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Trust in Families: Another View

Traveling provides me with time to think. Over the past three weeks, I have travelled to Texas, Tennessee, and Massachusetts to attend meetings on how to restore trust in families. Listening to the views of others has prompted me to explore the topic critically for myself.

How do you build trust in families, who manage assets together?

I have been working with families for the past 25 years, but I am only now beginning to see the connection between trust within a family and the fundamental development of self within that family. I have come to see that trust is a major indicator of the ability of each individual to be a “self” in that family—to take responsibility for self, see the part one plays in any situation, endure discomfort in the face of differences and, above all, strive to remain connected.

Most conversations about trust focus on the expectations of the behavior of others. What is labeled as “trust” is really putting in place one's own criteria for the behavior of the other.

This most common understanding and use of trust is that it reflects a misplaced focus. When one says, “I trust you,” this comment takes the focus away from self and self-responsibility and places responsibility for a life situation or interaction on the other. In short, trusting becomes a way of focusing on the other, not on self.

Trust has come to mean focusing on what we expect, need or want from another. When expectations are not met, when we see things differently from others or when we lose confidence in the behavior of others, we react. When intensity increases, our automatic response is to pull away emotionally and move toward cut off.

Cutoff is a process of managing unsolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, spouses, friends, and business associates by reducing or totally cutting off genuine contact with them. This resolves nothing and leads to forming new relationships with too much importance. Leaving a relationship with the potent energy for getting away provides the one fleeing with cheap energy based more on running away from than moving toward. The unresolved relationship carries with it an overvalue on the new relationship, making it more vulnerable to problems when stress increases.

Emotional cutoff is observed in primates and operates in all humans. It is part of our automatic nature and a protective mechanism. We find ourselves shutting down internally, moving away from others either psychologically or geographically, all fueled by an exquisite sensitivity to the differences and perceived slights or wrongs that have been done to us. This tension supports reactive and highly charged thinking.

Finding fault with the other, expressing our emotions with anger, telling the other about how they let you down or even using guided problem-solving exercises rarely lead to establishing trust with important others. These solutions seek either a specific response or a quick solution to situational distress, while ignoring our deep-seated, unresolved automatic emotions.

The methods and techniques we use to solve fundamental problems rooted in our very human nature take ongoing commitment to the application of learning in the presence of the other(s) in our lives, who most deeply effect us. It is a learning process that takes time and the increasing ability to manage upset.

It seems a bit naive to think that a day of trust building on a ropes course or structured workshop exercises will solve deep, fundamental, reactive problems. These exercises may produce short-term “aha” experiences, but do little to change underlying emotional reactivity. This short-term "relief" may create an illusion of dealing with the issue (or make it "the other person who's the problem"), but these strategies miss the automatic, hidden processes that underlie human relationships.

• How can we understand the deep and automatic nature of our own human behavior?
• How can we think about what can be done to intervene in such automatic functioning?
• How can we create circumstances leading to thoughtful change that rebuilds our trust in ourselves?

This is my initial thinking:

1. Observe.
Closely observing oneself in repeated interactions can lead to a deeper understanding of the nuances of our own behaviors/views and those of others. Each interaction has at least two sets of perceptions. It takes practice to continually observe oneself and others in context. It is in the repeated observing of interactions between people that learning and integration of new ideas takes place. This learning is partly about seeing the difference between what we perceive in the action of others and what the other intends. Observing and reflecting on our own actions and communicating about them thoughtfully are a part of the ongoing process that reforms the basis for trust in self.

2. Repeat Interactions
Overcoming reactivity based on past experience is a process of engaging repeatedly. When people begin with a commitment to take the next step toward deeper understanding of others, despite frustration, a deeper level of engagement is activated. It takes especial effort and purpose to move into an interaction with another with whom you have a relationship that has had past problems. Somehow one must learn to lean into the sensitivity. What develops is the capacity to interact with the other without the fear of being harmed. One is building trust in self to manage one part of the relationship. A lack of confidence in others’ thinking or actions initiates automatic distrust. This is exacerbated by a lack of confidence in one’s own thinking or core strength. Initially there will be little focus on building trust directly. With more failures than successes, it takes perseverance to overcome past habits of interacting.

The challenge is that only through a willingness to re-enter the overly sensitized, untrusting arena, and begin interacting again and again, that trust can be reconsidered and rebuilt. Perhaps it might help if one thought of trust as a muscle that can be strengthened through repetitions—building strength through enduring stress.

The challenge for each of us is to be able to stay in our seat, listen carefully, work toward understanding, even when your very cells say "Why bother?" or "I’m out of here."

After a perceived untrusting experience or a lifetime of eroding trust in a relationship, the challenge is to commit to a continued process that 1) shifts the focus to oneself and, 2) reconsiders labeling the other as untrustworthy. These abilities form the basis for managing oneself. It is from thoughtful self-management that we can develop long-lasting, trusting relationships. The challenge is in the doing.


Filed under Family, Bowen family systems theory

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