An issue often encountered in treating relationships is the problem of mistrust. Most often the problem arises in the context of some boundary violation that has occurred in a relationship.
Behaviors that are most damaging are easily recognized such as infidelity, inappropriate use of the internet such as viewing pornography or emailing or texting some sexual or romantic content without a partners knowledge, or lies of almost any sort. Some preliminary research has indicated that a partner lying about finances was nearly as damaging to trust as sexual impropriety.
When partners have established shared expectations, any behavior that deviates from the expected damages trust.
Sometimes expectations were not clear or explicit; therefore, mistrust results. Ineffective communication and conflict resolution also results in broken and damaged trust when partners are not able to negotiate mutually agreed expectations. Without trust, it is difficult to achieve and sustain any significant level of intimacy in a relationship.
Trust produces comfort and minimizes anxiety. Not knowing what to expect from a partner in any relationship keeps the level of anxiety so high that it is difficult to sustain a relationship. To treat relationships in which trust is low, a therapist must first identify the source of damage to trust. Clients can often identify the behavior their partner has engaged in that has caused the injury to trust.
Common patterns that produce broken trust include:
Deliberate acts by a partner who knows full well that their behavior will be unacceptable to their partner. The behavior that is unacceptable to a partner may be completely acceptable in other relationships, but is known to be unacceptable to the current partner. The behavior, on the other hand, may involve violating accepted cultural norms and may be considered “immoral,” or “sinful.” In either case, a partner rationalizes to themselves that what they are doing is justified, or that they can keep their acts secret from their partner.
An even more serious form of betrayal is the behavior that is known to be harmful to a partner, but where there is a disregard for how the partner will feel when the behavior is likely to be known. Such acts are not accompanied by any sorrow or remorse, or plan to change (repentance). Intentional behavior known to cause hurt has an “evil” and “abusive” quality.
Misunderstanding occurs when partners miscommunicate. True misunderstandings occur in the context of loving and caring relationships, but where partners have not employed good communications skills. Misunderstandings occur in nearly all long-term relationships. If misunderstanding does not occur often, and partners have realistic expectations, serious harm is not done to trust. When partners have rigid or unrealistic expectations, or have low capacity for forgiveness, then much greater harm can be done to the trust in the relationship to both partners.
Accidental relationship injuries occur when there is a momentary lapse in judgment. A partner may not recognize the significance of their choices to their partner. Only when a person receives feedback from their partner does it become clear that their decision was unacceptable. In getting to know another person, not every scenario can be predicted and discussed in advance in order to arrive at shared expectations. Unfortunately, we sometimes do not realize where the land mines are buried until you step on one.
Unrealistic expectations by one partner may cause damage to trust to both parties. A failure to accept legitimate differences, and an expectation that partners should always agree, or should always think alike creates significant distress, and can lead to hostile escalations during disagreements.
Ineffective communication and conflict resolution fails to lower distress, thus resulting in unresolved differences. High levels of such distress over time, even over insignificant issues, erodes trust.
The inability to forgive sustains high levels of relationship anxiety. The difficulty in forgiving may be a result of repeated relationship injury by the current partner, or trauma from past relationships. The difficulty in forgiving may also result from personality variables such as a narcissistic and grandiose sense of self value and perfectionism. In any case, trust cannot exist in long term relationships without the ability to forgive past hurts.
Written by Dale Doty, M.S.W., Ph.D.