Recently I talked with two women, “Susan” and “Karen.” They had just started dating a couple months before, and seemed quite in lust. They were glowing and giggling, until the issue of “trust” came up.
Susan: I just wish Karen would trust me more. She just can’t let herself lean on me. She’s been hurt before and has built up these walls…
Karen: I don’t know what’s wrong with me. It’s just really hard to trust her. I can’t just let go and lean like she wants me too.
They were caught up in exploring the roots of Karen’s difficulty trusting, but I was thinking about a saying, “Don’t push the river, it flows by itself.” I was picturing Susan wading bravely into some mountain river, trying to push it along and getting frustrated because she’s just getting cold and wet and the river is just flowing along like it always does. And Karen, feeling guilty and inadequate because she can’t speed herself up. I wanted them to climb out of the water for a minute, take a few deep breaths, and remember the truth about rivers, and human nature.
You just can’t talk someone into trusting you. It’s a process, it develops by itself, and if you push it too much, you’re being…untrustworthy!
I say untrustworthy because when you’ve got an agenda to convince someone she should trust you, you’re not really respecting her pace, or listening to what she says. She’s saying she needs time to get to know you, to see how you handle being told she doesn’t need to lean on you right this minute. Are you going to get hurt, or offended? Or are you going to step back, respect her autonomy, and pay attention to your own?
There are couple other trust questions that can yield a lot more valuable information. One is –trust you to…what? Listen to what I say, take me seriously, respect my boundaries, appreciate the way my water flows? And don’t judge or analyze me because I’m different from you, any more than you’d say the Yuba River is inherently superior to the Chattahoochee…they’re both beautiful and fun, in their own ways.
And the really important trust question is-do you trust yourself? If you start wading into this river and find that there are some very cold currents, or stagnant pools, will you have the courage and the sense to wade back out again? If you start investing in this relationship and realize that you’re really on different wavelengths in terms of how much affection you need, how much self-disclosure feels right to you, how much sex you want—I hope you can trust yourself to take your own needs seriously, to stop trying to make something fit that just isn’t a good fit.
I remember the first time a therapist said to me “You can trust your feelings.” At the time, it felt like an amazing, life-changing awareness—so that’s why I have feelings! They’re guideposts, just like the sensation of burning heat guides me to take my hand off the stove. And my feelings, at the time, were telling me I was suffocating in a relationship. I followed those feelings right out of that relationship, and have been eternally grateful.
But then it gets complicated again, like when I know what I feel but I don’t want to. It’s like when you try on something to wear at the store. It looks beautiful on the hanger, the color and style are perfect…but it just doesn’t fit right. Then you start thinking –maybe if I hold my breath, or stand up really straight, or drop my shoulders a little, or whatever. Sometimes you take it home and it hangs in your closet forever, or you wear it and realize it really doesn’t work. Because, sadly or not, reality prevails.
Speaking of reality—trust issues are loaded when you’re in a new relationship. You’ve got a huge flow of oxytocin –the “bonding chemical” –coursing through your system, making you feel warm and wonderful—but you don’t really know each other yet! So you’re bonding to your own fantasy of who you hope she is. Then reality starts to sink in, and you lose a little of that lovin’ feeling before you can gain other feelings, like trust. Real trust, that’s based on a series of small experiences where you’ve felt validated, respected, understood. Then you can know if this is a river you can keep flowing with.
Glenda Corwin, Ph.D is a clinical psychologist who specializes in lesbian sexual issues. She is the author of Sexual Intimacy for Women: A Guide for Same Sex Couples (Seal Press, 2010). Dr. Corwin writes for the Huffington Post: Gay Voices, for the e-magazine Epochalips, as well as her own blog on www.DrGlendaCorwin.com. She presents frequently at professional conferences, and is a regular guest on Barb Elgin’s LesbianLoveTalk radio program.