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How do I learn to trust him?

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anofficialknight asks:

If you have been raped by more than one person but as a result you never stay with a male in fear of becoming close to them and then you find a guy that you really like and you want to trust him but you just can't ... what should I do to make us a trusting couple?

Heather Corinna replies:

Whether a person is having issues with trust due to sexual abuse or any other reason under the sun, I really like how Staci Haines, in The Survivor's Guide to Sex, concisely outlines three basic factors for trust. She talks about competency, consistency over time, and congruency between words and behavior.

When she says competency, what she means is if that person is competent in the ways you need for them to be. For instance, as a survivor of rape, it's going to be important for you that any person you get close to has competency when it comes to a decent understanding of what you have been through, what your healing process is and has been, what kinds of residual issues you're grappling with -- like a reluctance to trust -- and, clearly, a sensitivity when it comes to rape and sexual abuse. Someone who just doesn't get any of that, or who can't be competent about that, is not likely to be someone you will be able to trust. Competency also addresses another person just having the basic intelligence, sensitivity, integrity, self-awareness and compassion for others to be a person we can trust: someone who is just plain unable to care for or about others, to figure out what others need and hear what others are saying, or who just isn't in a space to think about anyone besides themselves isn't a sound person for anyone to trust. I'd say that competency is the starting point for developing trust.

Consistency over time addresses that, as time passes, someone demonstrates that we can trust them. They do things like tell the truth, and honor agreements or boundaries, not just once or now and then, but all the time, over time. If you tell someone something very personal and private, and they respect your privacy not just for a week, but for months or years, you can begin to grow trust with them because they are showing you that they are worthy of it. If, as time passes, it's clear someone is honest with you -- even when it's not easy, or doesn't make them look good -- you can start to develop trust in them.

The time factor is a biggie: while some survivors can trust too much, too soon, others can never quite get there, or don't give people the time that's needed for trust to develop. Trust is something that we extend, nurture and grow over time, not all at once. We tend to build it and have it built in baby steps. We can do that by testing the waters gradually, extending trust in ways that are sound based on where we are at with someone. With someone we have just met, for instance, or only known for a few weeks we might see about developing trust with small things, like if a person agrees to meet us somewhere and shows up or not. We might share something that's not earth-shattering, but not small either, like the fact that we feel like an idiot when we fail a big test, or are really upset about the loss of a friendship and see if they respect our privacy and keep those disclosures to themselves, and also treat us with care when we make them. We might go on a date or two with friends where there is some limited, but safe, alone-time, and see if they respect our boundaries.

With someone we have known for longer periods of time, who has already shown us that they can be trusted with the smaller things we have extended, we can start to take bigger steps, maybe share something with them that is more personal, maybe do something with them which is a slightly bigger risk for us and which requires more trust.

As time passes, and we take those gradual steps to be more and more vulnerable, more and more open, get a bit closer each day, we can see how things go and, ideally, start to build more and more trust. Or, at some point, it might become clear that we cannot build or have trust with someone, and we then stop extending it to them. But if we're moving gradually, we can manage our risks in that. While having trust broken never feels good, if we have taken baby steps with trust, rather than making ourselves very vulnerable to someone early on all at once and before they have shown us they can be trusted over time, we can usually heal from those smaller wounds.

Congruency between words and behavior basically means that someone isn't just all talk, and that their words and actions match. For example, some survivors have been told by the people raping or abusing them that they were loved or special: however, someone who says those kinds of things while they are assaulting or abusing you clearly is not being congruent in their words and behavior. We do not abuse or assault people whom we love or feel are special.

So, if someone you like says they will do things and does those things, their words and behavior match: the more this happens, the more we learn that we can take them at their word, that we can trust them.

Someone who, for instance, understands that pushing sex really isn't okay for you (not that it is for anyone), and agrees to go at your pace and takes things slow but then starts exerting pressure or tries to coerce you is not being congruent. Someone who says they will keep a secret you tell them but then blabs it all over the place is not being congruent. Someone who says they will see you through something tough then blows you off is not being congruent. On the other hand, someone who says they love you and actively treats you in a loving way is being congruent. Someone who says they respect your boundaries and, in their actions, very much does just that is being congruent. Someone who keeps the things you say are private to themselves is being congruent. And this is another one of those things where time comes into play: over time, you take stock and see if someone's words seem to usually match their actions or not.

You ask about how to become a couple who trusts each other. I'd also add to Staci's list the need for mutual and shared transparency and vulnerability, and the need for shared extension of trust. If only one person makes themselves vulnerable and opens up, and the other keeps all of themselves under lock and key, we're not likely to be able to develop a lot of trust. To trust each other, we have to both share, both be open in our communication, both be willing to be vulnerable, not just one of us. For you to get better at trusting him, he also has to trust you, and give you opportunities to demonstrate your own trustworthiness. To trust others, we also have to be trusted ourselves.

By all means, as a survivor, you are going to have your own set of issues with trust, and your own set of vulnerabilities, but plenty of people who are not survivors have those, too -- and deep trust is automatic for no one -- so to build trust together, you both need to have all this stuff going on. Just because we have been abused or assaulted and know what it is to have had trust broken or betrayed does not mean that we are trustworthy ourselves, or that it's safe for people to automatically trust us, either. I think it's helpful to be mindful of that, because it can be easy to get tunnel vision and assume that since we were hurt so badly, we'd never hurt anyone else or breach anyone else's trust. The truth is, we have to work to earn the trust of others just like they do to earn ours. Their part of that work is to extend trust to us, and ours is to make good on that. We're not the only people who can be hurt or betrayed, after all.

As well, if you still self-blame at all for your rapes -- plenty of survivors do, not because rape was your fault, but because there is so much victim-blaming afoot in the world, it can be tough not to internalize it -- you may have some of your own work to do when it comes to trusting yourself. If we don't feel like we can be trusted, or should be trusted, it's really hard to see how someone else should or could be. Same goes for accepting that if we trusted the wrong person or people before, someone who abused us or did us harm, that doesn't mean that we or our instincts cannot be trusted. No one ever told me those parts as a survivor myself early on, and I really wish they had, because it took me a long time to figure out that my own mistrust of myself was a huge barrier to my developing the ability to trust others. Once I started to get a handle on that, not only did my interpersonal relationships improve, so did my relationship with myself.

Put some stock in your own instincts, too. It's entirely possible that if you have not trusted people in the past, with at least some of them that's because something inside yourself was telling you that you should not trust them. For sure, that could have been because you had troubles with trust even with people who may have been trustworthy, but it also could have been -- in whole or in part, with some folks or all -- because some of these factors we are talking about were not in place, and intuitively or overtly, you knew that a given person wasn't sound to trust. Not everyone deserves our trust, after all, and it is absolutely okay for us to withhold trust from some people, and to take the time we need to figure out if we should trust someone or not.

Maybe you feel differently about this guy right now because he does seem trustworthy. Consider those three factors and you can evaluate that for yourself some, even early on. If he is someone you feel like you do want to get closer to, someone you think you may be able to extend trust to, start with some baby steps, give it some time, and see how it goes. Test the waters, and know that if, at any time, he proves himself unable to be trusted, you get to pull back or withdraw.

If you two are already starting to become close, I'd also suggest being open with him about needing time to develop trust, and about having reluctance to trust others. If this is a very new relationship, you may not yet be at the point where you want to disclose your rapes (I'd say that is something where you'd certainly want to have established some trust over time first, particularly if you are at an earlier stage of healing from your rapes, or have not disclosed to many others before) and thus a big part of why you have trouble trusting, but that's something that, down the road if and when you have established trust, you will hopefully be able to get to. In the meantime, though, you can simply say you have a hard time trusting people, but are working on that and just ask if he can handle that. If he can't that brings us back to competency: someone who can't deal with you perhaps taking a little longer than others to trust would obviously not be a good choice for you right now. That doesn't mean anything is wrong with either one of you, just that you're probably not the best fit for each other.

Someone giving us their trust is a pretty big deal, and I think it's absolutely okay for anyone to hold any of us to high standards when it comes to trust, including insisting that we be patient in the time it may take for us to earn someone's trust.

If we really want to be close to someone, and really care for them, we're going to be okay with that, particularly when that other person is being open -- is not trying to keep us at a distance for the wrong reasons -- and is wanting to get close to us and to learn to trust us in time. It's a big gift to be given someone's trust: there's nothing wrong with any of us -- survivors or not -- treating it as such, or asking others to treat it that way.

In your question, you didn't ask about sexual issues, but in case that is part of this, I want to leave you with a few links to look at. What I've talked about in all of this is certainly relevant to sex, as well as the whole of a relationship, but there are some additional things which might help you.

My very best wishes for you in your relationships, in learning to trust, and in your own healing journey.

written 25 Jan 2009 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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