Creating and Restoring Trust in Family Relationships

Family enjoying moment of closeness
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I learned a big lesson about trust in families many years ago when I worked with a family where the father had violated the trust of his wife and children in a big way. I won't go into the details of the situation but it was painful for all concerned. At the outset, Dad could not understand why he suddenly became Public Enemy Number One at home for a while. He had hidden some behavior from his family and when that behavior came to light in a very public way, his family was devastated and it nearly resulted in divorce and estrangement.

As this family (and, as it turned out, another family with an involved party) coped with deception and its aftermath, feelings ranged from shock to anger and from disbelief to devastation. What all thought was a happy and solid family ended up not having a solid foundation at all. Everyone involved felt betrayed, even the father who had a hard time processing why everything seemed to change for the worse.

In time, Dad did come to grips with his behavior and its impact on the family. The good news is that as they responded to family counseling and read some helpful books together, Dad started making some changes which led to a slow but steady return of trust and good feelings. For the most part, family members have healed now a decade and a half later, but there are still some lingering consequences. The family members tell me that occasionally when a moment of stress develops, some of the feelings return.

There are few more important elements in family success than having relationships built on a foundation of trust. Author Stephen M.R. Covey, who wrote the book The Speed of Trust, suggests that every relationship is improved when trust levels are higher. According to Covey, when trust is violated, there is a "trust tax" that impacts any relationship negatively. But when trust is demonstrated and earned, there is a "trust dividend" that causes relationships to become deeper and more secure.

Creating and Maintaining Trust

In The Speed of Trust, Covey suggests that the foundation of trust is found in two key elements: character and competence.

Within the character component, he identifies two subsets: integrity and intent. Integrity suggests that a person is internally consistent; that he or she walks the talk. The intent is more subtle but relates to motives. When a person has pure motives and communicates them, trust grows. If there are hidden agendas, a trust tax results.​

The competence component consists of two other elements: capabilities and results. Capabilities are the talents, attitudes, skills and knowledge that a person brings to a relationship. Results are basically a person's track record and the ability to achieve desired outcomes.

So, in the world of a family, a father can establish his integrity by consistently practicing what he preaches. He sets a good example and is consistent in his approach. He communicates intent by being transparent and taking the time to explain to the family why he makes the decisions and choices he makes.

A dad demonstrates competence through effective discipline, being a true and principled leader at home and solving problems. Successful dads engage in some "continuing education" to keep their skills sharp. Dads who are committed to results will celebrate success with the family and will focus on the outcomes of family life as well as the processes.

Covey also shares insights on thirteen key behaviors that build trust in relationships. These include:

  • Talk straight - being clear and honest and leaving the right impressions
  • Demonstrate respect - recognizing the intrinsic worth of the various family members and treating them accordingly
  • Create transparency - being open, honest and verifiable
  • Right wrongs - recognizing when we make mistakes and trying to apologize and make things rights when we mess up
  • Show loyalty - demonstrating loyalty to our family members whether or not they are present
  • Deliver results - having a good outcome or product at the end of our efforts
  • Get better - recognize where we need to improve and then making the effort to improve our skills
  • Confront reality - taking the tough issues head on and in a straightforward manner
  • Clarify expectations - being clear about what we expect of others and making sure we understand what others expect of us
  • Practice accountability - holding ourselves accountable for what we do and helping others learn to be accountable for their choices as well
  • Listen first - making sure that we take the time to listen and try to truly understand the words and feelings of others before we respond
  • Keep commitments - keeping the promises we make and avoiding promising things for which we don't have the will to follow through
  • Extend trust - delegating tasks and responsibilities to our family members when they are ready

Restoring Trust

When trust has been violated, as in the case of my friend, it takes a redoubling of effort to behave in trustworthy ways. For example, my friend had to really commit his heart and soul to his wife and his children in new ways. He had to make and keep promises and put aside his own needs and wants to show his family that he could be trusted.

Because time is a great healer of wounds, he needed to be patient and allow people the time and space to heal and then begin to trust again. Learning patience is a real key to restoring trust in a family

A man can think about trust as an emotional bank account into which he makes deposits and withdrawals. Withdrawals happen when trust is violated and deposits are made when promises are made and kept. By focusing on making more deposits and not making withdrawals, relationships of trust can be restored.

No relationships are more important than those in our families. As we work to establish and maintain trust and to restore it when it has been lost, we will strengthen relationships and create positive memories that will last a lifetime. And as we model these behaviors for our children, they will adopt our legacy of trust in their own relationships now and later.