Trust and Imperfection

In a previous post, I said that

I can’t imagine going to a partner and saying “we need this rule because your judgment sucks.” Or rather, I can imagine someone saying that privately, but not really admitting it publicly. So I was very surprised to see people using this idea as some sort of justification for partners making rules in relationships. To me, if it becomes necessary for me to say to a partner “I can’t trust you to make good decisions,” it’s time to end the relationship.

As I sometimes do, I feel I overstated the case there a bit. Trust is a flexible concept, and is certainly not a monolith. It’s perfectly reasonable to trust someone to make good decisions about certain topics, but not others. For instance, I might trust my wife to make good decisions while driving, but not to make good decisions if she’s trying to give legal advice. The type of trust relevant in a relationship is unique to each relationship, but generally look something like this:

  • Do I trust my partner to care a sufficient amount about my well-being?
  • Do I trust that my partner, given sufficient information, is able to accurately judge how their actions affect me?
  • Do I trust that my partner will be honest with me, even when it’s to their short-term advantage not to be?
  • Do I trust my partner to behave consistently, and with integrity?
  • Do I trust my partner to value me in the ways that I want to be valued?

So what happens when you don’t trust a partner in those ways? Some would say break up (or don’t get together in the first place). There’s a reasonable case to be made that it’s a good idea to get to know someone reasonably well before starting a romantic relationship. That’s the safest route, because you can develop the trust you need outside of a relationship context and enter the relationship with all necessary trust in place.

But that doesn’t work for everyone. Some of us have a higher risk tolerance, and see the advantages in giving a romantic relationship a try before we’re quite sure it’s a good idea. Some of us are just impatient. Some of us don’t draw a clear distinction between friends and romantic partners. There are plenty of reasons why a person might end up in a romantic or otherwise close relationship with a person they’re unsure that they can trust. It’s also unfair to expect our partners to be perfect. Nobody is able to make good decisions all of the time, people screw up, and people do things that hurt us. It’s not reasonable to ever trust another person (or ourselves) completely, so in any relationship, there’s going to be a trust deficit.

Some people try to manage this trust deficit with rules. As I’ve previously written, creating relationship rules won’t guarantee good behavior, but it can provide some addition psychological pressure to keep one’s commitments. I’m not a fan of this as a solution, for reasons that I’ve previously written.

So we’re faced with a situation in which we can’t completely trust our partners to make the decisions we want them to make. So what do we do? Your answer to this question will say a lot about you. Some people will try to control their partners’ decisions. Some will attempt to stay emotionally closed off to avoid risking being hurt. Some will put limitations on the relationship unless and until more trust can be developed. Some will stop dating entirely.

My choice is to take a risk. Risk being hurt. Risk being mistreated. Risk having my heart broken. All relationships involve that kind of risk, so I say embrace it. Like Franklin Veaux says, fortune favors the bold!

Here’s another question that’s particularly illumiating: if you partner wants to take an action that benefits them, but harms you (without crossing any of your boundaries), what should they do? My answer is: do it. I want my love to be empowering, not limiting. I don’t want people to feel like they shouldn’t make themselves happy because it will make me unhappy. I think, so long as people’s boundaries are respected, everyone is happiest when everyone focuses on making themselves happy. I don’t want a relationship with me to mean sacrifice.

I can’t ever be sure that my partners will make the decisions that I want them to make, and that’s ok. Certain decision will hurt me, and certain decisions will cause the relationship to end, but that’s ok too. My partners are worth the risks, and my partners are their best selves when they are their most empowered selves. Love without limits.

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