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Trust and Betrayal

Learning to trust wisely.

Human beings need to trust. Trust allays anxiety, helps lift depression, and makes it possible to consistently invest interest and enjoyment in one another.

There could be no civilization, enduring health, or mental wellness without trust. The most ordinary interpersonal, commercial, medical, and legal interactions would be impossible without some degree of trust.

In contrast, distrust is fraught with anxiety and resentment. No loneliness is lonelier than distrust.

Intimate betrayal—abuse, infidelity, deceit, financial manipulation—fractures the ability to trust anyone who gets close to us, including friends, relatives, even children. Yet the human need to trust persists, creating an internal storm of wanting to trust while being terrified of it.

Most people respond to this internal turmoil in one of three ways.

  1. Blind trust puts faith in someone without regard to demonstrated reliability or trustworthiness. It’s more a reluctance to experience the doubt, anxiety, and loneliness of distrust than an endorsement of the other person’s better qualities.
  2. Suspiciousness is focused on the mere possibility of betrayal. It keeps us in a state of hypervigilance and all but eliminates close connections to others.
  3. Wise trust assesses the probability of betrayal, in recognition that we are all frail creatures capable of betrayal in weaker moments. Realistically, it’s possible that any of us could betray a loved one. Blind trust denies this darker characteristic of human nature; suspiciousness exaggerates it. Wise trust is an assessment that the probability of betrayal is low.

The Slow Path to Wise Trust: Compassion for Self and Others

The secret of trusting wisely is to forget about trust. Your brain won’t let you sustain it as long as you’re hurt anyway, as most defenses are unconscious and run almost exclusively on autopilot. In other words, you’ll be able to trust for a little while but it will, in short order, fall apart. And each time that trust falls apart, it becomes harder to rebuild.

Genuine trust is not a goal so much as a by-product of enhanced core value—the ability to create value and meaning in your life. Focus first on self-compassion and then on compassion for others, and you’ll find that trust will sneak up with you, in its own good time.

My late mother was the model of how to be compassionate while withholding trust. One Thanksgiving, I came home from college to find that my mother had taken in a couple of distant cousins who were out of work.

I was not surprised to see people living in our house. (My mother had overcome the severe battering she suffered at the hands of my father during my early childhood to become a compassionate person of enormous charity and generosity.)

What shocked me was that the closets and drawers in all the rooms, including my bedroom, were locked. I insisted on knowing why.

My mother explained, with embarrassment, that my cousins — her distant nephews — had stolen money from her, along with a few pieces of her costume jewelry, and even some of her clothing.

Enraged at this betrayal, I was ready to throw out the ungrateful, freeloading, petty criminals. But she stopped me cold.

"It's not hard to keep things locked," she said. "It would be harder to make them leave when they don't have anywhere to go."

I have used my mother's lesson repeatedly, in my own life and in my work with clients struggling with intimate betrayal: You can be compassionate without trusting.

Wise trust cannot be expected to return fully until self-compassion and core value have grown larger than the fear of being hurt yet again.

The Probability of Betrayed Trust

Intimate betrayal most often occurs when partners violate their deeper values to gain a temporary sense of empowerment. The way that potential partners empower themselves when feeling vulnerable is the most telling way to assess the probability of betrayal.

Knowing facts about their historical behavior in intimate relationships helps, of course. But that is not always possible. Fortunately, there are subtle clues that can help assess probability.

The partner who becomes angry, resentful, or depressed when feeling vulnerable is more likely to shut down, punish, control (emotionally abuse) or seek some kind of temporary ego boost through infidelity or deceit. In contrast, the potential partner who responds to the prospect of vulnerability by trying to improve the situation, appreciate, connect, or protect is far less likely to betray you.

Use the following to assess the probability that a betrayal of trust will occur in a current relationship. If the relationship is new, fill it out every couple of weeks, until you learn more about the prospective partner.

Circle all that apply. When feeling vulnerable (e.g., anxious, devalued, rejected, powerless, inadequate, unlovable), my partner is likely to:





Shut down

Get angry



Abuse substances

Abuse me

Self-Compassion Means Slow Trust

The more slowly that trust returns, the better; slow trust is more likely to have a solid and durable foundation. Be patient with yourself. Your trusting nature is not lost; it’s just a little bruised.

Those who are worthy of your trust have at least an intuitive understanding of this: Three of the four positive attachment emotions—interest, compassion, and love—are unconditional in healthy relationships. But the fourth, which is trust, must be earned over time.

Don't miss these Free Webinars on Living and Loving After Betrayal.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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