Betrayal Can Only Happen If You Trust

This is why deep down we are afraid of trusting others.

Posted Dec 28, 2018

Wikemedia Commons
Source: Wikemedia Commons

“It was a mistake," you said. But the cruel thing was, it felt like the mistake was mine, for trusting you.” ― David Levithan, The Lover's Dictionary

Trust is said to be the best proof of love. But it can be a source of misery when the other person exploits our gullibility. But what is it about trust that makes it so powerful? What does it mean to trust?

Trusting a person is different from trusting that things are, were or will be a certain way. “I trust that you are well” means that I expect that you are well. So, “to expect” in this sense means to be confident or to believe it to be likely. The expectation here is predictive.

“I trust you” means that I expect you to do or not do certain things because you realize that this is what can be reasonably be expected of you. What we trust or expect, in this sense, is normative. It refers to standards we think others ought to live up to.

We trust strangers, in the normative sense, to show at least a minimum of goodwill towards us. For example, we trust that drivers on the highway will not crash into us on purpose, that pedestrians we are sharing the sidewalk with will not snatch our bags when we pass them, and that the person in the airplane seat next to us will not kick us if we accidentally move into their designated space. The stronger our expectations, the greater our trust.

But we do not ordinarily trust strangers enough for us to be willing to say that we trust them without qualifying what we mean. We might be willing to trust a kind-looking stranger in a cafe to look after our laptop while we go to the bathroom, but we would not ordinarily be willing to trust a stranger to visit us if we get sick, give us food if we are starving or put us up if we don’t have a place to live.

Trust has a special place in personal relationships. Personal relationships allow others to show us that they can be trusted. People who merely satisfy a need, like a doctor or a hair stylist, can also earn our trust, but the earned trust is trust in some capacity. For example, you trust your doctor to do what’s best for your health but this doesn’t imply, for example, trusting her with your children.

We expect a lot more of the people we have personal relationships with than we do of complete strangers. In personal relationships, we expect more than minimal decency. For example, we expect a reasonable balance in how much we each give and receive. If a friend gives you a ride home from the airport, it is expected of you that you reciprocate, should she need a favor of similar proportion. We cannot expect the same of complete strangers. If you give a stranger directions, it is reasonable to expect some formal gesture of gratitude but once you part ways, you are no longer bound by any expectations beyond the bare minimum.

The balance in how much we each give and receive in personal relationships should, of course, be understood relative to means and capabilities. If your affluent friend treats to a dinner at an expensive restaurant but you barely can make ends meet, you are clearly not expected to reciprocate in kind, but you at a minimum expected to show your gratitude in a genuine way.

Even more can be expected of the people we have close relationships with. But how much can be expected depends on how close the relationship is. When people are not equally invested in a  relationship, disaster is bound to happen.

Carrie Bradshaw’s relationship with Mr. Big in the hit television series Sex and The City is pitiful example of the kinds of hurt unequal investment can lead to. When Carrie helps Big pack for a business trip, Big casually lets her know he might be moving to Paris for six months or a year. This takes Carrie with surprise. When she asks how long he has known this, he reluctantly admits that it has been in the works for a while. Her question to him about “them” only makes things worse. Big suggests that Carrie could move to Paris but adds that she should only do it for her own sake. Carrie is taken aback  when she realizes that Big has no problem just packing up and leaving; he has little to nothing invested in their relationship; to him she is nothing more than a casual fling. Carrie wondering whether she is really an emotional masochist when she keeps making herself vulnerable to Big’s putdowns.

When a person messes up once or twice by failing to meet our reasonable expectations, this usually does not make us stop trusting them altogether, but the more often it happens, the more likely it is to weaken our expectations, until one day we stop trusting them. If you repeatedly break your promises without having an excuse, my expectations that you will keep them will slowly become weaker, until I don’t expect you to keep your promises anymore. At this point I have stopping trusting you, in the unqualified sense. There may still be some things that I trust you to do or not do, for example, I may still trust you not to steal from me. But this is also something I ordinarily trust strangers on the street not to do.  The very moment I stop expecting you to do everything I can reasonably expect you to do, given the nature of our relationship, I have stopped trusting you. To win my trust back you would need to show me anew that you can be trusted.

Trusting a person makes us dependent on the person. This is why one of the best proofs of love is trust, as Joyce Brothers once said. This dependence can be quite unproblematic when the person we trust is good natured. But it can be a source of misery when the other person exploits our gullibility. Indeed, the best proof of the other person's lack of concern is betrayal. 

Betraying someone's trust is so extremely harmful, not just because it's a display of ill will towards us or disregard for our interests, but also because our lives revolve around the people we trust. This is so, because trust generates expectations. If you and I agreed to meet for dinner, it is with this expectation in mind that I schedule conference calls, department meetings and workout activities and make decisions about how much to eat at the retirement reception at work and whether to join my colleagues for a beer afterwards.

It's because of the expectations trust generate that it can be a very scary and risky thing to trust. The expectations determine our lives, for example, when we leave for work, pick up our children or do our workouts, when and how much we eat, how long sleep, how much we rehearse, how we dress, what we cook for dinner, which invitations we accept, who we hire, who we marry and whether we have children. This is the reason trust must be earned, and once earned is a gift and a proof of love.