Reliability, Trust, and Forgiveness

Part 4 – Getting Together: Building Relationships as We Negotiate

Couples often struggle with communication. The inability to communicate leads to all sorts of misunderstandings, failures to resolve problems and cycles that build up to create significant dissatisfaction with the relationship. Fisher and Brown, of the Harvard Negotiation Project present some fundamental elements of communicating and problem solving in their book Getting Together: Building Relationships as We Negotiate. This book is the sequel to the bestseller Getting to Yes. Although not writing from a therapy background, their work on communication is consistent with what we share with our clients at Fuller Life. This post is the fourth in our series on Getting Together.

The first post introduced six elements of a good working relationship. The overriding theme in each element is: “Do only those things that are both good for the relationship and good for us, whether or not they reciprocate” (38). These six elements are based on a commitment to be unconditionally constructive. Now we will look a bit closer at the fourth of the six.

Reliability: Be wholly trustworthy, but not wholly trusting.

In every relationship, trust and suspicion exist on a continuum. Reliability is a determining factor regarding where our relationship is on a continuum. If there is already an established history of following through with one’s commitments, each partner can feel more secure and confident about further commitments. Moreover, we all make mistakes. A history of reliability can offer an opportunity to be more understanding and gracious when either partner makes a mistake.

“A practical goal for a working relationship, and one that each partner can pursue unconditionally, is thus:

  1. a high degree of reliability in the behavior of each, and
  2. an accurate assessment by each of the risks of relying on the other.”

Dealing with our own reliability

Our relationship partner may have good reason to mistrust us if our behavior is inconsistent, our communication is careless, we take our promises lightly, and our behavior is deceptive or dishonest. We can only control our own behavior so the burden of improving trust starts with us. Improving our behavior is the first place to start (re)building trust. Predictability, clarity, taking promises seriously, and honesty are all within our power and control.

Dealing with our partner’s reliability

Notice that even as we shift attention to our partner’s reliability, the focus continues to stay on our own conduct. Fisher and Brown ask, “Do we encourage their unreliable conduct? Do we overload trust? Do we trust too little? Do we criticize no matter what they do?”

We can help our partner be more reliable as we take steps to reduce risk rather than overload trust. We can begin to trust according to what is deserved, be precise in our praise and criticism, and view breakdowns as joint problems. In our assessment of our partner’s conduct, we need be self-critical. Are we evaluating them wrongly? Misperceiving their behavior? Confusing different kinds of unpredictability?

Often when couples discuss possible solutions to failures in trust the word “forgiveness” comes up. Though Fisher and Brown do not address the topic, based on the above, forgiveness does not mean, “I forgive you, so now everything can go back to the way it was before.” Perhaps forgiveness means acknowledging what has happened, the hurt it has caused, and then freeing the other person from ill will and continued indebtedness. It does not mean setting up the other person to commit the same wrong over and over again. Forgiveness is properly rooted in the perspective “Love unconditionally; trust conditionally.”

If there is a deficit of trust and reliability in your relationship that is preventing you from experiencing the quality relationship you desire, we want to walk alongside the process of rebuilding. If you have been hurt in the past and struggle with how to move forward, please know that Fuller Life Family Therapy is available and a safe place to work together.

Fisher, Roger, and Scott Brown. Getting Together: Building Relationships as We Negotiate. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.

Scott Rampy, M.MFT, LMFTA

Resident Therapist at Fuller Life Family Therapy Institute

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