Making Trust Personal

by Geof Lory

This is the fourth and final article in the series on trust. In the previous articles vulnerability, credibility, and the extension of trust were discussed objectively and intellectually—almost as if in an academic vacuum. At this level, trust is easy to understand. It makes great sense, and few would argue its value. However, in this article I would like to speak more to the subjective or heart-oriented value of trust, specifically as to how it feels to trust.

I prefer explaining things through logic and rationale. It's a lot safer. But topics that deal more with the heart than the head are challenging in that mode. So I will attempt to convey my ideas with a recent, personal, and heartfelt story. As you might guess, it is about my oldest daughter, Jenna.

Jenna is 20 years old. She has been away at college, living on her own, for the last two years. While we're supporting her financially, she has been the primary "master of her own destiny." Since being away, she has continued to earn our trust by keeping her grades up, being active in extra-curricular activities, and staying out of trouble, and has generally demonstrated that she is moving through the maturation process to adulthood—at least as far as we can tell.

I say that because we don't see her very often, only on breaks; and even when she is home she spends most of her time with friends. However, observing what we can—and ignoring the fact that she is still unable to keep her room clean for even the short period of time she is home—she does nothing to change her credibility and trustworthiness in our mind.

All that changed a couple months ago when Jenna met a young man while home for spring break. She is very fond of Mark (not his real name, since I have permission to embarrass my wife and daughters but have not received that from him yet), and based on the amount of time they spend together I would call them "an item." I was informed by both of my daughters that no one goes steady anymore. I'm so out of it.

So, the first weekend home after completion of spring term and the start of summer vacation, Jenna and Mark go out for the evening. At 2:00 AM I wake up, look out the window, and see her car is not out front. I call her on her cell phone, no answer. 2:30, 3:00, 3:30 . . . . Finally, at 4:00 in the morning, she strolls into the house. The mood was tense to say the least.

Obviously, my mind was filled with all the standard questions and they had no problem coming out in rapid fire. "Where have you been? What were you doing? Who were you with? Why didn't you answer your phone?" I did stop short of saying, "While in this house you will live by my rules" but I confess I thought about it. (Admit it; you were thinking the same thing, right?) All that was missing was the 1000-watt spotlight shining over her head.

Her befuddled look told me this was not going to be a short conversation, and it wasn't.

I won't bore you with all the details, but suffice it to say I was struggling to trust her, and I told her so in exactly those words. She looked at me calmly and patiently and said, "Dad, what has changed? I'm 20 years old, and for the past two years you have had no idea how late I've been out, where I've been, what I've been doing or with whom." And then she hit me with the big one. "You have to trust me because you have no other choice."

Why was I reluctant to trust her? What had changed? What were my fears? I can tell you exactly what was going through my head. I remember being a 20-year-old in college. With that memory, my fears were palpable and I believe, well founded. In the history of mankind there are few constants, but the desires of a 20-year-old boy certainly qualify.

Clearly, this was all about me. As a parent, and particularly a dad to daughters, I want the fairy tale fantasy for them, and for my peace of mind. But fairy tales are just that. A conversation at 4:00 AM is very real. After 30 minutes of my best cross-examination and her equally adept rebuttals, I stopped and just admitted to her that I was scared. I fear an outcome I can't control and feel she doesn't understand or might not foresee because of her emotional involvement. I fear the intent of Mark, whom I don't know and with whom I have no basis for trust. I fear the loss of my daughter and all her dreams and possibilities. I just fear, and when there is fear, it is hard to trust.

It took a while, but we worked through it, mostly because we both deeply wanted the trust we feared we had lost. We didn't just want it; we needed it. Jenna and I have successfully made a passage to a new place as father and daughter, and we are both much better for the experience. I doubt Mark will be her last suitor, but I know the deliberate effort we both applied to continue in a trust-based relationship will serve us well with Mark #2 and beyond.

What I learned from this, mostly about myself, is that it is easy for me to intellectually talk about and explain trust as if it is an objective exercise in building credibility or making yourself vulnerable. But when it comes down to how trust and the associated credibility and vulnerability affect me or those I love most, the landscape changes. Trust becomes personal. It is felt.

The deliberate time spent communicating and negotiating with Jenna also drove home a key learning for me on trust. The basis of trust is an agreement or contract that is continually revisited and rewritten. It is not static and cannot be taken for granted. When the boundaries are stretched or the contract breached in either person's mind, the knee-jerk emotional reaction may be to retreat from trust and move to control. The desire for control masks the fear of vulnerability.

This is the time to let go of the self-delusion that you can control, and instead take the opportunity to refine the trust agreement. Reverting to control crowds out trust and interferes with the communication necessary to renegotiate the trust agreement. Control is based in a win/lose paradigm, not conducive to rebuilding damaged trust.

I am grateful to Jenna for the way she hung in there and didn't just check out. That would have been the easy thing for both of us to do. I also feel a lot younger, as the student has become the teacher and the teacher the student. It is a beautiful thing to learn and to trust.

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