November 18, 2017

Building Trust Relationships

by Don Johnson

This article was written for a young man and a young woman who are now the parents of the author’s one and only granddaughter. The author’s good friend and the father of the future bride gave permission to share these thoughts with his daughter as the dating relationship between the young people intensified but was not yet a matter of formal engagement.

The article is offered here for parents and young people everywhere as perhaps some help for developing a growing relationship that might lead one day to someone else having a granddaughter.

A developing romantic relationship contains many fearful delights. The delights are too numerous to exhaustively list, but they include the delight of discovery, the unfolding/revealing of the person upon whom you are bestowing your affection, the new paths into which your life is entering and a host of others. As these delights are experienced, there are, especially in a developing relationship, accompanying fears. Fears of being misunderstood, fears of misunderstanding, fears of making a false move, fears of taking things too fast or too slow, fears of the compatibility of two different family traditions and ways of doing things, and as with the delights, a host of other fears.

As a romantic relationship develops, these fears should diminish, eventually leading into marriage where lover matures to something Ed Wheat calls the comfortable ‘old shoe’ or ‘favorite sweater’ love of lifelong companionship. He calls it storge love,[1] the love of the familiar and comfortable. In one sense a marriage should have no fears, just comfort. Of course, being human, we too often fall into a rut and instead of the fearlessness of comfortable love with one another we fall into the selfishness of taking one another for granted. It is good to maintain the fear of that failure!

Fear in relationships is the measure of the lack of trust. As trust levels increase between a young man and a young woman, a marital relationship eventually ensues. As trust levels within a marital relationship are maintained, a healthy marriage exists. “Perfect love casts out fear,” 1 John 4.18 says. Thclip_image002is ‘perfect’ love is completed or mature, fully developed love. Finished love, love that has been built on a good foundation and carefully constructed, then fully completed, this is the love that casts out fear.

How do we get from point A to point B in the building of trust? (For that matter, if trust is broken, how do we rebuild it?) Marvin Mayers has a helpful illustration in his book, Christianity Confronts Culture.[2]

Mayers calls this chart a description of “a developing love affair.”[3] I quote Mayers paragraph accompanying the chart in his book:

When trust develops apace, with each one passing through the various stages together, the couple is ideally fully ready for engagement and marriage. Their relationship has developed personally and in keeping with their societal norms. When marriage takes place, the two are ready physically, emotionally, and spiritually for one another. Where there is a differential development of trust, one holds certain thoughts and concerns back from the other and is less than fully ready for marriage.[4]

In applying this chart to any relationship, it is important to understand the stages through which confidence progresses, or grows. The first stage is friendship. Often young couples in the very early stages of a relationship will protest to friends or family, “Oh, we’re just friends.” One wonders how often enemies make it to the marriage altar!

Romantic relationships start with friendship. Any friendship is tested by minor trials. Someone fails to show up on time, or speaks thoughtlessly, or breaks a promise and the like. The strength of the friendship is measured by its ability to withstand such trials. This is especially true of a growing romantic relationship. Often, it is the point at which many potential marital relationships founder. Early in the dating relationship, he or she does or says something that puts the other party off from any consideration of a more serious relationship. The fact is that no one will ever marry someone who always remembers appointments, or always speaks thoughtfully, or keeps every promise. We are fallen beings and such trials will always occur (though we should strive to minimize them as a matter of Christian character). A growing romantic relationship will be able to endure minor trials such as these. Something in the personality of the other person provides sufficient attraction that the young man or the young woman decides to look past minor faults. For a healthy relationship, the couple should learn to discuss, confess, and correct wrongs done to one another. Often, the desired object (marriage) is so intense that one or the other in the relationship decides to overlook faults without learning to biblically resolve them. Overlooking faults leads to the proverb, “Love is blind.” A not so famous corollary is, “Love is also deaf, dumb and ignorant.” Christian maturity in love should be able to successfully resolve this kind of trial. Of course, reasonableness and maturity also realize that not every sleight is a character flaw — misunderstandings inevitably occur as a part of life and should be forgiven and forgotten quickly. Resolution of trials actually builds trust and strengthens the relationship. (This truth continues to be true after marriage — and failure to resolve trials will destroy trust and break down the relationship.)

No relationship grows in a vacuum. There are many observers of a growing love relationship. Most important among these are the parents of the two young people. A great many complexities affect the relationship at this stage. Ideally, the young people come from homes where the children are loved and raised in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Whether or not this is the case, the young couple must face the test of confidence posed by the prospective ‘in-laws’. Lack of confidence from one or both sets of parents should slow down the development of a relationship (if not end the relationship altogether). The young man or the young woman ought to soberly consider what flaws in their character or spiritual life may be on display. Too often, the concerns of parents (or other godly counselors) are dismissed because the young people are ‘in love.’ Being ‘in love’ is fine, but it does not last. Reality always eventually settles in (usually after marriage has taken place, sometimes before). Marriage is the point of no return in romantic relationships. Once married, a young couple mustlive with the one they have covenanted themselves to, regardless of the spiritual flaws. And the Lord’s command is to live together in a self-sacrificing way. Sacrificing one’s self to an individual who will not live right according to God’s word in any way is a bitter life to lead. If wise counselors, like one’s parents, can see danger flags, the young person should pay serious attention to these concerns. Part of building trust involves winning the trust of the prospective ‘parents-in-law’, not just the trust of the prospective spouse.

As a romantic relationship grows, the confidence grows to the level where it can endure serious trials. Serious trials can mean such things as a serious personal offence that one or the other might commit or some serious external trial. A young couple contemplating marriage might suddenly be thrust into a new situation: an accident or illness can drastically change plans and the course of life. The death of loved ones or some other disaster can change one’s responsibilities and priorities. A course of study or job situation might require a period of lengthy separation prior to marriage. Any trial like this puts serious pressure on the relationship. Has confidence, trust, and love grown to the point where the relationship can survive such a trial? If so, the couple is practically ready for marriage, which requires total commitment of self.

Ideally, when a young couple marries, they have both reached the level of trust that Mayers describes as ‘total trust and confidence.’ Unfortunately, some marriages begin when one or both have not reached the level of total trust. How does this happen?

When a couple begins to be ‘a couple’, some social pressures begin to intensify. The young couple are seen everywhere together. Their friends begin to think of the two as a couple. When one is invited to a social function, the other is also invited (unless it is a ‘girls only’ or ‘boys only’ event). There is an expectation from friends, family, even mere acquaintances that this relationship will culminate in marriage. The individuals may not be consciously aware of this growing social pressure, but if they start having misgivings about the relationship they may not verbalize them because of the social pressure. They do not want to ‘lose face’, so they go along, despite misgivings.

Fear is a relationship killer. Trust cannot grow in an environment of fear. How should fears be handled at any stage of the relationship? At some levels (friendship and minor trials), the presence of fear may be sufficient cause to break off the relationship but not require a great deal of interpersonal communication. One party or the other sees something in the other, decides that ‘something’ is unacceptable to them, and moves on. As the relationship deepens, the relationship becomes more complicated by higher and higher levels of commitment. As these higher levels of commitment are made, trust should be growing. The presence of fears at the higher levels of commitment must be dealt with.

Of course, some fears are natural. The couple is heading into uncharted territory. They have not been this way before, so they may have some natural fears of each level of commitment. The fears we are discussing are not these natural fears. The kinds of fears we are considering are fears that cause serious question about the wisdom of pursuing the relationship. Over time, as the couple gets to know one another, character surfaces, good and bad.

Every book on marriage addresses the subject of communication at some point. In the dating relationship, communication must begin. Fears must be expressed, addressed, and resolved for trust to continue to build. It is disastrous to get into the habit of covering over or dismissing fears while you still have an option in the relationship. Once you say, “I do,” you are in “for better or for worse” territory. The time to learn to communicate is before the wedding, not after. At anypoint prior to the wedding, lack of trust must be resolved before anyone makes that permanent commitment.

In one extreme example, a young bride expressed serious misgivings to her mother the day before the wedding. The mother would not hear of the bride’s doubts and lack of trust. She insisted the wedding take place. Rather than disappoint her mother, the bride acquiesced. Of course, the story did not end there. After some years of marriage and trouble (and two young children), the couple eventually divorced. How much better it would have been for the wedding to be called off and this couple be discipled by godly counselors! In this particular example, the young couple was inappropriately intimate before marriage, mistrust was the foundation of the marriage and unfaithfulness was the fruit of the marriage (and the surface cause of the divorce).

Often the young man is at the point of total trust (or at least he thinks he is) long before the young woman. This is probably the result of the way God made men and women. The man initiates, the woman responds. The man loves (self-sacrificially), the woman submits. Bible believing Christians accept God’s revelation concerning marriage, at least in their heads. When it comes to entering into such a relationship, our faith in this revelation is truly tested. During the dating phase of the relationship, we have two individuals who stand in relationship to one another as equals. When the couple enters marriage, the woman assumes by covenant a submissive role. She chooses to follow, by marital covenant, the leadership of the man. In some ways, the woman has more at stake in the decision, although if a man truly loves self-sacrificially he must give as much of himself to his wife as his wife gives of herself to him.

Thus, the change of relationship (from two equals to leader/helper) can cause the woman to take longer to arrive at total trust than the man. Both the man and the woman need to be aware that trust does not always develop at the same rate. They must also realize that a marriage that starts before total trust is achieved is destined for periods of serious adjustment at the very minimum. When using the term ‘serious adjustment’, we mean emotional pain and turmoil. It is far better for the couple to work on developing total trust prior to taking the final step of marital commitment.

In light of the very common differential development of trust, both man and woman need to be soberly reflecting on their relationship. They need to be committed to openness. Any misgivings or lack of trust should be communicated. When it is appropriate, the couple needs to be involved with godly counselors for guidance and advice. If the relationship is to continue, the young couple should learn to talk through the difficulty and be willing to make things right if confession and repentance is in order. If communication is not consistently evident, either of the young people must have the courage to simply say ‘No’ to the relationship.

Ideally, if both individuals are pursuing a devoted personal relationship with God, they will gradually build a trust relationship by passing the tests and trials that develop through the course of time. They will win each other’s confidence and the confidence of their parents. They will progress to the place of total trust and confidence, and, as Mayers says, they will be “ready physically, emotionally, and spiritually for one another.”[5]

If you are in such a growing relationship, may God bless you as you seek to glorify Him in it. Put God and His will in first place in your life and be willing to sacrifice anything, including the desired relationship, if the Lord so requires.


Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria and serves on the FBFI board as chair of the Communications Committee which is responsible for this blog.

  1. The Liddell and Scott lexicon defines this noun thus: “love, affection, of parents and children.” The verb has a more extensive definition and includes the ideas “to be fond of, to accept gladly, to be content, satisfied”. Ed Wheat in his book Love Life describes this love as the comfortable, affectionate sense of belonging that develops as a marriage matures. See Ed Wheat, Love Life for Every Married Couple, chapter 8. []
  2. Diagram copied from Marvin K. Mayers, Christianity Confronts Culture(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987) p. 21. I cannot fully recommend this book, but his chapter “Developing the Trust Bond” is helpful. []
  3. Marvin K. Mayers, Christianity Confronts Culture(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987) p. 21. []
  4. Mayers , p. 21. []
  5. Mayers, p. 21 []


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