Learning to Trust: How Close is Too Close to Another Person? - Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

Getting close to someone can be devastatingly scary. Just how intimate do you want to be with even your best friend, with your partner, your children, or your parents? Why is learning to trust so hard?

In Octavia Butler’s Patternist series, collected under the title Seed to Harvest, she explores what could happen if certain people are able to “hook-in” or link to each other in such a way that feelings and thoughts are no longer hidden. Pain and pleasure would be felt by everyone who had been linked in this way.

It affords a strong sense of protection, a profound connection with someone else.

As well as the end of privacy and the bypassing of learning to trust.

A stronger person could use this to control a weaker person. Trusting people with access to parts of our life is a difficult ask for many of us, but no one could possibly be given a full access pass. Yet. That’s what science-fiction is for–to give us a glimpse of the what if’s. Often it shows us the downside to “What if my wish is granted?”

Intimacy Comes From Trust

Butler’s series explores a slew of themes including identity, race, & family and the story moves from the past to way out in the future. Today I’m focusing on the intimacy theme that is present in this work. It reminded me of the similar relationship found in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series of the characters and their “daemons.” In those stories the daemon was more of an external conscience or soul that was seen as an animal. It was a deep connection with an internal part of ourself made external. For Butler, we can connect with other people whom we’ve just met. But when we connect that deeply, at what point are we a part of them, or they a part of us? The lines start to blur.

In friendships and romantic relationships we move through stages of intimacy. We let people in bit by bit. Maybe there’s a story from our life that only a few people know. This might be a trauma we’ve experienced or something we’re a bit ashamed of, but we tell people we love because we need to know if they can handle that part of us. There are less emotionally weighty things that we usually only tell our partners. At some point relationships will share email or iPhone passwords. They’ll know bank account and social security numbers.

How do we know when it’s time to share these intimate details? Is there something we’re waiting to see or some test we expect someone to pass?

A large part of intimacy is Trust. And it’s a doozy. How do we go about learning to trust? And how far do we go? If we’ve been hurt before, is it ever safe to trust again?

I’ve had clients who trust other people right away. Some really want to believe in the inherent goodness of the world and give access very, very quickly. They are quick to be in love, quick to move in. Quick to tell personal stories.

I also work with clients who are bound and determined to never trust again. They may still be dating, they go to work and meet new people, but they are always keeping themselves at a safe distance. No one will ever get close again. Not close enough to hurt. Not close enough to betray.

The thing is, there is a place in between these extremes of learning to trust.

Small Steps in Learning to Trust

There’s a way to learn to trust someone. Over time. Slowly, but not too slowly. It’s different for everyone.

You start with some basic things: do they show up when they say they will. Do they lie to you about mundane things? Without asking, do they let you know when they’ve screwed up? If you tell them you screwed up, how do they respond?

Are they spilling other people’s secrets? Are they there for their friends as well as for you? Early on in a relationship it can be a good indication to assess how they are with the people they already have established relationships with. Also remember that old saying (I think it’s an old saying), “Judge someone by how they treat the waiter.”

When you’re ready, take small and medium sized chances. If you’ve been burned before your “gut” may not be the best guide because it’s more likely to snap shut or snap open too soon. Identify people you already trust in your life and ask for input with you ultimately making the final decision.

Walking the Tightrope

There’s an old song that goes “Learning to trust/is just for children in school.” The song is called Falling in Love with Love and says that when you do fall in love with love you are “falling for make believe.” Trust is like that. You may have a burning desire to rewrite a past wrong by learning to trust and you’ll pick the first, half-way decent seemingly trustworthy person who comes along. Maybe just returning a phone call or showing up for dinner is enough because you’ve been let down so much. But you’re not trusting them yet. You need to let them earn it, and you need to earn it from them. Trust is no good if it’s just one way.

It’s a tightrope walk. Not too much to the left, not too much to the right. If your ability to trust has been broken down you may need to do some work on yourself and counseling is the perfect arena (I chose that word deliberately!) to confront your trust issues. Once you can trust yourself (!) with your own ability to connect in a healthy way with others, you can decide how much intimacy you want the aforementioned best friend, partner, children and parents. Please be in touch if you’d like to talk more about learning to trust or any other concerns.

Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert. He is a Brooklyn therapist (as well as also seeing clients online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.