Have you ever had a trusty tool that all of a sudden stopped working? How annoying! Perhaps it was a trusted kitchen gadget, or outdoor tool. I know for me I tend to form deep trust in the car that I drive. I spend a lot of energy taking care of my car and know all the nooks and crannies to it. I can usually spot right away if something sounds a little different, or if it seems to be pulling a little too much a certain way. In Indianapolis, we tend to get terrible pot holes in the late winter and so inevitably by spring time everyones car alignment is horribly out of place. That feeling of my trusty car being even slightly out of alignment nags at me incessantly. I’m used to my car being reliable because I can typically be responsible and give it care. When reliability and responsibility are in balance, it creates a deeply trusting relationship that speaks to safety. It creates predictability. When reliability or responsibility is taken away or threatened, it creates great uncertainty in the relationship and destroys trust. If I can’t predict how my car will react when I go to drive it, it leads to uncertainty, anxiety, control, maybe even avoidance. When I can predict how it will drive, it leads to road trips, car washes and consistent oil changes. The same is true in our relationships. When predictability within relationships is called into question, the relationship becomes unsafe and trust is harmed.
Responsibility in relationship refers to the individuals ability to fulfill (give) obligations within the relationship. Because I am able to be responsible for my car and take it in for annual maintenance and regular oil changes, I am able to fulfill my role of being a responsible car owner. In doing so, I can then expect (take) my car to work when I need it. In human relationships we each may have our own subtle way of understanding this dynamic based on you and your partner. As a couple, you have negotiated roles based on natural or earned skills, and cultural, or family expectations. For example, in my family, and maybe culture, it is typical that the men are responsible for the family cars. I wouldn’t say I’m exceptionally good at it, but I am good enough. I’ve carried on that tradition unconsciously and now not only do I take care of our cars and expect them to work properly, but my wife and kids expect the same. But what would happen if I just stopped doing this responsibility that I, and we, created? Well this brings us to reliability.
Predictability, or reliability, in relationship refers to the fulfilling of role expectations in a consistent manner. In other words, if we agree and say we are going to do something in relationship, then it creates an expectation that we follow through with that obligation. Over ten years of marriage, I have created a reliable expectation that I am going to be responsible for car maintenance - and so far I have mostly followed through. Reliability does not mean perfection however. For trust to grow in relationships, we must perform responsibilities reliably 90-95% of the time. So, that does not mean someone else doesn’t take the car for an oil change, but it probably means that I’m requesting it, and not waiting until the car is completely desperate for oil and the other person is forced to take it upon themselves to do it. Predictability creates safety and signals trust to others.
Often when couples refer to a break down of trust in their relationship, they are referring to a hurt in predictability that leads to confusion in responsibility. In other words, my partner did something I didn’t expect, and now I don’t know what to do. In doing so it creates expectation confusion for that partner, who now has to either take control of the situation because they feel insecure, unsafe, or out of control, or avoid and/or escape the situation because they feel vulnerable or invalidated. For example, maybe it was revealed that one partner was engaging in questionable conversations online. This creates confusion in reliability, which now causes the other partner to feel insecure in the relationship and they respond by taking control and demanding all access to their partners phone. Now neither partner feels safe in the relationship and trust has diminished.
The great news, is that to repair trust, we simple work out, the same way we worked in. Once one or both partners can take accountability for their own coping behaviors surrounding predictability it creates new opportunities for openness to regaining trust. In other words, once predictability can be restored, then that is one step towards restoring safety, i.e. trust. It is not the only step however. In the next post, I’ll also talk about the importance of openness and fairness in relationship and how this contributes to our understanding of trustworthiness in relationships.
I’d like to offer some reflection questions regarding predictability in your relationships:
In your own relationships, what is your responsibility?
Do you always understand your role or what you are supposed to do?
If you are not comfortable with this role, how have you attempted to change it and what did you notice?
How reliable have you been in this role up until now?