Binary trust and friendship

My ability to trust people seems to be binary. I don’t have the capacity for complex in-between levels of trust or closeness, like “acquaintance”, “friend”, or “close friend”. Everyone in my life can be sorted into one or the other.

By default, strangers start off as ‘untrustworthy’. The untrustworthy state has certain characteristics:

  • I don’t automatically believe things they say, unless it’s supported by evidence or by a ‘trustworthy’ person.
  • I don’t expect them to honour commitments or keep promises.
  • I don’t tell them anything about myself that I consider private, personal, or important.

It takes a long time for someone to become trustworthy. I only started properly trusting my newest friend from college after almost two years of spending time together every day. That in-between period consists of me being cautious and guarded, while observing the other person to gather evidence of trustworthiness. When I eventually decide to trust them:

  • I assume they are telling the truth and believe the things they say.
  • I expect them to honour commitments and keep promises.
  • I will tell them anything about myself that I want to.

I think my binary trust state is a result of a combination of different things. Part of it is probably autistic black-and-white thinking, part of it is having different social skills and standards to NT people. And another part is probably a learned defence mechanism, as a result of having so many negative social experiences in the past.

When I like someone, I am immediately desperate to get to know them. I don’t see the point in waiting around with small talk, when I already know that I like them enough to make friends. But this method doesn’t tend to work with NTs, because they get freaked out or confused by it and things go wrong. So as a result, I’ve taught myself to suppress that urge, and instead to be very cautious in order to protect myself.

Binary trust also protects me from good relationships which go wrong. If I’ve classified someone as trustworthy and they break that trust, they are demoted permanently. This happened with a secondary school friend after I found out they lied to me.

The interesting thing is that my trust state for someone doesn’t have that much of an impact on what the relationship actually looks like from outside. When I stopped trusting that secondary school friend, we didn’t stop being friends. They probably didn’t even realise anything had changed from me! I was still happy to spend time with them and have fun together. I had just lowered my expectations, so I no longer believed things they said without evidence, or expected them to keep commitments, or told them anything more about myself that was important.

Similarly, when I eventually classified my college friend as trustworthy, they probably didn’t notice much difference. I had changed my rules for my interactions, but the rules themselves aren’t the only things which define the interaction.

I think the main reason for this is that I’m an extreme social mirrorer. When I made my secondary school friends, it happened because they took pity on me standing around by myself. They immediately started treating me as a friend, and so I reciprocated. Even though it was still another year before I properly classed them as trustworthy, my behaviour matched theirs straight away.

Similarly, I mirrored my college friend. But in this case, they were extremely reserved, and so I was too. Which made it even harder for us to become friends! And when I eventually decided they were trustworthy, things didn’t change much because I was still mirroring them and being reserved. It just meant that if situations arose in which I could e.g. tell them something about myself, I was allowed to do that under my new rules.

It’s only in recent years that I’ve noticed this binary trust state. I’m not sure if that’s because it’s a relatively recent development, or because I’ve just never been aware of it. Probably a mix of the two. It’s strange to think that other people don’t do this, though. It’s hard to imagine being able to have complicated rules that are different for every person in your life. How would you keep track?!

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One thought on “Binary trust and friendship

  1. I call this the “Safe Box” and the “Unsafe Box” in my head. New people CAN rapidly go into the Safe Box but the first “unsafe” interaction they then go into the Unsafe Box which it is very very hard to get out of again. Surface interaction probably looks much the same, though. Less affection and personal sharing, maybe.

    Liked by 1 person

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