Building Trust in Your Relationship: Lessons from a Cheater

I was a cheater. But trust in my partner changed that for me.

How I arrived at where I am now

I was proposed to twice. I said yes only once.

Suiter #1 who asked me bought a ring flew me to Costa Rica and got down on one knee. He had known me for 5 years. The other man did not fly me anywhere, he did not buy a ring, nor did he get down on one knee. He had known me just shy of 3 years.

Which one did I say yes to? Well, as you can probably tell from below, it wasn’t the first guy.

Why was it that when, my now husband, asked I said yes? And why did he ask in the first place? I had spent 20 years, including 3 years with him, stating my distaste for marriage. My answer to both questions is simple: trust.

I trusted him more after just 1 year than I did suitor #1 after 5 years. But here’s the thing, I didn’t know it at the time.

For a while, I thought we would play this game “once a cheater, always a cheater.” You see, I was with suitor #1 when I met my now-husband. I had a crush on him and was the one who pursued him. I even got him drunk just so I could kiss him with the fallback of blaming it on the alcohol.

He was torn and too good of a man to consider being the “other man.” I persisted and in the end, we had a brief romance. It all occurred in the weeks leading up to my departure from the country. What was meant to exist on its own, inside this hermetically-sealed experience abroad, was actually the undoing of my 5-year relationship with suitor #1.

I was thankful for its end. In fact, I was the instigator of its demise because I knew that this had been more than a fling, I knew that my would-be-husband was something far more. But I had no idea, nor model, for how one goes from being the “piece on the side,” to being “the main dish.”

Based on my time with suitor #1, I swore I knew what it would all look like. I would be put in a position where I would need to defend all of my actions, all the time. He would worry, become suspicious, ask who I was hanging out with, and eventually break out into full jealousy mode. But that never happened.

Maybe you’re wondering why he trusted me? Maybe you’re conjuring up a few sex-shaming expletives in your head? Maybe you are thinking my husband is an idiot? Or maybe you think you already know how this ends?

Well, I can say that after 8 years together, there has been not one transgression from our relationship. That is not to say we don’t fantasize about or talk about other people. What I am saying is that the trust we have for each other means that before either of us arrives at the point of cheating, there would be a conversation. An honest conversation about wants and needs.

But how did we get there? Especially considering where we started.

How trust occurs in a relationship

According to WikiHow.com, this is the first step in How to Build Trust in a Relationship — they really do have a step-by-step guide for everything.

In 1989 Holmes and Rempel taught us about the building blocks of trust in close relationships. They told us that there are just three: 1) predictability, 2) dependability, and 3) faith. Predictability: we need to be able to predict what our partner is going to do, we need to be able to rely on a consistent pattern of behavior. Dependability: someone that can be counted on to be there and help us, especially during the tough times. Faith: a belief in the other that their reasons for being benevolent go beyond extrinsic motivation.

Do they all come at once you may wonder? In my experience, no. First and foremost comes faith. Without faith, you will never move beyond just a physical attraction.

When I left my would-be-husband at the airport to fly back to the US to reunite with suitor #1, I was broken. I spent an 8-hour flight crying and when I arrived at the airport I knew I had made a mistake. I gave it a week nonetheless. I spent that week thinking only of what I had just left behind. I finally broke the news to suitor #1, his marriage proposal being the nail in the coffin of our relationship. I phoned my would-be-husband and asked him if he was willing to give us a chance. I asked him for faith. He gave it to me.

The next two building blocks, predictability and dependability, were harder to come by. These blocks would only come along 8 months later when my would-be-husband moved across an ocean to be with me. It was the first major act of commitment and that led us on an upward trajectory of further commitment to each other. Three months after that I boarded a plane and moved back to Europe to be with him. Jobs were landed, jobs were quit, adventures were had, countries were left, new countries were discovered, and we did it all together.

We didn’t know it at the time, but we were undertaking the often cited idea of a mutual cyclical growth model put forth by Wieselquist, Rusbult, Foster, and Agnew (1999). The authors describe the cycle in the following terms:

(a) dependence promotes strong commitment, (b) commitment promotes pro-relationship acts, © pro-relationship acts are perceived by the partner, (d) the perception of pro-relationship acts enhances the partner’s trust, and (e) trust increases the partner’s willingness to become dependent on the relationship.

The way I read this is: we each continued to double down on our relationship. As one did something for the good of the relationship, we felt closer, and the other one would reciprocate. Maybe it wouldn’t be the next day, but it would happen.

For example, after living in a third country for nearly a year, a country we had hand-selected together, my husband told me he wanted out. I was stunned. We had left our fancy and crazy jobs in London to move to the beach where we swam every day, eat lunch overlooking the sea, and had time for an “afternoon delight” when we so chose. I had a plush consulting job and was enjoying the quality of life. He was miserable. He couldn’t find his fit, either personally or professionally. While I selfishly wanted to stay longer, I agreed and went about finding a new place to live where we could both be happy.

Nearly three years later, I have made the same request of him, feeling claustrophobic I have asked him to find a new place to call home. While it is probably not the choice he would make on his own, he knows what I am feeling and he is giving me the gift of trust that I gave him those three years ago. This experience, combined with many more, laid the groundwork for our willingness to depend on each other and in turn trust each other. To this day, it still is a beautiful thing to watch at work.

However, it has not always been easy. I remember a time early in the first year we were together when I told him it was all too much. I told him that the pressure from fairytale we were peddling to others was too much and I needed to know it was ok if it didn’t work out. I was concerned that I would feel trapped again, just as I had felt trapped with suitor #1. He looked at me for a moment and with sincerity told me if one day I needed to leave, if it would all become too much, he would help me pack and kiss me goodbye with only love in his heart.

While it may seem like the opposite, this sincere expression of willingness to let me got, even though it would hurt him, was, in the words of Wieselquist, et. al, the most “pro-relationship” thing he could do. It worked and it keeps working. I will joke about with him that even if we get divorced he will remain, my only husband, because I hate wedding planning. Just as he likes to say that his next wife will appreciate all the things I have instilled in him (you are welcome wife #2 for his aptness with the clothes and dishes). They are never said with malice or any intention to injure, nor are they passive-aggressive way to express a dissatisfaction with our partnership. Instead, these jokes reinforce our trust in one another.

What’s the takeaway?

Holmes and Rempel tell us about how the development of love is intrinsically intertwined with trust in your partner and the fact that you know how their feelings are developing alongside yours:

As romantic love develops, feelings of love largely reflect people’s confidence that partners’ feelings are similar to their own. Signs of mutuality in affection are used to pace people’s hopes and quell their fears about dependency. If the process of reciprocal reassurance successfully diminishes perceptions of uncertainty and risk, trust develops a core through dyadic experience that goes well beyond blind assumptions about the partner’s emotional investment in the relationship.

The gist of the quote is that your love will develop as you see your partner’s love grow because no one really wants to be that person who falls into unreciprocated love.

So what’s the takeaway from the research? From life experience? From dating websites? From a Google search? The research is dry and the google search overly aspirationally.

My great gem of wisdom is this: you have to be willing to be the one that goes first. Whether that is making the first move (that was me), saying I love you first (that was him), bringing up moving in together (that was me), or asking for the commitment of marriage (obviously him).

You’re probably thinking about the time you were hurt or shot down or dumped. I can’t make you feel better about this. It sucks. I have been there too. But here’s the thing, if no one is ever willing to be the first, if everyone is too preoccupied with their ego, then the oh-so-desired love, and the even-more-needed-trust, will never come.

I ran away to Portugal to start a food tour and wedding celebranting business after a decade in IFIs. I adore writing, my dog, naps, and reinventing myself.

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