Trust - The Basis of all Good Relationships

"Trust is not some vague quality that grows between two people. It is the specific state that exists when you are both willing to change your own behavior to benefit your partner." - John Gottman


In prison services, one of the longest standing and most effective punishments you can subject inmates to is that of isolation. For me, nothing can evidence more the fundamental aspect that human contact plays in our lives. But as fundamental as it is, maintaining our close bonds to the significant people in our lives can be difficult, and for some of us, seemingly impossible.

People are complex, its hard enough to understand oneself let alone understand someone else. This leaves many bewildered and unable to sustain any lasting relationships, or for many to live out their lives in unhappy relationships unwilling, or simply not knowing, how to repair it.

However, despite these complexities, relationships are also simple. They share fundamental traits, that if you and your partner are aware of, can help you to maintain a fulfilling, loving and committed bond. And when it comes to understanding the workings of relationships, few have done more than psychologists Dr John and Dr Julie Gottman.

What is the Most Important Thing in a Good Relationship?

Ask this question and many will have the answer: respect, communication, love, commitment etc. But psychologists Dr John and Dr Julie Gottman, who have spent 4 decades observing, researching and working directly with couples and therapists to understand and improve relationships, have the answer: trust.

Gottman talks about trust being the foundation of any good relationship. In his book, What Makes Love Lasts, Gottman elaborates what exactly trust between two people means, "When distrust abounds, neither of you includes the other’s well-being in your calculations...Trust is not some vague quality that grows between two people. It is the specific state that exists when you are both willing to change your own behavior to benefit your partner." (Gottman, & Silver, 2012, p. 6). Without this, couples will always be suspicious of their partner's motives and waste a lot of time and energy, "In sharp contrast, trust removes an enormous source of stress because it allows you to act with incomplete information. You don’t subject your mind and body to constant worry, so the complexity of your decision making plummets. You don’t need to put chalk on tires or otherwise test your partner. Implicit trust saves you a lot of time and leaves you free to grapple with less tumultuous concerns." (Gottman, & Silver, 2012, p. xviii).

Gottman further elaborates behaviours that follow when partners view the other’s actions with distrust. He calls the behaviours the Four Horsemen: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. During a relationship, he states that there are Sliding Door Moments where couples make bids to evidence their partner's commitment. If these moments are mostly viewed negatively, then a downward spiral occurs: the couple may experience Negative Sentiment Override (NSO), viewing everything their partner does with a negative bias; if this continues they can experience Flooding, a state of arousal making them hyper-vigilant to further negativity; and then finally they can experience the Distance and Isolation Cascade, whereby they distance themselves from each other and become completely disconnected. Couples can exist in this state of disconnection for long periods. Going about their day to day lives in an unfulfilling relationship never really connecting with their partner.

To help couples Gottman developed the Sound Marital House Theory (Lisitsa, E, 2018, September 12) which attempts to model what a good relationship looks like. The model postulates the a good relationship is built on trust and commitment. Once couples have that, then they must know and admire each other and continual turn towards one another. Turning towards one another involves the couple consistently showing interest in their partner's world. Conflict management is also key with successful couples being very good and consistently dialoguing about conflict and tension in the relationship, accepting each others position in conflicts and knowing when to break and calm themselves when arguments become heated. With all of that in place the couple move towards the ultimate goal of developing a vision for their future and a life of shared meaning.

A large part of the treatment process to rebuild a relationship like this, is learning an effective way to manage your problems, and crucially, when it comes to conflict management, Gottman stated that his research shows that most problems are in fact un-resolvable (Gottman & Silver, 1999): the issue is not the problem, the issue is in how you manage that problem. Understanding this changes the purpose of dialoguing about problems, because if most problems are un-resolvable, then the only thing a couple can do is better understand it, and by that, better understand one another. And it is through this understanding of one another that couples feel closer and more connected because they spend less time problem solving and more time simply talking and listening to one another.

Final Thought

Relationship to others is fundamental to existence. Having someone that you can trust to be there for you, to accept you for who you are and be committed to your well-being is one of those joys that life can offer you. But, for many, relationships of this quality are difficult: some can't maintain long-lasting relationships, while or others live out their lives in unfulfilling disconnected partnerships.

But, that doesn't have to be the case. Relationships are complex, yes, but there are methods and tools that any couple can use to rebuild. For some that may be too much to take on by themselves. The relationship has taken its toll and they are drained, so consumed by negativity and overwhelmed that they can't even begin to turn towards their partner and start again. And it is here were a trained therapist can help. To walk alongside a couple as a guide to bring them through this process. Giving them a new way to manage their problems and find a new understanding of one another, rediscovering the love and fondness they once had, and ultimately, create a new life together.

For those of you that feel they could use this kind of help to rebuild a relationship please contact me.
If you want to learn more about the work of Dr. John and Dr. Julie Gottam please visit their website:


Gottman, J. M. (1999). The marriage clinic a scientifically-based marital therapy. New York: W.W. Norton.

Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2013). What makes love last?: How to build trust and avoid betrayal. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the countrys foremost relationship expert. New York: Harmony Books.

Lisitsa, E. (2018, September 12). The Sound Relationship House: Turn Towards Instead of Away. Retrieved from instead-of-away/

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