by Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D: Here’s a 4-word query that can enhance safety and build trust…
A recent study revealed that when parents used lies to keep their children in line, those kids were much more likely to lie to others, including parents, as they grew up (Setoh, Zhao, Santos, Heyman, & Lee, 2019). There’s an oft-repeated saying that “Children learn what they live,” and psychological research tends to provide the evidence to support this.
If your parents threatened to “call the police” or warn you that you might be “put in jail” if you didn’t stop doing what you were doing, there’s a good chance that you, as an adult, are now lying to your parents more than your friends do—and maybe to your friends and partners, as well.
Not only might parental lies shape your own verbal behavior as you mature, but those lies might also negatively affect your overall ability to meet psychological and social challenges. When a parent warns, “Don’t lie to me, son,” but models the use of lies as methods of behavior control, the parent is confusing the child and creating the very model of the behavior they are asking the child to reject; this is a type of double bind. While research has shown that the “refrigerator mother” and the “double bind” are not causes of schizophrenia or autism in children, putting kids into a “double bind” is possibly going to lead to some serious adjustment and relational issues down the road. The authors of the study suggested that when children are controlled by parental control that involves lies and threats, that their sense of autonomy and emotional well-being may be inhibited by their parents’ assertion of authority. Learning to trust a parent who uses lies to manage your behavior can be a very difficult thing to accomplish.
Humans May Be Programmed to Trust at Birth, but Poor Relationships Can Compromise This Ability
When children don’t learn about trust through relationships with their parents when they are in their early formative years of attachment and bonding, they may have a difficult time learning to trust anyone else, for that matter. When we aren’t comfortable trusting others, we have a difficult time trying to forge healthy adult relationships that would allow us the opportunity to be comfortable in our own skin in relation to a person about whom we care deeply and who cares for us. For the person low in trust, it can be risky to let yourself believe in the affirmations and demonstrations of commitment from another. If you grow up with caregivers who have lied to you as a way of shaping your behaviors, it can be challenging to believe that a romantic partner would not do the same. And for the partner of a person low in trust, it can be extremely frustrating to feel that your partner has difficulty believing that what you say—with words and actions—is the truth. Being doubted when you’re in earnest can leave you feeling helpless or hollow.
However, one study (Cortes & Woodard, 2019) has revealed that there is a simple way to help partners low in trust actually experience, in a healthy way, your care, concern, and commitment. It is achieved by simply checking in with your partner at the end of each day with a gentle query, “How was your day?”
This sounds too simple, right? How can a gentle, four-word question be an intervention for lack of trust? The authors believe that this may be due to the gentleness and low-threat nature of the query that doesn’t raise a partner’s mistrust alarms or leave them feeling that they’ve been put on the spot. Five studies conducted by the authors provided clear evidence that partners low in trust experience increases in levels of relationship satisfaction as well as experience their partners as caring when they were asked about their own experiences in such a simple manner as, “How was your day?” While individuals who displayed normal or higher levels of trust did not experience the same effect, partners who had difficulties in trusting their partners were positively affected by a partner’s conveying care through a simple verbal check-in.
Don’t Blame Parents for Too Long
While parents may shape the culture that shapes children’s emotional and psychological identities, once adulthood is reached and dependence on parents comes to an end, it is time to focus on becoming the person that you would like to be and create your own culture of safety and support. Changing behaviors that are instilled into people since they were children can be challenging. However, helping a partner overcome limitations to being the best partner they can be is often a worthwhile investment of love and support.
When a partner lies to you and you know that lying is a habit, call them out on it and remind them that they don’t need to lie to you, that you can relate to them better when the truth is the language they use.
When a lack of trust seems to be a constant source of conflict, rather than frequently remonstrating your partner for not trusting you, just use gentle check-ins on a regular basis that illustrate your care for your partner and your interest in their experiences and their lives. “How was your day?” is much more welcome than a barrage of questions about why they can’t trust you. If they learned early that others cannot be trusted, there’s really not much more they could say by way of explanation. Don’t accuse, don’t attack, don’t make your partner feel that they have to rationalize and justify their feelings. Simply offer the reassurance of your concern and commitment through curiosity and care about their lives.