Blog #16: Trust is precious and fragile

Without trust there could be no relationships. And yet trust—the very foundation of human activity—is delicate, easily shattered, and difficult to repair.

It’s a huge topic, bigger than we can approach here. People offer, build—and withhold—trust based on a lifetime of experiences, which can affect their behavior in many ways. At the end of this post, you’ll find a long list of resources you can use to take a deeper dive.

Our focus is on building—and rebuilding—trust in the context of being in important personal relationships.

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them. Ernest Hemingway

Generally, trust means you allow yourself to be vulnerable, make decisions, and take actions based on the words, actions, and decisions of someone else. You believe you can rely on them.

The extent that you trust in a current relationship is based on your experience of someone being honest, predictable, and well intentioned. Literally: trustworthy.

That makes honesty the most critical variable. Without that, there can be no trust.


Rabbi Aryeh Pamensky says, “You cannot be dishonest about yourself with your spouse and be truly intimate at the same time.”

It’s important because we depend on others—at home, at work, and in society at large. We often take emotional, social, professional, and fiscal risks based on our expectations of what others have said and will do.

Because we vest so many different relationships with trust, we apply trust on a continuum.

In some cases, we build trust based on quantifiable, observable behavior: the other person has been consistent and reliable, met their obligations, and fulfilled their promises. That’s called calculus-based trust: you mentally calculate trustworthiness based on someone’s actions. It’s relatively easy to form and when violated, fairly straightforward to repair.

“Sorry I missed that deadline, won’t happen again …”

As long as it doesn’t happen again, trust will rebound.

At a much deeper level, we imbue others with trust based on non-quantifiable factors. We build understanding and expectations of care, mutual goals, and shared experiences. That’s identification-based trust. It’s the cornerstone of intimacy.

Few things can help an individual more than to place responsibility on him, and to let him know that you trust him. Booker T. Washington

As you enter more-intimate relationships, you come to complex and intuitive understandings with people. You build an unspoken understanding of others’ desires, needs, and attitudes. You create emotional bonds.

At that level, trust becomes established through unquantifiable experiences and expectations. You don’t wonder—or even logically know—whether someone holds your best interests at heart. You assume so.

It’s no wonder a violation of that trust can take an enormous toll.

By “violation of trust,” we mean a case (or series of cases) in which your confidence and expectations are not met. They lie. They cheat. They mislead. They fail to fulfill commitments or expectations.

Of course, it can be very trivial: They showed up a little late, didn’t get the car washed, didn’t get the bills paid on time, or got you a crummy birthday gift. Minor offenses diminish trust, but it can be reestablished pretty easily.

But a pattern of offenses, or more significant offenses, result in more profound emotional and cognitive reactions, which can destroy trust completely. Consistent violations of trust create persistent disappointment. That leads to becoming guarded and defensive, to stop confiding in each other, and withdrawing emotionally.

Often it leads the hurt party to seek other things to do—and other relationships.

Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters. Albert Einstein

 Rebuilding trust is much more difficult than building trust. Now the hurt party is in a position of first dealing with outcomes of the violation (heartbreak, anger, stress, frustration, humiliation, etc.) and then determining the likelihood of further violations.

They have to decide how to move forward. Are they willing to forgive (which is basically releasing the offender from responsibility) and/or reconcile (which requires acceptance of responsibility by the offending party and coming-to-terms among both parties)?

holding hands on table_l_84099881

Note that the two are not the same. Forgiveness is a choice. One may still harbor pain and resentment. But without reconciliation, a relationship can’t continue in a healthy way. When you’ve been hurt, you need to know your partner is fully committed to the relationship and to avoiding similar problems in the future.

To begin healing and rebuilding quickly, the offense needs to be addressed immediately. Here’s a post-offense make-good checklist:

  • Act immediately—if you mess up, own up
  • Apologize and explain yourself
  • Be sincere
  • Be aware of your history—is this a solitary violation or one of many—and act accordingly
  • Offer penance—support your words with action
  • Reaffirm your commitment and expectations for the future

Trust is built with consistency. Lincoln Chafee

Creating an environment of trust goes much further than making effective apologies. When you don’t trust your partner, you can’t be emotionally or sexually intimate. You can’t make meaningful plans. You can’t ever really be yourself.

Richard Nicastro, PhD, has written extensively about trust in relationships. He listed these pro- and anti-trust conditions:

Pro-trust conditions

  • accepting, encouraging
  • sensitive, concerned
  • emotionally open
  • responsive, engaged
  • committed, reliable

Anti-trust conditions

  • critical, judgmental
  • aloof, indifferent
  • defensive, closed-off
  • unresponsive, detached
  • erratic, unpredictable

He says, “When trust conditions are violated, couples often shift from a secure to an insecure-anxious way of relating.”

Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships. Stephen Covey

Here’s a list of things you can do to build and maintain a trusting relationship:

  • Stay honest
  • Learn to communicate effectively
  • Moderate impulsive decision making
  • Be reliable
  • Admit your mistakes
  • Do the right thing
  • Avoid self promotion
  • Express yourself responsibly


And, have a mutual practice, like yoga. Yoga provides the focus and extemporaneous experience that can take a couple out of their heads, and out of conflict. Simple, gentle assists, sharing weight, offering careful support all bring a couple together in sweet, supportive, and beneficial ways.

You can check out any of our previous blogs for couple’s asana practices.

In the list above, there’s a simple bullet point: do the right thing. When everything’s OK, it’s easy. When things are messed up, it’s hard. But that—integrity—above all else, makes the difference.



Rousseau, D. M., Sitkin, S. B., Burt, R. S., and Camerer, C. (1998). Not so Different After All: A Cross-Discipline View of Trust, Academy of Management Review, 23, 393-404.

Lewicki, R. J., McAllister, D. J., & Bies, R. J. (1998). Trust and distrust: New relationships and realities. Academy of Management Review

Lewicki, Roy J. and Edward C. Tomlinson. Trust and Trust Building. Beyond Intractability. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder.

Lori H. Gordon, How Relationships Are Sabotaged by Hidden Expectations.

McDonagh, P. (1997, 06). Shared benefits: Group therapy delivers open honest talk with people you trust. Chatelaine, 70, 136.

Zak, A. M., Gold, J. A., Ryckman, R. M., & Lenney, E. (1998). Assessments of trust in intimate relationships and the self-perception process. The Journal of Social Psychology, 138(2), 217-228.

Mark Goulston, M.D., The 3 Most Powerful Questions to Bring Back Trust, Intimacy and Love to a Dead Marriage

The 6 Secrets of a Lasting Relationship: How to Fall in Love Again… and Stay There

“Just Listen” The Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone – an empathy toolkit and guide

Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life

How to Build Trust, Stacie Courtney-Mustaphi, B.Soc.Sci ,

How to Maintain and Build Trust in Your Relationships

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