Trust is an Action, Not a State of Mind

Couples start with such hope. They love each other overtly, and give of each other freely. And they trust each other. Far too often, that trust erodes over the months and years, creating a loss of love. In love’s place, they find loneliness and isolation. While mistrust is not the opposite of trust (read on, you’ll see how that works), the lack of trust sets the stage for mistrust. When we find ourselves lonely and untrusting, we are most vulnerable to look outside the relationship—the conditions are set for betrayal.

What is trust

John Gottman, in his new book The Science of Trust, he changes the way most of us think about trust. Most of us believe that trust is an idea, a belief. But Gottman redefines trust as an action, not that you or I do, but what our partner does. Gottman found that we trust because of what our partners do.

For example, you come home after a stressful day and want to connect. But your partner had an equally hard day. You say, “Wow, what a hard day I’ve had.” By saying that, you make a bid for your partner’s attention and connection. Trust builds when your partner decides not to counter your bid, but instead, accepts your needs at his or her expense. You might hear “I did too, but tell me what happened in your day. You seem so stressed.” When this pattern happens over and over, each of you giving to the other at your own expense, trust builds.

So What’s the Question We All Ask

Gottman details the crux question we all ask of each other: “Are you there for me?” The question invades all aspects of our relationships. You can hear the question when the cat vomits on the floor after a long day, when you have a car accident, or when one of the children becomes ill and misses school. The question underlies what we use to define trust, implicitly and unconsciously.

Gottman uses the movie “Sliding Doors” to point out how little moments form important points in a relationship. The movie explores how the main character’s life changes on the turn of a small moment. We watch her carry out two different life-lines based on that one moment. So too do we find our own lives: Too many missed sliding-door moments and trust erodes as isolation and loneliness takes its place. We begin feeling that our partners are not there for us.

How Does Mistrust Grow so Quickly

Mistrust can exist along with trust, and Gottman’s research shows that often the two co-exist in young couples. Mistrust is not the opposite of trust, it is the enemy of trust. Mistrust, too , is an action—a very different action than trust. When we act selfishly, at the expense of our partners, mistrust occurs.

Gottman, both a psychologist and a math major, found that mistrust results from what he calls a zero-sum loss. When we enter into a conflict with our partners, we can chose to server our own needs by taking advantage of our partners. By doing so, if we experience a cost to ourselves, that cost is zeroed out by what we take from our partners. The sum of our loss is zero, because we made up our expenses through using up some aspect of our partners. When that pattern happens, we teach our partners to mistrust us. Not only do they answer “No.” to the question about being there for them, but then they add “And he or she hurts me in the process.”

The Outcome of Mistrust

Mistrust produces ongoing conflict. Couples find themselves easily caught in arguments characterized by negativity and stickiness—yes, stickiness. The arguments seem almost impossible to leave, and have an almost gravitational control of both people. As the conflicts escalate, isolation continues to grow along with greater and greater mistrust.

After enough time, couples caught in the negative pattern begin to see each other differently. They begin to re-write the history of the relationship into a negative story. And, they see each other negatively, at the core. The view takes on a sense of permanence, and when the story reaches the negativity and permanence stage, divorce happens all-to-often.

Do You Still Trust Each Other?

While many questions can be asked of a couple, the trust question is extremely important—maybe at the top of the list. Ask yourself if your partner is there for you when you need him or her. If the answer is not yes, trust has begun to erode. Ask yourself if your partner will take advantage of you when they meet their own needs. If the answer is yes, mistrust has taken root. Tell yourself the story of the relationship. Do you find each yourself rewriting what happened into negative terms? If yes, the marriage may be in trouble.

How to Build Trust

To overcome the loss of trust, Gottman found that attunement to each other is crucial. He defines attunement to include knowing each other’s soft spots, empathizing with each other’s feelings, and turn toward (not away) from difficult emotions in each other. In the sliding-door moments, times when we make a mistake and hurt our partners, or when we talk about disagreements, remember that painful feelings need attention. These feelings can bring about powerful understanding and connection.

In a future blog, we will explore the moments when trust can be built, and how to attune according to Gottman.

A Final Word

This blog can help you understand trust and how to recognize if your relationship might be in trouble. Good couples therapy should help build acceptance of each other, attunement, and heal any betrayals. The therapy should build both skills to trust and positive views of each other. And, good therapy will help you know if things are beyond the point of no-return. Good therapy should help you build a relationship of trust and attunement—if at all possible, with your partner, but sometimes, unfortunately, maybe with someone else.



© Copyright 2014 Kevin D. Arnold, Ph.D., ABPP, All rights Reserved.
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Psychologist, Ohio Lic. 4398 (also licensed in Wisconsin) Board Certified in Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology American Board of Professional Psychology Director Commissioner, Commission for the Recognition of Specialties and Proficiencies in Professional Psychology of the American Psychological Association Kevin D. Arnold, Ph.D., ABPP, is the director of the Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy in Columbus, Ohio, and a licensed psychologist. Kevin is a clinical faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry at Ohio State University, as well as serving a number of leadership roles at the state and national level in cognitive-behavioral therapy and professional psychology. He balances his practice and leadership activities with his most important roles: father to his son (age 8) and daughter (Alex, age 6) and husband to his wife.


  1. Excellent summary of Gottman’s research on this topic. Escalating conflict is usually accompanied by blame and defensiveness that are shame-based, and common for some codependent couples. As Virginia Satir stated decades ago, individuals with low self-esteem find it hard to give without feeling robbed. Self-esteem is crucial for marriages to flourish and for love and trust to grow.
    Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT
    Author of Codependency for Dummies