Building Trust in A Relationship Boils Down To This …

Avoiding High Risk Interactions: Part 1

We have learned from research the fastest and most effective way to build trust in a relationship. Before getting to the bottom line on building trust, let’s set the stage. You may have heard the expression, “Relationships are complex”. I imagine most people would agree with that statement. In any relationship there are inevitably going to be times when partners feel confused about what just happened in an interaction that went south.

Marci and Jeff

walking in park
“Did I say something wrong?”

Marci and Jeff would agree that their morning went great – at first. Jeff woke up before Marci and quietly put the coffee on while Marci caught a few more minutes of sleep. Marci awoke to a smiling Jeff who brought her coffee with just the right amount of milk and sugar.

Jeff came back to bed to finish his cup. This was a ritual for them. Marci knew Jeff didn’t like to talk much until after that first cup, so she and Jeff sat quietly and comfortably in the silence. Marci offered to make breakfast which Jeff gratefully accepted and appreciated.

After breakfast they agreed to a “walk and talk”, another ritual well established in their relationship. On the walk Jeff told Marci that he was feeling stressed about his upcoming meeting with his co-worker. They were collaborating on a project and Jeff was upset that his colleague did not follow through on something. Jeff was anxious about the meeting and hated conflict, but this had to be dealt with.

Marci knowing that Jeff was uncomfortable with conflict responded initially by acknowledging Jeff’s dread. She then tried to lower Jeff’s anxiety by offering suggestions on how Jeff could handle the interaction.


Jeff stopped in his tracks. Marci stopped. Then Jeff walked ahead of her obviously upset. What just happened?

frustrated boy

Why Advice Does Not Work (Usually)

On the surface it doesn’t seem like Marci did anything wrong. All she was trying to do was reassure and comfort Jeff. One could argue that Jeff was being too sensitive, even immature. “Come on Jeff, I’m just trying to help.”

When Jeff heard Marci offer suggestions he felt like he was eight-years old. He wasn’t asking for suggestions, what he wanted was a friend to listen. Jeff knew Marci was trying to be helpful, but he already had a plan for how he was going to handle the interaction. In fact, he was going to run that plan by Marci, but it never got that far. In that moment Jeff felt alone.

When partners offer unsolicited advice the risk is unintentionally communicating that they have a solution the other person has not thought of. It can feel very parental and at worst, demeaning. In some cases, old wounds from childhood may create old, familiar feelings.

Marci recognized that she is a problem-solver and she too quickly moved into solutions once again. After acknowledging her slip, she asked Jeff to try again and that she would work on listening. The walk ended well.

Try This Instead

Avoid Advice When Partners Share Their Stress

Just Listen

Unless your partner asks for advice specifically, it’s best to support your partner by listening. Asking questions to understand your partner’s thoughts, feelings, concerns, is the gold standard!

Avoiding High Risk Interactions: Part 2

When partners talk about something they are excited how the other partner responds makes a huge difference. Recognizing what is at stake helps avoid misfires.

Jennifer and Raul

Not being able to share good news is lonely

Jennifer had just learned that she was being promoted to her long-held dream job at her current company. There where two other candidates, and she got the call. Jennifer had worked very hard to earn the title and income that went with this promotion. Jennifer could now take leadership in her division, the first time a woman held this position.

Jennifer had not told Raul yet. She wanted this to be a special moment they could share, but how? Then she came up with the idea to tell him the news at Fort Funston Beach. She wanted to walk to the same spot on the bluffs where she first told Raul her goals and hopes for the future. She remembered his supportive comments and confidence in her achieving whatever she set in her heart.

Jennifer wondered, was she being too dramatic? She didn’t care, so what! This was a special moment and it seemed like a great and creative idea. Raul knew what this would mean to her.

Jennifer suggested they go to the beach and out to dinner that night, stating she really needed to get out. Raul thought it was a great idea, but didn’t ask her why. She had a hard time suppressing a smile. She suspected he might know why, Raul knew that the announcement for this position could be made at any time.

They got to the beach and headed toward their spot on the bluff. Jennifer kept waiting for Raul to ask her about the job announcement and how she thought things were going. He didn’t ask. He didn’t ask why she needed to go out that night.

Jennifer felt a little impatient, slightly irritated, but chalked it up to her excitement. They got to the scenic spot, and she couldn’t wait any longer to tell him. She felt like she was going to burst.

“Guess what? I got the position!” Raul looked at her and responded with, “That’s great Jen!”. When do you start, will we be able to get away for that week we talked about?”

Jennifer kept looking at him waiting for him to ask her what this meant to her and how she felt about achieving one of her dreams. Raul wasn’t trying to be mean, she knew he was happy for her. However, internally Jennifer felt alone in her joyous moment.

Try This Instead

Avoid Focus on Self

Explore Partner’s Excitement

You don’t have to have the same emotions as your partner to share in delighting in your partners positive feelings. When your partner shares something positive, or is excited, find out as much as you can and what it means to your partner.

Building Trust

Building trust really boils down to partners not feeling alone. It does not matter whether partners are feeling stressed and anxious or feeling victorious and happy. What is important is that partners do not feel alone in their low or high moments of life.

A couple’s ability to stay present to each other in both good and bad moments creates a solid foundation for the relationship. The term “emotional attunement” refers to the feeling that “my partner gets me, my emotions, and accepts me.”

When Raul and Jennifer discussed what happened, Raul was able to acknowledge his response was hurtful. We are not perfect beings, so letting each other know what we need is important. The second conversation went well at the beach and during their lovely crab cioppino dinner that night.

Perhaps relationships aren’t that complicated when we strive to create a relationship where our partner does not feel alone.


Please leave your thoughts and comments below.

Additional Tip: Intimacy Moments of Opportunity Abound