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Trust But Verify in Relationships

Not a week goes by that I don’t come across clients or Food and Feelings message board members lamenting about not knowing whether to trust someone. When they meet someone—a potential friend, romantic partner, colleague, or new boss—they want to know instantly whether or not to trust them. If they watched their dogs or cats (or pet ferrets or rabbits) for any length of time, they’d understand that trust doesn’t occur instantly out of the blue. Animals check each other out and they certainly check us out. My cat sniffs everyone she meets, no matter how often she’s met them. Sometimes we need to do the human version of sniffing for a bit to know what someone’s really like.

In international affairs, the process of putting a bit of faith in someone and then keeping an eye on them is called “trust but verify.” You cannot trust people without their continuing to prove themselves to be trustworthy. So what if they insist you can trust them? So what if they try to make you think there’s something wrong with you that you don’t trust them? It doesn’t matter; you must keep verifying if they’re trustworthy. Trusting is an ongoing process, not a static decision or condition.

Therapist Dr. Jon Connelly calls this process assessment. Animals use the sniff test to assess if other animals are safe or threats. They wouldn’t last very long if they were often wrong, would they? When I accidentally step on my cat’s paw because she crowds me toward her food dish, she’s a bit wary of me until I can regain her trust and get back in her good graces. If I stepped on her paw more often than I treated her kindly, I’d expect that she wouldn’t be so forgiving. She’s a great assessor. When her previous owner’s dogs chased her all over the house and made her life miserable, she raced off to hide under the bed the minute she caught a whiff of them.

Too many dysregulated eaters cause themselves unnecessary agita and stress because they make up their minds someone is trustworthy, then stop verifying. You may wish to keep believing a friend or lover can be trusted in order to avoid confrontation or separation. Or you may not want to believe you were wrong all along—again (called the sunk cost fallacy). Mostly you may believe what people tell you, then stop observing how they treat you (and others). Too often clients who say they’re skittish about trusting, zero right in on the most untrustworthy folks on the planet, then seem surprised when their trust is broken. That’s because they stop assessing what’s happening to them. If they continued, they would see that the other person was not to be trusted. Assessment and verification are your best tools in monitoring trust, so use them well and often.