“In the end, you have to choose whether or not to trust someone."
- Sophie Kinsella
What do we do when members of our family treat us poorly, talk smack about us, shatter our trust or maybe even actively seek to bring us harm? Of course we can estrange – simply turn our backs on such individuals and never see them again. Still, when such people are members of our family, we might also seek alternatives that will not cause such grave repercussions across the entire family system, bearing in mind that family estrangement rarely stays between two people. Creating our circle of trust is one such alternative.
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing
The circle of trust is a metaphor for how we manage our relationships. You probably do this relationship management without even thinking about it, however I am going to make the process more explicit.
In our lives we have all sorts of relationships with all sorts of people. Some of them we are very close to, say our partner, or our best friend. Some of these relationships we enjoy immensely at a social level, yet do not share any deeply personal information. We may have people in our lives who we will be very close to and connect with intensely for a time, but then allow the relationship to drift or let go of altogether. For instance, people we went to high school with , or who we went through our pregnancies or our cancer treatment with.
We manage our professional or work relationships with a variety of people, some who we intuitively recognize as comrades, others who we have indifferent relationships with and maybe even a few people we outright don’t get on with. We know how to manage these relationships. We assign them appropriate positions in our circle of trust.
What does a Circle of Trust look like in practice?
The circle of trust can be visualized as concentric circles, radiating outward from the center, which is where you stand. The circle that is closest to you is your inner circle. In our inner circle of trust will be the relationships that we consistently rely on for support, nurturing and caring. These are relationships that over time, sometimes a great deal of time, have shown themselves worthy of our trust. We share of ourselves most deeply, care most, love hardest in these relationships.
From there we will have ever widening circles of relationship which surround us. The circles will go from the relationships we are most engaged with, trust the most, to the circles where our relationships are far more distant, that we give far less of our time, energy, trust or love to. Some relationships we maintain because we intensely love and care. Some we maintain as they contribute to our welfare and well-being in a myriad of ways. Some we maintain because they are of mutual benefit and it is a relationship based purely on exchange. Some we will maintain because even though they may drive us crazy, they are our family. Each of these people will be located somewhere in our circle of trust.
Questioning where our family members fit
We are often not nearly as good with managing our family relationships as we are in other relationships in our lives. Very often in our family we see only two levels of trust; all the way in, or all the way out. This is reinforced by social constructions of family, which lead us to believe blood is thicker than water, and that family is to be trusted without question. Social constructions don’t help us to realistically appraise where people in our family belong in our circle of trust. When we believe our family members are trustworthy beyond questioning, we leave ourselves wide open to repeated injury.
Of course we need to question, think and decide how much trust or connection to give, even to family members! We may find that we are either heavily involved or even enmeshed with “difficult” family members or avoiding or estranging from them. This on/off, hot/cold connection is a good indication that we are in reaction to a level of relational intensity we are unable to manage or tolerate. We need to learn how to regulate our relationships within our family, the same as we do everywhere else in our lives.
Maintaining connection, even when relationships are difficult
Circles of trust allow for possibility. They allow for someone who is unhealthy, or in reaction, or immature to get better, become more considered, or to grow up (whether the person who needs to do that is someone else, or ourselves). The circles allow us to move someone who is hurting us to a more distant circle.
But the circles also allow us to pull someone closer if things improve or change.
The circles allow us to establish healthy boundaries and protect ourselves, without terminating significant relationships or damaging the wider family.
The circle of trust allows us to maintain open lines of communication, even if they are less frequent, or constrained. The circles allow us to be responsible for figuring out who is trustworthy in our lives and who is less trustworthy and for ensuring that we are investing appropriate amounts of time, energy, caring and love accordingly. It is no one’s fault but our own if we keep relationships which should be placed in our outer circle, too close.
Only we can choose who we will trust and how much we will invest into a relationship. Only we can sort out where our family members fit into our circle of trust. It's worth being intentional in our relationship decisions - fight and flight is not the only or better way.