Can You Trust Again After Being Betrayed?

Do you push people away? If so, your trust indicator may need adjustment.

Posted Oct 03, 2020

The pain of betrayal runs deep. It can leave you feeling bitter, angry, defeated, and profoundly hurt. How could you ever trust again?

Maybe before the betrayal, you did trust people. What you trusted was that others would behave according to normal social rules. You trusted that family members would love and take care of you. You trusted that romantic partners would be loyal and respect you. You trusted that bosses and people in authority would have integrity. You expected people to have appropriate boundaries, and behave in appropriate ways. You believed that if you adhere to these rules, others would as well.

It is a shared social expectation, and without a doubt other people know the same rules and expectations. Since they know what is right and wrong, and what is appropriate and expected, it is perfectly reasonable that you believed that they would do the right things.  

But you were wronged.

Someone you knew, cared about, and trusted, lied, cheated, and violated these social norms, leaving you in a puddle of disbelief and shattering your trust. Can you ever trust again? In some ways, the answer is no, you cannot trust the same as you used to before the betrayal. If a vase is shattered, you can glue the pieces together, but it is not the same. Your naïve trust will never be the same, nor should it be. Just because you believed people should act appropriately, does not mean that they will. It is shocking and unbelievable. It may take years to come to terms with it. Every time you think about it, it may bring up the same feelings. “How could this person that I trusted, that I respected, and that I loved, lie to me, cheat on me, and stab me in the back?” It is appalling.

The impact can feel devastating, and it calls into question trusting anyone. People say global statements such as, “I can’t trust any man (or woman),” or “I can’t trust any leader (or politician),” or that all people of a particular group are untrustworthy. These global statements are the emotional brain attempting to protect you. It is an avoidance strategy to be wary. Some even say, “I don’t trust anybody,” and turn to animals for social support. This is an understandable reaction, because nobody wants to feel the pain of betrayal again.

However, without some level of trust, it is impossible to build intimate connections with others. It is isolating and painfully lonely without relationships. In some circumstances, good relationships are vital, such as in a work environment. Trust helps us have peace in our hearts when we build relationships. So how do we address this conundrum of not wanting to trust others for protection, and allowing enough trust to form positive relationships? 

I propose that we should not blindly trust others but rather have stages of trust where trust is earned in increments over time. Building trust includes noticing people’s behavior, attitudes towards others, as well as towards you. Do they show integrity (where their words match their actions), respect, loyalty, and caring about others? If so, they earn a bit more of your trust. This is not "all or nothing." There are people you may trust for certain things but not others. Some friends are timely and others are flaky. We can love people for who they are and have tailored expectations and varying degrees of trust. Some you may trust with private information, and others, who you may really enjoy, would never be safe with your secrets.

However, some people (e.g., those who are malicious, bullying, self-serving, or blaming) should not be trusted at all. Not everyone should be trusted. Whether or not you remain in a relationship with such people is a different conversation, but it would certainly be wise to protect yourself. You may find yourself in a situation at work, with neighbors, or with family members who are toxic but you still choose to maintain a working relationship. If you cannot leave the situation, then it is important to be aware of who you are dealing with. Your trust is a precious gift, so give it wisely.

The idea of levels of trust is based on developing the skill of discernment. Discernment is being able to differentiate types of relationships and to what level you want to extend your trust. Try taking a step back to ground yourself, and with a clear mind, assess to what degree would you like to extend your trust to each particular person. In a healthy relationship, trust blossoms over time. Positive words and actions nourish trust. With repeated positive experiences, the relationship develops a history or a foundation to sustain itself. In an unhealthy relationship, you will notice anxiety, self-doubt, feelings of uncertainty, paranoia, and worry. These are emotional indicators to withdraw your trust or at least question what is going on.

If you find that you are very quick to assume that most everyone is harmful, then your system may be a little too efficient, and you may need to re-calibrate your betrayal detector. There are many good people out there that are trustworthy if you give them a chance. Broken trust may be a call to improve your boundaries and set limits. It may be an opportunity to learn better communication skills. Healthy skepticism may help you slow down when forming new relationships, and help you form healthy trust by practicing successive incremental levels of trust.  

Action Step: If you would like, assess your own behavior around trust. Do you blindly give people your trust especially if they are interested in you, or do you push people away before giving them a chance? Either way, your trust indicator may need some adjustment. One way to practice developing trust is by taking a small calculated risk on someone who you think might be worth investing your trust. Share a bit about yourself (nothing too intimate that you might regret sharing) and see how it is received. Then ask if the other person has something to share. Notice how you feel afterwards, and the next couple of days.

If you feel ok, then see how it goes in your next encounter. See what develops over time. Practice communicating what is true for you as well as receiving from the other person. Giving and receiving helps develop trust for both of you. You may find that mending your cracked vase actually gives it more value, beauty, and appreciation. You learn about discernment, resilience, and intolerance for anything except a positive relationship.

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