What To Do When You Can’t Trust

February 2, 2010

I am asked regularly why trust isn’t all that crucial to a healthy relationship. I usually qualify that at some point and say that “trust is crucial to a healthy, rewarding and fun relationship…but not necessarily to a healthy relationship”. Let me give a quick example. I have a friend who is very loving and generous. He has helped me through various problems in the past and has always stood with me to comfort me when I’m low. That’s his spiritual gift. But he is a terrible gossip. If I tell him something in confidence, I know some version of it will spread to our mutual friends. I cannot trust him to keep his mouth shut, and I have told him I can’t trust him. He keeps on assuring me he will do better next time. But I don’t believe his promises, and I cannot afford to give my personal opinions to him. (By the way: I would never share anything regarding a counseling appointment with anyone, for any reason, unless required by law. I am referring here to personal opinions that I feel very free to have and share with close friends).

Yet he and I have a very healthy relationship. I just never tell him ANYTHING that I mind him sharing with anyone else. And he knows this is as far as I am willing to go with him. I have forgiven him for “outing” me to our buddies. I still enjoy hanging around with him and listening to his stories. He still helps me when I need someone to come along side of me. But I never, ever tell him my private opinions any more. Whether he is all right with this or not is meaningless to me. He lost the right to have me give him that level of trust. I don’t have it in me.

In what way then is our relationship healthy? He and I are friendly, loving and helpful to each other. I hold no grudge toward him, or he with me. We still confront each other when necessary and can freely enjoy each other’s company. But I have set a boundary on what things I will trust him with. That is healthy.

The people who struggle the most with trust in relationships, of course, are married couples. When affairs happen, violence, financial sins, or lying take place, the trust is often destroyed. Can you have a continuing marriage relationship without trust? In some cases, it may not be possible. But before we jump off that pier, let’s look at some of the alternatives to ending a relationship when trust is gone.

  1. Taking a Step Back: Of course, every breach of trust is different. First, there are various degrees. A prolonged glance at another woman, an emotional affair with someone at work, a one-night stand on a business trip and a year-long romance with the next-door neighbor are all different degrees of the same violation. They cannot and should not be treated the same. In addition, any of these happening in the first year of marriage has different implications than if they happened in the 10th year. Hiding away a bank account secretly saving for a new car is different than secretly spending $1,000/month at the slot machines. They are both lies about money; just different degrees. The first thing all couples should do with a violation of trust is to take a step back emotionally. Don’t just continue on with the routines of daily life as they were. Violations of trust must be talked out and consequences must be decided upon. This may require a time of separation (if the violation is severe) or several days of quiet and reflection. A counselor, pastor or close friend may be brought in at this point to give an objective view. Perhaps the violation of trust is not as serious as you originally thought. Never assume you have all the facts when you first find something out. Of course, in some cases, a minor infraction is the tip of the iceberg revealing a much deeper history of trust violations. Taking a step back will help reveal this as well. During this season of pulling back, feel free to set limitations and boundaries concerning how much contact you will allow your partner to have with you
  2. Allow Skepticism: Dr. Harry Shamburg is a noted counselor specializing in helping professionals deal with infidelity in marriage. His advice to couples when they come to his treatment center is helpful: Don’t ever assume you’ve heard the whole story. He tells us that many people practice damage control. They reveal only the details they must admit to because they were caught. Shamburg sees skepticism as healthy for as long as it is useful. During this “season of discovery” let your partner know that you assume they haven’t told you the whole story yet. Tell them you refuse to close the book on this violation for awhile. Many people will be hurt that we don’t trust them yet. A simple “it’s my decision when I will begin to trust again” is enough to help them see you are allowed to be skeptical.
  3. Ask God what He will allow you to do: A woman came into my office very upset. Her husband had been thrown into the State Prison for molesting their oldest daughter. He had been in jail for over a year by the time she came to see me. She was no longer torn apart by his horrific actions; it was her church she struggled with. Several church leaders wanted to know when she was going to divorce him. They had already removed him from church membership and they expected her to end her relationship with him. She certainly felt justified in doing that (there are moral, biblical and psychological reasons to do it for sure) but every time she prayed, God said she should hold off on the divorce option. As a result, the church removed her from membership as well. I tell that story not to suggest that God will always tell a person to stay married. Though God does not ever advise anyone to divorce, He does allow it due to the condition of our hearts. The longer we will not love someone, the more our hearts become cold. This coldness or hardness of heart is impossible to cure, and divorce was given by God to give a way for hard-hearted people to go on living. God’s advice is that we both love people and hold them accountable. A wife whose husband is violent should probably turn him into the police. A man whose wife has spent all their money secretly should at least separate their accounts and probably require her to get counseling. But so few people ever ask God what they should do.
  4. Be loving and enjoy the boundaries: A pastor’s wife whose husband had admitted to a number of affairs decided to stay married to him. She even allowed their sex life to continue. But from that day on, she required that he wear a condom during intercourse. He was always wounded by this and would bring it up regularly in our counseling sessions (Note: I have their permission to share this story). Her explanation was wonderful: “We still have small children. If I get an STD from you and die, who will take care of them?” I asked him if she was in any way less amorous in their love-making and he admitted she was still very affectionate. But he also noticed that she held part of herself back and the condom boundary was difficult and caused him emotional pain. I told him that she had every right to protect herself and the children from the possibility of infection. He reluctantly agreed with this boundary. However, when I met with him years later, he had come to appreciate this boundary she had set. Love means we do things like talk about how we feel, hold people to the consequences of their actions, refuse to gossip about them, don’t get others (such as children) in the middle. We do not have to allow others to keep hurting us – but we need to develop a loving heart toward them.
  5. Forgive: This means we release the hurt and pain to God. It does not mean we keep letting them act the way they have been acting.
  6. Reconnect: In some relationships, all we can do is start over. With major betrayals, some couples end up dating all over again. They go back to the “no trust” stage that all relationships start with. But reconnection is much to be preferred over ending the relationship altogether.

In these three articles, I have sought to express these truths:

  1. Trust is an emotion first and a decision second
  2. Love does not require trust to function.
  3. There are things we can do to be loving even when we don’t trust.


  1. Hi Mike, great article, I liked the clear examples of different degrees of trust violations, and the advice that each level is not to be treated with the same degree of action. It is better to go forward in relationships even when trust is violated rather than “push the mistrust down” and go on as if things are normal.

  2. Thanks for your input Jennifer. I think that more people should approach violations of trust with your attitude.

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