The Science of Falling in Love – Phase Three: Lifetime Commitment

The Science of Fidelity and Infidelity Series

Trust Levels Affect Couples’ Ability to Resolve Conflict

“Will you be there for me?“

“Can I trust you?”

“When I am sad, angry, alone, confused, or just in a funk, do I come first for you?”

These are the most pressing questions embedded in conflict that couples at any stage of their relationship will ask one another.The question of trust opens up like a large fan and encompasses a wide variety of needs partners have in a relationship. Some couples never really get to the root of this “trust question” and carry on with life, essentially isolated and alone.

Communication in Young Couples

A recent research study on 135 young American couples found that couples spend an average of 35 minutes a week talking to each other. These brief conversations are mostly spent on discussing the to-do-list of the family such as picking up the kids, grocery shopping, or household chores. Successful couples that build trust in phase two can move on to phase three (lifetime commitment), and are able to move beyond these business conversations with each other to communicating about deep needs. “I’m here for you” when you are in pain, when you are stuck, feeling overly sensitive, unattractive or insecure. “I stop and listen even when you have a problem, EVEN with me.”

How Low-Trust Couples Fail during Conflict

According to marriage researcher John Gottman, there is only one way to be a disaster as a couple: allow negative affect in conflict to become the norm. Low-trust couples are seldom positive in conflict (gentle, kind, recognizing partner’s effort and sentiment) and are mostly negative (contemptuous, critical, defensive, and exercise stonewalling). Low-trust couples get stuck in negativity and even their conflict repair attempts generate more negative sentiment. “Can you stop interrupting me?” and “If you could just be quiet for a minute I could perhaps get a word in” are typical ways of attempting to maintain control of the conversation in low trust couples. These comments can easily turn into more negativity such as “Oh, you think I talk too much, I get it. Don’t worry, you won’t hear from me for awhile” and thus come more hostility, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

How High-Trust Couples Succeed during Conflict

High-trust couples, “masters” in relationships, will mess up at times, but negativity does not become the norm in their conflicts. They are able to exit from negativity by checking in with one another. Their conflict discussions are characterized by positive repair attempts such as “ Could you say that in a gentler way?” or “Alright, finish what you were going to say.” High-trust couples fully process their conflict. They are “attuned to “ one another. This attunement enables them to build further trust and practice successful repairs.

If the answer to the big trust question is a ‘yes” then partners can fully talk out their conflict and move –on. Trust needs attunement.

Woman holding a child


Awareness, Turning Toward, Tolerance, Understanding, Non-defensive Responding, and Empathy.

Trust is really about being there for one another even when communication is broken. Since emotional connection and empathy are relatively rare in conflict, the best a successful couple can do is to repair what they had messed up.

Are you dealing with trust issues in your relationship? Are your conflicts characterized by poor repair attempts or no repair at all? Is your relationship stuck in negativity?

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