Trust is the glue of life. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships. ~ Stephen Covey

“I never dreamed he would cheat on me.”

A week ago, my new client found out that her husband of two years had had sex with an old girlfriend.

“What did he say when you confronted him?” I asked.

“He said he gave up being single. He didn’t give up sex with people he’s attracted to.”

“You didn’t know that?” I asked.

“No. Of course not. Everyone knows you’re not supposed to cheat, right?”

No. Wrong. This couple, like so many others, hadn’t talked about what they each meant by “cheating.” They each assumed that, of course, they were in agreement about that since they were in agreement about so much else. If only they had talked about it.

Their trust had been based on assumptions, not on information. Now, each is feeling wounded. He, because he doesn’t see that he did anything wrong. She, because she feels betrayed.

“All You Need Is Love” may have been a popular Beatles song, but it was wrong. Love may be intoxicating, but trust is what makes it safe. Trust is based on a shared understanding about what each person in the relationship expects of the other.

The wise couple develops an explicit, concrete agreement, a kind of special contract, about what is and is not okay in terms of interactions with, and especially attractions to, people outside their relationship. When they have absolute confidence that the other person will stick with the agreement, they each relax and trust.

There are probably as many types of relationships as there are types of people. What stable relationships have in common is an understanding of their deal: a stated contract about what is and is not cheating. As long as both respect and stay within the contract, no one gets hurt and the couple is stable. Each person has confidence in the other to abide by their “couple rules” and to keep priorities straight.

If circumstances change and one or the other wants to amend their deal, they don’t do it by betrayal. They do it by honestly and openly renegotiating the deal. If they can’t come to a new agreement, they separate. It is still a painful loss but it doesn’t come with the additional burdens of secrecy and betrayal that make it difficult to find love again.

How to negotiate a healthy couple “deal:”

  • Be open about your expectations. When intoxicated by new love, couples tend to see only their similarities and to let disappointments slide. It’s a huge mistake to assume you are on the same page about how you define cheating. You can’t mind-read. Your partner won’t know what you expect unless you talk about it. Building trust means stating your hopes for the relationship and talking about what you each expect your partner to do — or not do — to keep love alive.
  • Be willing to talk about reservations. It is neither healthy nor useful to bury reservations about the other in the name of love. It is neither healthy nor useful to bury reservations about your own willingness to meet the other person’s expectations in the conviction that time and love will conquer all. Shoving doubts aside only means they will grow teeth and claws. Eventually one of those doubts will come out to bite you. It’s healthier to put reservations on the table so the two of you have a chance to try to work through them.
  • Be vulnerable. Opening ourselves up to someone else can be scary. Some people, especially people who have been hurt in prior relationships, avoid discussions about their fears and frailties. They don’t talk about their expectations because they don’t want to be hurt again. That almost always guarantees that the relationship won’t last. True trust comes from revealing vulnerabilities and finding that they are treated gently and never used as a way to control or hurt the other.
  • Understand that everyone has a right to some privacy. Trust does not require sharing every little detail about past relationships and encounters. It’s enough that each of you acknowledges having loved and lost before and talks about what was learned from it. Repeatedly pressuring for details is an indication of insecurity and distrust. Trusting partners will trust that they are each sharing what is important for the other to know.
  • Be trustworthy. The truth is that the world is full of people who are attractive in different ways. A trustworthy partner is someone who honors the contract of his or her relationship, especially when it is tested. Each person generally does his or her best to be the kind of person he or she would like to live with.
  • Communication. Communication. Communication. Love is a feeling. But trust requires thoughtful discussion as well. You and the person you love can only negotiate a clear relationship contract if you know what each other is thinking.

For any love relationship to grow and deepen, there has to be trust. You need it. Your partner needs it. All the love in the world won’t compensate for its lack. When a couple has trust as well as love, both people, and the relationship, mature and thrive.

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Cheating photo available from Shutterstock