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How Can I Trust Her if I Can't See What She's Doing?

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jeff asks:

How do I find out if my girlfriends flirting and talking about other guys? She says she doesn't, she's begging me to trust her but how can I if we are in a long-distance relationship?

Heather Corinna replies:

Long story short? You already asked her. She says she doesn't. You either believe her or you don't. She also seems to be expressing frustration that you're not extending trust to her and believing what she tells you. We can trust someone whether they're right next to us or far, far away. Trust isn't about checking in on someone constantly or always being around so you can see and know what they're doing. Instead, when there is trust, we don't feel a need to do that. It's a lack of trust which makes that feel necessary.

Here's the much-longer answer.

For sure, we'll often want to know what people we're in a relationship with are doing because we're interested in their lives or because we want to know when they'll be home from an outing so we don't worry something bad has happened to them. That's all fine and good, and not about trust. That's just about liking someone and caring about them. Wanting to know those things isn't the same as needing to know those things or exactly what they're doing, with whom, or every single thing they are thinking to trust them.

A lot of people don't totally get to understand what trust is or what it's all about, so I want to share a few paragraphs from another article here with you to make it clear:

Trust is is a firm reliance on the integrity, ability, or character of a person or thing; to have or place confidence in, to believe. Trust between people is something to be extended and built, not something to be proved. We can't demand someone else trusts us: we can only prove ourselves to be trustworthy, extend trust ourselves and give that person the choice to place trust in us if they want to, understanding that for healthy people, that often takes time.

When we trust each other, we believe what each of us says we feel and do. We feel our private and personal information and lives are in safe keeping with another person, that that person won't betray us or our confidences. We have faith in each of us doing our best to keep and honor our agreements. We feel we can depend on one another, and feel confident that we and a partner are people of integrity and good character. When we trust each other, we allow one another freedoms and accept that not only can we not know what someone else is doing 24/7, but that we shouldn't need to know that if we trust someone.

Some people will say they trust a given person or people completely right from the start. What they usually mean when they say that is that they don't have limits or boundaries, that they're engaging in some kind of denial or are just not taking care of themselves. Trust is built gradually, just like the whole of a relationship. What's healthy with trust is to each be extending little bits of it at a time, such as by sharing personal information, making smaller agreements, and then expanding that trust more and more as we show each other that we are can both trust and be trusted.

I'm going to assume, based on how you're talking, that you two have made an agreement to be romantically and/or sexually exclusive with each other. However, because the agreements people have and make about exclusivity (for those who do) are so different, I can't make any assumptions about what those agreements entail. All of our relationships vary, all of our wants and needs vary, so all of our agreements in relationships will tend to vary. But we can talk about what I think is healthy and isn't with agreements and expectations, and I can tell you what I think is generally reasonable and unreasonable.

People talk about people. We talk about friends, about family, about strangers, about celebrities, about acquaintances; we talk about people we find attractive in any number of ways or people we find unattractive in any number of ways. Very, very few people will only ever have romantic or sexual interest in one person alone, not over a lifetime, and often not even when they are in existing romantic or sexual relationships. People who are earnestly single-mindedly and completely focused on only one person who they find attractive to the complete exclusion of every other person on earth also don't tend to be psychologically or interpersonally healthy people.

Most people who choose to be sexually and/or romantically exclusive with someone don't choose that because that is the only person in the whole world they find of sexual or romantic interest, but instead because that is a person they have the highest levels of those interest in, who shares those feelings for them and who wants the same kind of relationship that they do. If people were only monogamous because they had no other interests or options, then monogamy wouldn't be meaningful, just like when women don't have the right to reproductive choice, a woman choosing to give birth and parent is only so meaningful. It's the ability to choose, and having choices to choose from, that makes any one choice have weight and meaning.

Human beings are curious critters. We wonder, we daydream, we ruminate, we question. We think about things: things we want, things we don't want, things we might or might not want, but we don't really know. And sometimes we talk about it. So, she might talk about other guys at some point. But I'd encourage you to also recognize that even if she is, that doesn't mean she's being disloyal to you or that she intends to break any agreements with you per seeing other guys. It may just mean that, just like the rest of us, probably including you, she thinks and wonders about people and sometimes thinks and wonders out loud with words to other people.

I want to also point out that because someone is sexually oriented in such a way that they may be attracted to a given sex or gender (like to guys) doesn't mean every thought or interaction they have with people of that sex or gender is or must be sexual or romantic. Lots of people are platonic friends with people who are members of a group they might find attractive romantically or sexually. So, if she's talking about guys, some of the guys she's talking about might be her male friends, people she wants to keep as friends.

Flirting is trickier to address, because people define and enact flirting very differently, and with a variety of motivations. As well, one person may not be flirting or be intending to flirt, while someone else might think they were. Some people are just "flirty" -- are very physical, a little sexual, or just very open and warm -- with other people by their nature, because that's just the timbre of a lot of the way they socialize or express themselves. All the same, what flirting is by dictionary definition is to behave amorously without serious intent, and to to show superficial or casual interest.

Flirting isn't always about pursuing anything or taking any kind of sexual or romantic action. When someone is doing it, it's usually just a way of expressing that person may have fleeting sexual or romantic feelings, NOT any kind of promise to put those feelings into action or even a desire or intent to ever do so. Flirting doesn't have to lead to anything that would be beyond whatever agreements we have made together, such as an agreement to only be sexual with each other, or to only pursue any sexual or romantic relationships with other people within certain agreed-upon boundaries and protocols. Flirting often doesn't lead to anything else for a whole lot of people.

Some people who have sexual and romantic exclusivity agreements with a partner don't have an issue with a partner flirting, because they know that flirting isn't having sex with someone else or having a romantic relationship with or any kind of serious interest in someone else. It's just casually expressing a momentary feeling. Being comfortable with that, though, can also be something that takes some time, some personal growth and maturity and certainly some trust. Not feeling threatened by flirting can be something that's tougher for younger people to do than for older people, who have had more time to become secure in themselves and others.

Like I said about talking about guys, when we trust our partners and when we also feel secure in ourselves we'll accept they may be attracted to other people, as most people are, but we also will feel pretty okay about that because we believe they want to and will honor the agreements they have made with us. It's faith and trust that leads us to make those kinds of agreements and believe the person we've made them with will honor them, not the ability to keep an eye on every single thing they are doing every single day. If we didn't think they'd honor agreements, we wouldn't asked them to make them, right?

I don't know what agreements you and your girlfriend have made around flirting or other parts of your relationship. Have you talked about what flirting IS for each of you and come to a definition you both agree on? have you made sure any exclusivity agreements you've made together are healthy, sound and fair? For instance, it's generally considered healthy to agree that a partner will not have sex with someone else outside a relationship, not do anything expressly sexual or romantic with someone else. It's generally considered unhealthy to make agreements that a partner won't speak to a given person or group of people, won't talk about people in any given way, or won't be affectionate with people they are close to. Obviously, there can be some fine lines there, but to give you an example, many people are physically affectionate with their close friends. So, asking someone not to hug or platonically snuggle a male close friend wouldn't be so cool, but asking them not to give that friend a lap dance or kiss them the way they kiss you would be fair.

One of the fine lines with all this is making sure the agreements you're making are about things that help you be close to each other, not about trying to police or control anyone. It's also sound to be sure we're making agreements from a place of security within ourselves, not from a place of insecurity where we're asking partners to enable us in avoiding challenges so we don't have to grow.

I understand that some people, when dating, prefer from even the most casual date to agree to make exclusivity agreements right from the start, but that's not what I'd advise. Certainly, people can choose to date others who are clear they're not dating other people, but that's not quite the same as an express agreement to be exclusive. Any time we make agreements with someone, if we want them to be sound and appropriate, we have to walk in with some measure of trust. If we don't have any or enough trust yet to feel confident we and others will honor agreements, then in my book it's usually too early to make them. Let me give you a couple examples outside the realm of romantic or sexual relationships, in case that's obtuse.

When most of us were little, our parents or guardians got babysitters for us. The agreement with them, of course, was that they agreed to take very good care of us, in exchange for payment or as a personal favor. If they asked someone to care for us, since we were vulnerable, valuable and in need of care, they likely asked someone they knew they could trust to honor that agreement. Maybe they knew that person was trustworthy because he or she babysat for friends of theirs, and the friends had good things to say; maybe they called for a reference for that person. Maybe they already knew that person, over time, and had a clear sense they could be trusted. What our parents probably did not do as just find someone to do that off the street who they had never met or barely knew, because they could not have had any idea if that person would have honored that agreement.

To give another example, I trust the people who volunteer here at this site. I don't accept volunteers here who I haven't already observed in some way and felt are capable and trustworthy or who I know are from references. I will also gradually build trust over time, not giving a new volunteer the ability to have full access to and control of every part of the site, because I need to find out first if that's sound. If and when I am giving them a lot of responsibility, and access to anything in which the site could be vulnerable, it's because I know I can trust them and we have built trust together. In other words, I accept volunteers I feel I can extend some trust to right from the start, but then as that trust is gradually built and increased over time, I gradually increase what I'm trusting them with.

With exclusivity agreements, not only do you need to be sure they're reasonable, you need to be sure you have the level of trust you need to make them in the first place. If you don't yet, but still want to make the agreement, then you need to at least extend faith. Faith is different than trust: it's about believing something without proof. In this case, maybe you can't know or verify a girlfriend isn't doing a thing, but you have faith in her that she won't. Same goes for calling someone a boyfriend or a girlfriend, if those are meaningful terms to you, rather than words you use to describe anyone you're dating, seriously or casually. Until you have been able to build some trust or have some faith, and have some clear sense that your heart will be safe in that, you don't want to leap to that.

It's also wise to check in with yourself to be sure you're in the right headspace for a relationship at a given time, or for one where you're making exclusivity or other agreements. Sometimes people want someone they are dating not to do the things you're worried about because they feel very insecure about themselves. Sometimes people want those things out of a need to control someone else. Sometimes people feel so vulnerable for any given reason -- maybe they have had their trust betrayed before -- that they don't feel safe dating or entering intimate relationships without a whole lot of protections.

I don't know you, and your post gave me little to no information, so I can't know what your motivations or feelings are here. But I do know that any motives like that, should you have them, suggest that you getting serious about someone right now might not be what's best for you with where you're at. If and when someone is feeling deeply insecure, strongly vulnerable or easily hurt, and/or feels a need to control, the best bet is usually to invest the kind of energy you'd put into an intimate relationship into yourself, and doing work on feeling better about yourself first.

Long-distance relationships also require both a bit more trust and faith than in-person relationships. So, it may be that the issue is that a long-distance relationships isn't the right thing for you right now, or with this person, or it's too soon for this relationship to have that kind of distance. If this is an online relationship, it may be non-optional that it's long-distance. If that's the case, but you can't handle the distance or can't build trust this way, then this may be someone best as a friend, not as a girlfriend.

Let's go back to the basics of trust from the top. We can't beg someone to trust us, or try and push someone to trust us before they actually have started to or before we have built that trust. We also need to have some basis on which to build trust, even if that basis is as simple as the fact that you like that person enough to want to be intimately involved with them, which, in a healthy relationship, does tend to suggest you think that person has some integrity. I have no idea how long you two have been together, so again, there's a lot I don't know. If this is a very new relationship, then it's obviously not the same situation as it would be if you two have been together for a while. If you have been together a while, have made agreements with her, and/or are continually asking her about what she's doing without believing her, it's understandable she's frustrated. If you are brand-new to each other, though, she can only reasonably expect so much trust, even though it is reasonable for her to expect you will believe her when you ask these things and won't hound her about them.

You get to have what needs you do, including what your needs are in protecting your own heart. If you don't feel you can build trust with someone at this distance, that's okay, and the other person needs to honor and accept that. But you still have to be forthright about that with her and only ask things that are healthy and fair. If what you're asking really isn't fair or reasonable -- or even possible -- then you need to stop asking and figure out if you can handle this relationship and this model of relationship without doing that. If what you're asking is reasonable, but you still don't feel secure, you can either talk about this together and come up with some healthy, creative solutions (like maybe seeing each other more often, or like her more vocally expressing how she feels about you so you can have more confidence in those feelings) or again, figure that this just isn't the right relationship or situation for you right now and part ways.

Long story short again? Asking her not to think or talk about a whole gender isn't reasonable or healthy. Asking her not to flirt may or may not be okay, depending on what exactly you're asking, but it can be problematic. Saying you can't trust her because you can't listen in to all her conversations or watch her with others not only isn't true, because that's not what trust is, that would probably be about insecurity and/or control, not about love or trust. Saying you can't trust her because of being long-distance may be true for you, but if it is, this isn't the right relationship for you right now. So, you've got to think through all of this, sort it out in your own head, figure out what you need, can handle and is best for you, then make some choices.

I'm going to leave you with some extra links that might be of help in that process, but I also want to leave you with a clear message that it's okay if you're just not ready for a serious relationship right now, or this relationship, for whatever reason. All of us will have times in our lives when we're just not, or when we might really, really be into someone, or into the idea of being in a relationship, but the timing just isn't right for where we or the other person are at. That's okay, even if we might worry that we might not have the opportunity again to be with someone we like, or anyone we like, in a romantic relationship. Chances are, we'll have more than one chance at that with more than one person, or even the same person, and we're much more likely to have a healthy and mutually-awesome relationship when the timing and situation is really right for us.

written 01 Jun 2010 . updated 02 Jun 2010

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