mark,” states Sarah Louise Ryan, founder of Love Lessons Coaching & Love Connections Global Matchmaking. “People [often] let others’ actions mean something about them, and the voice inside of them says ‘I wasn’t pretty enough, I wasn’t smart enough, I wasn’t exciting enough, I just wasn’t enough.’ But, in fact, an unfaithful partner’s actions have nothing to do with them—it’s a lack within the person conducting the infidelity.”
Acknowledging how trust issues impact our relationships
Trust issues can be both passive and active in terms of how they manifest in our behavior. Passive trust behaviors include not putting all of yourself into the relationship, or withholding important thoughts and feelings out of fear of rejection. More active behaviors can include intrusive questions about your partner’s whereabouts and activities, or even breaking into their phone to seek proof of cheating or abandonment plans.
Laura Winston, a nurse from Buffalo, has been there. “I waited until I was 23 to get into my first relationship. He was a friend of a friend, and at first, everything seemed pretty perfect—until he started to become very possessive,” confides Winston. “He started asking me every inch of what I’d been up to, whom I was hanging out with, whether our mutual friend was sure he didn’t have any feelings for me, and so on. I called it off as soon as I caught him trying to unlock my phone. It hurt because if such an otherwise sweet guy could act like that, what chance do I have of finding someone I can both adore and trust?”
Whether you’re on the receiving end or the person who has trouble trusting, these behaviors can prematurely end an otherwise promising relationship. In fact, in a 2019 study conducted at the University of British Columbia which analyzed relationships in which one person snooped through the other’s phone records, texts, or emails, approximately 46% of respondents said that the prying ended their relationship.
Finding the capacity to trust again
After a painful relationship experience, we essentially have to start from scratch again to rebuild trust and hope. The simplest way to do so is to conduct open and honest discussions around the start of any new relationship and tell your partner why you’re so afraid of being hurt again.
Licensed professional counselor Meghan Hopkins agrees that setting the tone for open communication can make all the difference.
“Clearing the slate after being burned can be so difficult,” says Hopkins. “Instead of letting jealousy and suspicions fester and grow, set a foundation where you can openly say, ‘Hey, I noticed this and it makes me worried about the trust in our relationship.’ Also, checking your own thoughts can be important, too—just because we think something doesn’t mean it is [true]. Being honest with yourself about your insecurities is hard, but can be necessary to creating and keeping a healthy relationship.”
Meditation can also work wonders. Meditation brings us face-to-face with impermanence and the importance of being present in the moment. Since trust issues often tie directly to anxiety, deep breathing and removing yourself from daily stresses for even a few minutes per day can help your body and mind to relax. From a relaxed place, it’s easier to think things through and ruminate less.
Whether you meditate, engage in therapy, and/or practice openness and vulnerability, you can cultivate the strength to deal with any trust issue that comes your way. No matter what the past did to you, it’s gone, and all that’s left is your ability to grow and recover. With time, mutual respect, and mindfulness, you will be able to love and trust again.