- The Washington Times - Monday, August 16, 2010

Recent celebrity news says Jessica Simpson was dumped by her boyfriend, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, after he found text messages from an ex-boyfriend on her cell phone.

Who knows if the telltale texts are the reason their 20-month romance fell apart, but I’ve heard about cell phones and “trust” issues before.

In 2006, I was allowed to observe a few sessions of the Baltimore Building Strong Families (BSF) program.

The couples were all new parents who were romantically involved but not married to each other. The program gave them six months of guidance and mentoring aimed at helping them improve their relationship skills, possibly to the point where they might decide to marry.

Cell phones were a huge issue for those couples. Hiding a cell phone was a suspicious act, and locking it was tantamount to cheating. Leaving the room to take a call and taking calls from strangers late at night were major no-nos.

The remedy always seemed to be the same — to be trusted, one must be trustworthy, BSF mentors told the couples.

And being trustworthy means building transparency into the relationship, says Willard F. Harley Jr., founder of Marriage Builders and author of several books about preventing affairs, including “Love Busters: Protecting Your Marriage From Habits That Destroy Romantic Love.”

There are many steps couples can take to shield their marriage from secrecy and infidelity, Mr. Harley told me recently. For instance, couples should have each other’s cell-phone and e-mail information “at their disposal.” If there already has been an infidelity problem, a couple should review e-mails together before erasing them, he said. “Trust, to me, is earned, not assumed.”

A successful marriage turns on trust, Louisiana State University professor Loren Marks told me earlier this year when I called to talk about his research on black couples in happy, long-lasting marriages. People, however, seem to know little about how to create or maintain trust, Mr. Marks said, which is why he told me about the “sink” story he shares with students.

“About five years ago,” he said, “I came home from work, and my wife said, ‘I need to run to Kmart.’ And I said, ‘Well, when we talked at lunch on the phone today, you said you had already gone there this morning.’

“And she said, ‘I did, but when I got home, I realized the cashier hadn’t charged me for this $52 sink fixture that I’d bought.’

“And so she ran out the door, went to Kmart, went to the customer-service line, and they didn’t quite know what to do with her. Apparently that’s not a problem they have very often — someone coming back, complaining that they weren’t charged.

“And she said, ‘Well why don’t I go through the line as if I’m going through for the first time, and that way you guys can get your money, and I have a clear conscience, and we can both go on happy.’ And they said, ‘Fine.’

“And I tell the students, ‘That’s my love story.’

“And they look at me with amused and puzzled eyes. And I say, ‘Let me explain.’

“‘None of you in here know my wife, but let me ask you a question. How much sleep do you think I lose at night wondering whether my wife is being faithful to me or not?’

“And after some thought, someone will say, ‘None.’ And I’ll say, ‘That’s right, but why?’

“‘Well, you know, she took the sink back,’ they will say.

“And I’ll say, ‘That’s right. And if I can give you one piece of advice based on what I’ve seen personally and professionally, it would be to marry someone who will take the sink back. And, to work toward being the kind of person who will take the sink back.’”

Mr. Marks said he teaches students about all kinds of marital issues, but this simple story seems to resonate.

“Every once in a while,” he said, “I will get an e-mail from a student, and it will be something like, ‘Dr. Marks, I got married last month. And he’s a sink guy.’”

Cheryl Wetzstein is on medical leave. This column originally ran on July 26, 2009.