What is trust, and why is it important in a relationship?
According to the American Psychological Association, the definition of trust in any type of interpersonal relationship is basically how much you can depend on someone else to act in a reliable way and to do what they say they'll do. For example, if you have a good relationship with your parents you likely trust that they'll nurture and protect you. If you trust your friends, you know that you can rely on them in times of hardship and even to just show up to brunch on time when they say they will.
- Aimee Hartstein, LCSW, New York City-based psychotherapist
- Jess Carbino, PhD, relationship expert and former sociologist for Tinder and Bumble
- Joy Berkheimer, PhD, LMFT, Florida-based sexologist and licensed marriage and family therapist
- Maya Maria Brown, international matchmaker and relationship expert
- Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist
Mutual trust is an essential component1 of any type of positive, lasting relationship, and a romantic partnership is no different. Without trust in a relationship, you never know where you stand and whether you can rely on your partner to support you, or tend to your needs, or keep you safe. Knowing you can trust someone goes a long way toward helping you decide whether you can deepen your bond with them, too. With a trustworthy partner, you'll feel more at ease about letting your guard come down.
But real or imagined trust issues have a major effect on relationships2, and can weigh down the dynamic like an anchor. If you can't trust your partner and they show signs they're someone you can't trust, it'll be extremely difficult to move forward in the relationship, or even to have confidence staying in it. "Having confidence that the other person is going to do the thing that you want them to do rather than do the thing that you fear, whatever that fear might be, is really omnipresent and hangs over the relationship often like a cloud to a certain degree," says Jess Carbino, PhD, and former sociologist at Tinder and Bumble.
Lack of trust creates a dynamic where the other person may feel unsafe or unsupported, or unfairly blamed for something that's not their fault. Understandably, someone negatively speculating about the way you might behave or believing you to be an untrustworthy person when you're not doesn't feel great and can damage and break the bond. Trust is also a key component of establishing emotional intimacy, which is one of the building blocks of romantic partnership.
People with trust issues are also more likely to engage in self-sabotaging behaviors that are likely to damage the relationship as a result of their fears. This also could be a way to push someone away to avoid getting hurt. "They could try to ensure that the person is going to behave in a way that they would consider to be adverse because they want to make sure that it happens rather than waiting for it to happen and they can't live with the uncertainty of it," explains Dr. Carbino. "They also might engage in general surveillance of their partner and ask questions that are not appropriate or problematic."
For example, someone with trust issues may insist on looking at their partner's phone to be sure they're not two-timing them, and in actuality that person is the one creating an untrusting dynamic instead of the partner they suspect of cheating; rather than asking where someone was out of general curiosity or concern, it's motivated by trying to catch them in a lie.
What causes trust issues individually and in relationships?
Issues in past relationships
Trust is important in relationships, so before taking the first steps toward healing trust issues, it's helpful to analyze and understand what might lie at the root of them. That answer might be obvious to you, if you’ve had a partner who betrayed your trust. “If your agreements with someone were broken in the past, like with infidelity or dishonesty, it’s understandable that you would expect the next person you’re with to behave the same way,” says Maya Maria Brown, relationship expert at relationship app Coupleness.
If a past partner cheated on you and shattered that relationship's trust, for example, you may worry that every future partner will cheat on you, too. As a result, you may project your past partner's actions onto your current one and withhold your trust—even if they've given no indication that they are, in fact, stepping out on you.
Trust issues based on developmental experience and attachment styles
That said, it’s also possible to struggle with trust even if you’ve never had a previous romantic relationship go south. In some cases, trust issues stem from childhood development, having an inconsistent or abusive relationship with your parents during childhood or witnessing such unstable relationships among family members or close friends could lead you to expect the same for yourself later in life—and to develop trust issues as a result, says Brown. Generally, people with high anxiety3 are most prone to having trust issues.
Part of the reason why those trust issues can linger is the body’s physical response to trauma. “When you go through a difficult relational experience, like having an inconsistent parent or an abusive or unfaithful partner, your body remembers that experience,” says Brown, citing the work of trauma researcher Peter Levine, PhD. “In that case, your body may respond to any future threats of harm—which can just mean being in a relationship—in ways that prepare for the pain. That could mean having a bad feeling in your stomach or an urge to run away, or lashing out defensively, all in order to try to prevent any more harm.” And the more natural those self-protective responses become, the tougher they can be to move past. Someone may have been too trusting of others in the past and is now trying to compensate for that now, whether warranted or not.
The presence of trust issues alone aren't an indication of a mental illness, says Dr. Carbino, but certainly some people who have conditions such as depression or anxiety could have trust issues as well.
3 signs of trust issues
According to Dr. Carbino, people with trust issues generally aren't able to hide them well, so you're likely to be able to ascertain whether you or your partner has them. Here are some signs of trust issues:
1. Having a tough time being vulnerable
Dr. Carbino says vulnerability is a key ingredient of building trust in new relationships because to some degree any relationship comes with risk. If someone is emotionally unavailable and has an exceedingly tough time opening up, it can point to some issues with trust.
Asking to track your location or look at your phone is a trust issue symptom, and signals that your partner needs independent confirmation of what you're up to. "It's monitoring [their partner] in a way that is over and above what would be consistent with a normal romantic relationship and is far more detailed and motivated by their lack of trust," says Dr. Carbino. There's a spectrum of this behavior. This may be acceptable and welcome in some couples, but not believing you when you say where you are or what you're up to is a sign of trust issues.
3. Asking probing or inappropriate questions
Another clear sign of trust issues? When someone will try to do whatever they can to either assuage their concerns or prove their instincts right, says Dr. Carbino, and they may ask questions that aren't exactly appropriate as a means to get an answer. This goes along with general surveillance—it's about getting information.
Is it possible to get over trust issues?
Healthy relationships require the kind of vulnerability that you can only achieve with full trust in a partner. You are holding your heart in your hands, offering it to someone else, and essentially saying, "Here is this gushy, sensitive organ of mine—please don't mess with it." So when someone cheats on you, breaks up with you seemingly out of the blue, or commits any other action that leads you to feel like you made a grave mistake in opening up your heart and world, it can seem as if the universe is gaslighting you. That feeling is tough to get over, and trusting fully again is even tougher.
"It can be a long road to rebuild that trust," says relationship therapist Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT. "When trust is broken, you ask yourself, 'Am I being a fool for trusting again?' 'Will I be hurt again?' People block themselves from trusting again because it feels so painful and so vulnerable to do so after it has been broken."
And yet, falling and being in love requires that trust—so, it’s essential to devote the time and energy to learning how to get over trust issues. “There isn’t a magic path to healing, and it’s not even necessarily about having the exact right partner to help you work through your trust issues,” says Brown. “Ultimately, it’s up to you to heal and hold yourself accountable to learn to build trust and embrace vulnerability in your relationships.”
Of course, that will be much tougher if your trust is repeatedly broken by partners. Having to rebuild trust in a relationship over and over can be exhausting. Even so, trust issues aren’t necessarily insurmountable, but genuinely fixing them is key to saving a relationship. “It can help to look for people in your life who model a trusting relationship or to speak with close friends, family members, or ideally, a therapist,” says Brown, “who can help you unpack difficult experiences and gain insight into how your past may be affecting your present.”
Below, therapists break down exactly how to overcome trust issues in a relationship, whether the partnership is new or long-standing, and move toward a secure understanding of intimacy.
How to get over trust issues in a new relationship
1. Be open and honest about what you’ve been through
While you may not want to disclose all the details of how you've been hurt in the past due to a loss of trust, communication is key for setting up a healthy foundation in a new relationship. That's especially true when it comes to handling trust issues because you want your new partner to be aware of what actions might be triggering for you in a relationship.
"If you’ve been badly burned, your impulse might be to keep it to yourself. However, talking about your experience is likely to make you feel a lot better." —Aimee Hartstein, LCSW, relationship therapist
"If you’ve been badly burned, your impulse might be to keep it to yourself and to not discuss it with the next person," says relationship therapist Aimee Hartstein, LCSW. "However, opening up to them and talking about your experience and your hesitations is likely to make you feel a lot better." And that doesn't need to require every detail at once, if this is a painful process: "You don’t need to throw it all out there on the first date, but once things get going, let them know what you’ve been through and how you may be feeling challenged," Hartstein adds.
2. Ask loved ones for a second opinion
If you notice what you suspect are red flags of untrustworthiness in a new partner, consult with those who want the best for you and will answer honestly about what they think. In particular, gauge whether your loved ones think the situation at hand is truly an issue or whether you might be projecting an outcome from an untrusting relationship you’ve previously had or witnessed, suggests Hartstein. "You can also try to ask yourself objectively, 'Are there actually red flags here, or am I overreacting because of a past situation?'"
3. Seek closure from the past, if possible
This is something to consider if your trust was broken in a previous relationship and you haven't (literally or metaphorically) burned every picture of your ex. If the relationship is cordial enough to seek clarity about what happened, it could be worth meeting with your trust-breaking former partner to have a post-mortem.
It’s important to approach this with caution, though. "If their behavior has been particularly abysmal, this might not be a good idea," Hartstein says. "But in certain cases, getting some perspective from them can help people to wrap things up and mentally move on."
4. Be aware that time really does help
It may just be a matter of time before your sense of trust feels restored. Usually, though, the time component is matters more in regards to strengthening the new relationship in front of you than it is about moving past the one you left. "The more time you spend with your new partner and the more you build on the solid foundation that you are creating, the better you are likely to feel," says Hartstein.
How to get over trust issues in a long-term partnership
1. Voice your feelings, concerns, and questions
It’s important to avoid punishing or playing the blame game with a long-term partner who broke your trust. But at the same time, it’s not wise to bury the pain they’ve caused you in the interest of moving past it, either. Instead, you’ll want to clearly convey that you've been hurt and provide context as to why that is—whether it’s solely the result of their actions or a combination of their behaviors and past experiences that shaped your understanding of trust. In any case, learning how to get over trust issues in a long-term partnership starts with launching an ongoing dialogue.
"Part of building trust back means being able to voice the feelings and thoughts that have come up for you when you've heard about your partner's trust-breaking actions."—Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT, relationship therapist
"Part of building trust back means being able to voice the feelings and thoughts that have come up for you when you've heard about your partner's trust-breaking actions," says Thompson. "Your partner needs to hear where you’re coming from and the ways in which you have been hurt."
2. Understand that there is no time limit on building trust back
There are many reasons why someone in a long-term relationship may have developed trust issues. But one of the most common is some version of infidelity, whether that’s emotional cheating, sexual cheating, or any other act that falls outside the established boundaries of your relationship. And it's important to acknowledge that learning how to heal after being cheated on and that rebuilding trust in that scenario can take as long a period of time as it needs to take.
"Many couples who go through affairs ask how long it takes to move on and move through infidelity," says Thompson. "Both partners need to understand that there is no time frame on it. Working to be honest with each other and open, and perhaps getting help through therapy can make it move faster."
3. Work on your self-esteem
"Usually someone suffering from a betrayal feels badly about themselves and perhaps also not good enough," Thompson says. "It’s paramount to deal with these feelings and build yourself back up." Rebuilding your confidence and self-worth goes hand-in-hand with rebuilding trust. So, make sure to fill your schedule with activities and surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself.
4. Get support
If your trust is still shaky with your partner, make sure you have love and support from someone you do trust. This is a person who won't judge you if you continue with the affected relationship—someone with whom you can openly share your feelings and concerns.
"A lot of times, people will reach out for a therapist at this point, and that can be very helpful," says Thompson. "Healing from broken trust can be extremely painful and bring up a lot of past and current challenges and issues. It is important that you get support to help you navigate through them.”
In particular, you might look for a therapist who uses an approach called “relational therapy,” suggests Brown. “A relational therapist will work with you to help you build trust between you and them,” she says. As you get to know each other and they observe your style of communication, they can point out roadblocks and reflect back to you where your challenges tend to crop up. Once you move past those and begin to build trust with the therapist, that relationship then becomes a model for how you might build trust with a partner, says Brown.
What is some good advice for people with trust issues?
Are trust issues a red flag?
Though it can certainly be tough to navigate a relationship with someone who has trust issues, it’s important to know that trust issues aren’t an inherent red flag. In fact, working together with your partner to heal past wounds can be meaningful and lead to an incredible relationship, says Brown. Undoubtedly, that’ll take lots of patience and a strong demonstration of trust on your end.
What is the best way to help a partner who has trust issues?
The best way for you to help a partner who has trust issues is for you to follow through on your commitments. "Your partner with trust issues is hyper vigilant and looking for any evidence that they are going to be betrayed, so you don't want to give them a reason to believe the narrative that they already have playing in their head," says therapist Joy Berkheimer, PhD, LMFT.
Specifically, that means modeling trust for your partner in order to help reassure them that that’s the baseline or the norm for your relationship. “Saying things like, ‘I trust you to pick out a gift for our friend’s birthday,’ or ‘I trust that you’ll be home when you say you will,’ are examples of what that can look like,” says Brown.
How do you reassure someone who has trust issues?
According to Dr. Berkheimer, reassuring a person with trust issues is a very individual task that requires knowing a little more about your partner's past so you can steer clear of triggering behaviors. Transparency around your motivations and actions can really help reassure someone with trust issues, and can help establish new patterns for this relationship even if certain behaviors remind them of pain. For example, perhaps this person is triggered when you put your phone in silent mode and don't respond to their communications because a previous partner did that when they were unfaithful. Even if your motivations are different, that action can be hurtful to them, so bridge that gap and help your partner understand why they shouldn't worry. "Explain those things so that a new narrative can be created with this partner," says Dr. Berkheimer.
How can you be with someone who has trust issues?
To effectively be with someone who has trust issues, it’s also important not to take it personally when your partner struggles to let you in. “You can remind yourself that your partner’s trust issues didn’t begin with you and most likely are not a direct response to anything you’re doing but instead, a feeling or fear that they carry from the past,” says Brown.
If they continue to have issues trusting you, even after you’ve reassured them—perhaps they’re questioning whom you were with or what you were doing when you weren’t with them—you can make a plan together for how they can feel more at ease when you’re out, says Brown. That could mean offering more frequent check-ins or even location-tracking via your phone.
“But, sometimes, it’s just as simple as giving them space to express their fears and showing them understanding and patience in return,” says Brown. Once a person with trust issues knows that their partner is fully aware of that and is taking it into account when they make decisions, they can work their way toward the kind of security that underscores a strong relationship.
Can therapy help with trust issues?
According to Dr. Berkheimer, therapy can help immensely in working toward getting rid of trust issues. "More than likely, trust issues are related to attachment styles and trauma, and these are things that are dealt with in therapy settings, either individually or in couples counseling," she says.
Can a person with trust issues ever have a good relationship?
If you have trust issues and are trying to heal from them, the experts say it's important to note that you're not doomed to suffer from them and that it is possible to have a loving, trusting relationship. However, Dr. Berkheimer says it's not enough to acknowledge that you have the issues in the first place—you must actively interrogate the root of your insecurities, and seek help to sort through them from a trained professional. She says that the core of many trust issues is self-hatred, so learning to love yourself again and to believe that you can be treated with care takes work. "They have to come to a place to believe another person can see them in that way and treat them with care," she says. "Once they've done that work where they can value themselves again, they can step back into a relationship, in a relaxed enough manner to treat another person well." This process will take time and will not be easy, but it's worth it.
- Wilkins, Consuelo H. “Effective Engagement Requires Trust and Being Trustworthy.” Medical care vol. 56 Suppl 10 Suppl 1,10 Suppl 1 (2018): S6-S8. doi:10.1097/MLR.0000000000000953
- Rodriguez, Lindsey M et al. “The Price of Distrust: Trust, Anxious Attachment, Jealousy, and Partner Abuse.” Partner abuse vol. 6,3 (2015): 298-319. doi:10.1891/1946-65126.96.36.1998
- Simpson, Jeffry A, and W Steven Rholes. “Adult Attachment, Stress, and Romantic Relationships.” Current opinion in psychology vol. 13 (2017): 19-24. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2016.04.006
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