For a moment, think of seeing your partner or close friend as they walk in your front door. You jump up to greet them, exclaiming that their new jacket looks great on them, and you’ve been excited to see them all day. In the midst of your rush of enthusiasm, how are they reacting? Do you have a sense that they believe and trust what you’re saying, or do your compliments seem to isolate them?
Although love is the quality we tend to glorify the most in romantic relationships, trust is equally indispensable. It’s the sustaining, slow-burning element of love. If you want to actively cultivate a deeper trust with your partner, new research has found it could be as simple as asking them one important question.
Low Self-Esteem Interferes with Trust
Researchers from the University of Waterloo conducted five studies with people in romantic relationships who suffer from a similar problem: One partner has a poor opinion of themselves. This insecurity makes that partner more likely to reject expressions of praise and esteem—even from the people closest to them—and thus to feel less satisfied in their relationship.
If your partner is already sure of themselves, the occasional shower of praise will have the desired effect of reaffirming to your sweetheart that they can trust you. This, of course, reinforces your relationship. But when a partner is insecure about themselves, being praised can spark an anxious reaction. Instead, praise becomes a trigger for doubting the sincerity of their partner because the compliment contradicts the negative emotions they have toward themselves.
The One Question to Show You Care
To avoid having your communication backfire, the researchers found that trust is gained by asking simple, meaningful questions about their daily experience. Simply asking “How was your day?” and then mindfully listening to the answer conveys your genuine interest and attention in how they’re doing and feeling. Other, more specific versions of the question work as well, for example: “What were your classes like today?” or “Where did you go for lunch?”
One of the studies found that it wasn’t describing their day that made people feel better, but rather, feeling listened to and cared for in that moment.
For a person with insecurities, this form of curious, caring inquiry, paired with mindful listening, can fly under the radar of their “praise triggers,” building trust without activating self-judgement. In fact, the researchers found that being asked about their day increased a partner’s sense of satisfaction in the relationship, regardless of whether one or both of the partners was insecure.
Curiosity Creates the Space to Trust
One of the studies found that it wasn’t describing their day that made people feel better, but rather, feeling listened to and cared for in that moment. The surprising thing is that curiosity did not seem to give an extra boost in all relationships. Couples whose levels of self-regard and trust were already normal or above-average did not experience that jump in relationship satisfaction from the “How was your day?” check-in.
On the other hand, paying attention to your partner’s experiences can’t hurt your relationship. As the study authors noted, “Showing attention and interest in someone, especially in a society as filled with distractions as ours, can be the most important signal of caring there is.”
For other mindful ways to convey loving attention and to increase trust and intimacy with others, check out:
- Mindfulness teacher Mirabai Bush on why listening is the most radical act
- Researcher Dacher Keltner on the most powerful questions for deepening your relationship