Trust in Attunement

Whether you are talking among friends about relationships or you are sitting with a couple’s therapist, the concept of trust is likely to come up. For some it’s a question of “how do we rebuild trust?”, “How can I ever trust you again?” or even “I’m struggling to trust you due to a past relationship experience.” According to John Gottman, a leading researcher and writer on relationships and marriage, one of the fundamental issues for couples is trust and betrayal.

While each person may have varying ideas about what trust consists of, we can agree that culture, family background, media and personal experience among others influence our definition. Nevertheless, my experience is that the majority if couples’ arguments are less about the actual words being said, and more about the underlying theme of trust.

Here are just a few questions that I have found resonate with my couples during arguments: 

  • Can I trust you to take care of me?
  • Can I trust you not to hurt me?
  • Can I trust that you will be there for me?
  • Can I trust that you are being honest?
  • Can I trust you not to be unfaithful?
  • Can I trust you not to do drugs or drink (typically for couples in recovery) 

Building Trust

A question commonly asked in couple’s therapy is about building, strengthening or re-establishing trust. The short answer is that trust is realized in the ordinary moments, rather than extraordinary ones. Although trust can be broken in extraordinary moments that are momentous and perhaps dramatic, such as discovering an affair, it tends not to be easily mended by grand events or gestures. That means that every day there are small, even seemingly simple opportunities when you make a decision to either turn towards or turn away from your partner.

Turning Towards:

I often talk about happiness not a state of being, but rather as a process of cultivation. It is the same idea with trust. We are constantly given opportunities where we make a decision to cultivate and grow that trust in small moments in our daily lives, such as asking your partner how they are when you read a certain emotion or demeanor on them despite their not having said anything.

Turning Away:

The opposite of this would be turning away, which is when couples can fall into infidelity traps. As I talked about in “Emotional Infidelity: Fact or Fiction?” there is a meaningful attachment formed outside of the relationship that conflicts with the ability for the couple to build intimacy inside the relationship. For example:

 I am having a very rough day and my partner is not engaging with me (for whatever reason). I feel like he is not there for me and my emotional needs are not being met.

This simple instance, when your partner is not attuned to your emotional needs can send someone the message that “I can’t trust you to be there for me emotionally.” If repeated over time, it can make it more likely that you will go outside of the relationship to get your needs met. Thus, causing even more of a roadblock in your primary relationship. 


The idea of being attuned to your partner has been studied by one of Gottman’s graduate students, Dan Yoshimoto, who says that the basis for building trust is the idea of attunement.

He has broken this down with the acronym ATTUNE, which stands for:

  • Awareness of your partner’s emotion;
  • Turning toward the emotion;
  • Tolerance of two different viewpoints;
  • trying to Understand your partner;
  • Non-defensive responses to your partner;
  • and responding with Empathy.

Sex= Trust? 

Well not exactly, but being emotionally attuned to your partner isn’t the only element necessary for trust. Research tells us that trust is also related to the secretion of oxytocin, better known as the “cuddle hormone,” or the hormone of bonding, which is secreted during hugging, touching and orgasms. Similarly, men secrete Vasopressin, which is associated with fear. Therefore the experience of having an orgasm with your partner combats feelings of fear while strengthening the intimate bond beyond the physical and emotional connection.


 References & Resources

Fuller Picture of Oxytocin’s Role Emerging– PsychCentral

Gottman on Trust & Betrayal-

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