I no longer remember how or when the table leg broke, I just know that it’s been years since it happened. Which means that it’s been years since my husband said he’d fix it. And every time I try to remind him about it, I hear the echoes of a thousand sitcom wives nagging their husbands to fix things. I could fix the leg myself, I’m fully capable, but it’s a matter of principle now, so I refuse. It’s currently propped up on a stack of Redwall books, which seems as good a solution as any. Apart from, you know, fixing it.
During a recent argument about who-can-remember-what, I blurted out something along the lines of: “You’re asking me to trust you, but you’ve been saying you’re going to fix that table leg for HOW long?”
“You think I’m untrustworthy because of a table?” he volleyed back. “You’d think I cheated on you or something!”
Wait, who said anything about cheating?
I’ve been thinking a lot about that exchange lately, and what it says about how trust is built and understood in relationships. Not just romantic ones, but friendships, familial relationships, and professional ones, too. What do we really need in order to trust someone?
Since Gary Chapman’s 1995 bestseller was published, the concept of love languages has gone mainstream, finding its way into countless shows and memes. The idea that questions like “Have you eaten?” or comments like “Don’t forget your umbrella!” can be accurately translated as “I love you” has historically seemed too obvious to me to merit further analysis, but I hadn’t thought much about applying the love language concept to trust. Fixing the table leg would’ve fallen under Chapman’s “Acts of Service” category for ways of expressing love, but are acts of service necessary to build trust? Did I really not trust my husband because he hadn’t fixed the table?
Short answer: Well, yes. But to say “I don’t trust my husband” — or even to think it — feels wrong. Lack of trust sounds like a marriage-ender. Or at least a serious warning sign. Love can’t exist without trust, right? But if you asked me to make a list of people I love, it would be much much longer than the list of people I trust. Love can happen unintentionally, but trust? Not so much.
As a culture we’ve made a lot of progress in our understanding of love. The Disney-fied version of a mysterious, magical force that rewards perfect beings with perfect partners and terminally happy endings leaves its fingerprints on all of us, but it’s no longer anathema to acknowledge that love is, in fact, hard work and not a state of grace to be achieved and forever enjoyed. So if we can acknowledge that love is a verb, and something that we can choose to cultivate or neglect, then why shouldn’t the same be true of trust?
If you’ve been in a relationship of any length, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that the fight about the table leg wasn’t actually about the table leg. Almost everyone I know has had a table leg fight, or a gas tank fight, or a shrunken cashmere sweater fight. It’s the fight about the object or obligation that has become so fraught with emotional baggage that it no longer makes logical sense. Instead, it requires a certain amount of space, like one of those Magic Eye stereograms, in order for the real issue to be revealed.
As soon as I mentioned trust in the table leg fight, my husband brought up cheating. Not because that was the real issue (thankfully it wasn’t) but because I told him the neglected table leg eroded my trust in him, and if trust was the issue, then his fidelity must be in question. But I hadn’t been questioning his loyalty, I just wanted him to do the thing he said he was going to do. Clearly we weren’t speaking the same language, but as least we knew we were both talking about trust.
Chapman identifies five love languages in his theory: Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Receiving Gifts, Quality Time, and Physical Touch. (If you’re curious what yours are, you can take the quiz here!) If I reinterpret these through the lens of trust, Words of Affirmation might mean telling the truth or not withholding information. Acts of Service might mean genuinely collaborating; sharing the work of maintaining a home or achieving a goal. Receiving Gifts could mean financial reliability, or honoring financial commitments without being reminded. Quality Time could mean presence — actively listening or not being distracted while with someone. And Physical Touch could mean honoring physical boundaries, and knowing if/when touch is welcome and what kind.
My husband’s trust languages, then, would be Words of Affirmation and Quality Time, whereas mine would be Acts of Service. But does it work to apply them this way? I asked Dr. Shainna Ali, mental health clinician and author of The Self-Love Workbook to weigh in on my approach. After she assured me that love languages were a concept utilized by many marriage and family counselors and not just a pop culture phenomenon, we talked about how different people could have different understandings of trust.
“One of the things you see in narrative counseling in particular is that people can have their own definitions of everything, including trust,” Dr. Ali told me. “Culture is a big part of how we understand trust, so individual understandings of trust, the society around us, and personal values all play into our personal definitions.”
When I asked about how to build more trust in relationships, she emphasized that self-knowledge (or, in my case, determining my trust language) is a necessary step, but far from the whole story. “By looking at past relationships — ones where you felt a lot of trust and ones where you didn’t — you can start to see patterns,” she says. “Maybe all your past relationships started to deteriorate when someone lied or if someone was always late. But even if you figure out what trust means to you, that’s still only half of the equation. It’s narrow-minded to assume that your definition is the only one that matters, so you have to find out what the other person needs to build trust, and be willing to invest in that in the relationship.”
After the resolution of what shall now be known as The Table Leg Fight, I realized I had some work to do on my own regarding trustworthiness. For one, I’m perpetually late, and despite my proclamations that lateness is a sign of optimism or creativity, I know it’s rude and unprofessional. But it had never occurred to me that it might be eroding trust. Maybe it’s time to retire my “Running Late Is my Cardio” shirt and give this bad habit the attention it deserves. My friends and family might die of shock — or they might be able to trust me more.
The good news is, even if my husband and I don’t naturally speak the same trust languages, I hope recognizing that gap will be key to helping us close it. That’s not to say I’ll never be late again — or that the Redwall books are back on the shelf next to Lord of the Rings — but there’s something oddly reassuring about discussing (and dissecting) trust without it feeling like the end of the world, or the end of the relationship. Who knew such a dumb fight could lead us here?
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.