Trust is very important to us. It figures large in our thinking. We want to feel able to trust others. We feel disappointed and hurt if we feel they have let us down. It’s a very common feeling. Being trustworthy is very important. It’s like being reliable. But what do we mean by trust? When we say ‘I trust you’ to someone, what exactly are we saying? Perhaps it’s a simple single event – ‘I trust you to post this letter for me because I asked you to and you said you would’. Or it can be more general – ‘I trust you to always do the right thing’, ‘I trust you to give your very best’. When we speak of trusting someone, we usually mean that we expect them to fulfil our expectations of them. Trust breaks down when they don’t meet these expectations. This is an all too familiar trail of events in relationships.
Several questions occur. Firstly, did the other person know clearly what our expectations of them were? Expectations are often unspoken, they are an implicit code of behaviour, and not made explicit. Indeed, we feel that making our expectations of other people explicit is itself a lack of trust. They ought to know what we expect, ought to have absorbed the same code of behaviour that we have. How can you trust someone when you have to make every detailed expectation clear to them? Trust derives from some shared background culture.
We are immediately into hazy territory and fuzzy definition of a moral concept which is very important to us. Here is danger for relationships. We are courting disaster, ‘cruising for bruising’. Surely she’d have known that I would expect her to call me if she’d fallen and hurt herself. But maybe she didn’t realise I would expect this, and thought I’d expect her to sort it out herself, or maybe she preferred to sort it out herself. And maybe her different expectation of how best to behave in this situation is equally valid to mine? Or I tell another friend something about myself and find they have told someone else. I’m shocked, hurt and angry. ‘But I told you in confidence’ I remonstrate. ‘Yes but I know they love you dearly and have some way they can be a help to you’ they reply. Or ‘I really expected you to come round to see me when I was ill’. ‘But no-one told me, or I was ill myself, or….’
So expectations are not objective, and trust, which is wholly derived from them, has to try to match the fluid uncertainty, the possible lack of mutuality, of expectations. Before assuming a breach of trust, we have to ask whether our expectations were mutually realised, and whether they were reasonable. It’s also a question of whether information was shared – information about the expectation, and information that some event had occurred to trigger the expectation. There’s often a strong egocentric element in our expectations, even to the point that we expect others to agree with us, to always take our side. We do better to realise that it is not expectation fulfilment, but good intention, which is valuable in relationship.
Buddhism has a nice proposal – to expect nothing and to hope for everything. If I have no expectation, relationships become less threatened by the Damocles sword of ‘trust’, and more simply accepting. Zero expectation is usually made to sound cynical. But heavy expectation is heading for disappointment in relationship.