After experiencing adultery, one of the questions that cause deep anguish is “will I ever be able to trust again?” Unfortunately, this is a question that tugs deeply at our inner core of who we are and it is as tough to answer for those who decide to leave their cheater as it is for those who choose to attempt reconciliation. If you choose to leave you have to think about trusting someone new; if you choose to stay you have think about trusting someone who has betrayed you in the past.
Not trusting is an awful feeling, doubt just gnaws away at everything, but trusting after betrayal feels too vulnerable, too exposed. It’s a form of paralysis. What can we do? Is it a binary set of options or is there another way to reconceptualise the trust that previously we took for granted and never questioned so that we can move forward in our lives?
David DeSteno a professor of psychology at Northeastern University has a number of interesting insights. In his 2014 publication ‘The Truth About Trust: How it determines success in life, love, learning and more’ suggests that “trust isn’t just about the facts. It’s about trying to predict what someone will do based on competing interests and capabilities.” And this is a complicated business. Although this is not a book focused on infidelity, the truth is, issues of trust permeate our days in a multitude of ways not just with our spouses. It is a dilemma of everyday life. We trust work colleagues, we trust that when we order something on line it will be delivered, we trust our money is safe in the bank, we trust technology etc. etc. If no one were willing to trust and subsequently honour their commitments then human society would break down. Viewed in this way, trust becomes a bet “and like all bets, it contains an element of risk. The potential for loss”.
I have never thought about trust in this manner. I trusted my husband blindly and see now that this was foolish. Do I trust him now? Yes, and no! “Challenges to trust in the romantic realm begin with a hmmm – a pause where we reflect on questionable behaviour” Following his previous deceit I would now be more aware of the suspect signs and early warning signals of infidelity so I reassure myself that I can trust him if his actions appear trustworthy. But, I also need to protect my vulnerability so reducing my trust in him guards against my being exploited. As DeSteno notes “If you think you can’t trust a partner at all, transparency is the only way to go” and I have insisted that he be completely open with me and answer all of the questions that I need answered in order to trust him. He has achieved this and continues to do so almost four years since D-day. However, verifying actions are not always possible and it can be an onerous task. At times I have to risk that he will not deceive me again. I realise that agreeing to stay with him, knowing that he betrayed me previously might lead to exploitation but my experience to date is that it has allowed a loyal relationship to blossom in the shadow of a regrettable mistake. He accepts and understands my reduction of trust as a consequence of his previous behaviour.
What makes us decide to trust someone? Reputation? Well yes, but as DeSteno points out “the primary concern with reputation is that we assume it represents a set of stable traits. If someone is honest, she’ll always be honest. If he cheated, he’ll cheat again. But scientific data clearly shoes that human morality is quite variable. It’s always been this way but we’re just coming to recognise it” Experiments have shown that an individual’s trustworthiness cannot be reliably predicted from their past actions.
“Consistency in moral behaviour results not from an essence or trait engraved in our minds, but rather from an undisturbed balance between competing sets of mental mechanisms. As long as the general benefits of situations we encounter in our daily lives don’t alter the relative payoffs our behaviour remains the same. However, change the payoffs, either through altering the situation or the thinking and behaviour changes.”
So when it comes to trust, the question we should be asking, according to DeSteno is not is he trustworthy, but is he trustworthy right now? If human morality can be understood to involve trade offs between short-term and long-term gains then adultery, if no one finds out, does not diminish any long term prospects and it can be perceived as a way of having your cake and eating it too. Instead of thinking about an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other as competing aspects to a moral dilemma, DeSteno asks us to imagine images from an Aesop fable; an ant, which signifies concerns for the future (collecting food for the winter) and a grasshopper who signifies the opposite (enjoying the here and now – enjoying the summer). “Trustworthiness, viewed in this way points to the ability to self-regulate – to resist immediate desires in favour of those that possess long-term benefit” This ability to self-regulate is compatible with the concept of positive freedom. Unlike negative freedom which is defined by the freedom we have without interference from others, positive freedom is the freedom to be in control of our life. Positive freedom is increased not by less interference from others but by the personal ability to overcome less rational desires i.e. knowing that if we spend our time studying now rather than partying, our future prospects in life will be much better. Positive freedom is about achieving our full potential and we are not free if we find ourselves a slave to passing emotions such as desire or lust. For my husband to behave in a trustworthy manner will depend upon him valuing the long term benefits of the loving stable relationship that he can have with me if he chooses to be faithful.
An interesting aspect of DeSteno’s analysis is where he considers jealousy. I recognise that jealousy plays a role in my feelings about my husband’s adultery but I have yet to fully examine this in any way. For DeSteno it is a cost of trusting in a romantic relationship. But it is a difficult emotion to describe easily. Also, in contrast to DeSteno’s conclusion, I previously experienced jealousy towards my husband’s previous lovers, so this is not connected to my trusting him. Nevertheless, jealousy in the context of adultery is a combination of “fear, anger and a sadness that gnaws at the soul.” The fear results from the anxieties about the social and economic costs that losing a partner entails. The anger stems from knowing you were cheated on and that your partner violated the rules and sadness is due to the realisation that another person, someone whose judgements you value, viewed another person as desirable. Just like adultery, jealousy is not all about sex. The media may present it in this way but it is not the ultimate cause, this is an illusion. Jealousy is also about trust. As DeSteno suggests, trust can be breached in marriage in a variety of ways, for example money being siphoned off for gambling, but this will not spark a flicker of jealousy. Anger yes, but jealousy no. “Jealousy only occurs when there’s a triad. While most instances of trust involve two people, jealousy requires three.” He has a point.
“It’s the triadic nature of the situation that stokes jealousy. Unlike situations where trust is broken because one person favours his own interests over another (e.g. skimming profits, engaging in fraud) breaches of trust that gives rise to jealousy occur when there is a relative asymmetry in value between two options. A partner isn’t choosing to cheat you out of something; he’s choosing to cheat on you with someone else.” As jealousy is sensitive to not only what is happening at the moment but also to what might happen in the future it has a symbiotic relationship with trust. Whereas I can see that jealousy impacts upon trust and vice versa I only see it as an aspect of adultery. Yes, my husband chose to cheat on me with someone else but he also cheated me out of my reality by keeping it a secret.
In thinking about the trust we have in others we also need to think about the trust we have in our selves. Adultery has not only altered how I feel about trusting another, it has altered the way in which I think about how trustworthy I can be to myself. Before I discovered my husband was unfaithful I trusted that I would walk away from any relationship in which my partner chose to not be monogamous. But hey, look where I am! As DeSteno so aptly notes “we can be surprised by our own actions and shocked when we let ourselves down.” Yet I have to trust myself as well as my husband. However, deciding to trust myself is the same as deciding to trust someone else; I’m placing a bet on what the future me is likely to do. How trustworthy I am likely to be to my earlier intentions will depend on not only where I am but when I am; what person will I be in any given circumstance. So, I move forward, trusting my husband each day but not in the way that I did prior to his adultery and even though his past behaviour need not predict his future behaviour I would be foolish to not let my experience make me wiser.
“Trusting is better than not doing so but blind trust is not the optimal solution. We need to want to trust but to know when to pull back. There are, and always will be those in whom trust would be misplaced.”
So no clear cut answers I’m afraid. I do believe that if my husband were confronted with the same opportunity as previously to commit adultery he would not because he is not the same man. His regret and remorse has filled him to his boots and I am confident that he now listens to the ant and not the grasshopper. Equally, his feelings of shame have caused him to condemn his own untrustworthiness and these emotions of guilt and shame can put a brake on motivations for immediate self-interest. Plus, following DeSteno’s analysis I realise that the question will always be – not is he trustworthy but is he trustworthy today – because trust is not a stable attribute.
Today, I trust him and I trust myself. I will never trust blindly again but refuse to police his activities. Instead I will demand transparency and should our situation change and he becomes a man once more in whom trust would be misplaced I will insist upon us separating. Trust me.
Image Credit: Catching Trust Word by Stuart Miles freedigitalphotos.net