- Eliza Davis, LMSW, associate therapist at Manhattan Wellness
- Elizabeth Marks, LMSW, associate therapist at Manhattan Wellness
- Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist
- Rachel Holzberg, LMSW, associate therapist at Manhattan Wellness
- Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University
- Susan Zinn, LPCC, LMHC, NCC, psychotherapist, certified trauma specialist, and founder of Westside Counseling Center
Why trust is so important in relationships
While certain signs you can’t trust someone are more likely to pop up in the beginning of a partnership—say, someone who can’t stick to their word—and others tend to unfold over time, it’s worth keeping an eye out for these relationship red flags at any stage because of how essential trust really is within a partnership. Positive, lasting relationships are built on mutual trust. “Having trust in a partner allows you to feel safe, accepted, and validated, which fosters the opportunity for you to show up as the most authentic version of yourself,” says therapist Eliza Davis, LMSW. Looking for these green flags in a relationship is part of identifying trustworthy potential partners, too.
"Having trust in a partner allows you to feel safe, accepted, and validated, which fosters the opportunity for you to show up as the most authentic version of yourself."—Eliza Davis, LMSW, therapist
To understand how key trust is, try picturing your relationship with a friend or partner as a home; in this metaphor, trust is what forms the foundation. When things get a little shaky at one point or another, or a partner lets you down (as they’re bound to occasionally do), the relationship is only able to withstand and overcome the blow if the foundational trust is solid, says Davis. If that foundation has structural cracks to start, it will be extremely difficult for the relationship to continue in a long term, healthy way. It often requires a lengthy process to rebuild trust after it's been broken—and surface-level fixes typically won't do the job to save a relationship and repair the damage.
How do trust issues play into this?
Keep in mind that everyone's prior experiences will help determine how they evaluate whether someone is trustworthy. That is to say, it’s possible to struggle with trusting people not because they are actually untrustworthy, but because you don’t trust easily or you have trust issues.
Trust issues generally stem from folks’ lived experiences—for example if they've been cheated on—or from their upbringings and attachment styles. Trust issues are harmful because they cause people to see problems where there may not be any, and as a result they may act in self-sabotaging ways that can push their partners away, Jess Carbino, PhD, and former sociologist at Tinder and Bumble, previously told Well+Good. Someone may also have been too trusting in the past and is now compensating by overcorrecting in the opposite direction.
If you have trust issues, rest assured you can work through them with guidance from a therapist or other mental health professional. As for how to get over trust issues, it’ll take a combination of seeking closure from the past, support from loved ones, honesty about what you’ve been through, and working on your self-esteem; therapy can help with all of these.
That’s all to say, being aware of signs of an untrustworthy person can spare you the trouble of building (or continuing to build) a partnership “house” on unsteady ground. Below, experts call out the partner and friendship red flags that should give you pause about a person’s trustworthiness.
The 5 clearest signs you can't trust someone
1. They tend to change the details of a single story, depending on the circumstances
A changing description of a single situation smells of dishonesty—and honesty is one of the key components of trust. “If you notice that someone is offering you conflicting information or seemingly bending the truth of a story, those are signals that point to untrustworthiness,” says therapist Rachel Holzberg, LMSW.
But because these behaviors could hint at an isolated fib (or even a white lie that’s supported by a valid reason), it’s always worth addressing your concerns directly before jumping to conclusions. “Having a conversation creates a space of awareness and allows an opportunity for the person to clarify anything that may be unsettling,” says Holzberg.
2. They don’t acknowledge their missteps or wrongdoings
If a person doesn't show remorse or take responsibility for having done something wrong, it’ll be hard to trust them to do what’s right in the future. This might look like the person always needing to be right or frequently acting like the victim. “Even if they’ve hurt you, they might be creating their own narrative and not listening to you or disregarding what you’re saying,” says psychotherapist and certified trauma specialist Susan Zinn, LPCC, LMHC, NCC, founder of Westside Counseling Center.
At the extreme, that kind of behavior could lead to you questioning yourself or your worth, says therapist Elizabeth Marks, LMSW. (And if that becomes a recurrent situation, it’s a slippery slope to gaslighting.) “In any case, a person telling you how to think, feel, or act based on how it best serves their needs is a strong red flag of untrustworthiness,” says Zinn.
3. They seem to be hiding a lot of ‘big’ things
While personal boundaries can certainly be positive, if a friend or partner seems to be shielding so much of their life that it makes you doubt their character or motives, there’s a chance they’re concealing a secret (and not just upholding a sense of privacy). Because transparency is another cornerstone of trust, when someone categorically hides their space, their phone, or the important people in their life, it can be a sign that they’re not trustworthy, says Marks: “It just begs the question of what really is being hidden.”
The same goes for hiding explanations or plans behind a “why are you asking?” shield. For example, if you ask a partner what they’re doing later, and the answer is, “Why do you want to know?” you might question their desire to withhold information and to put a roadblock in an otherwise open dialogue, says Marks.
4. You can’t count on them to do what they said they would
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who has stuck to every agreement or promise they’ve made. Sometimes life happens, and you have to cancel on an important plan, even last-minute. But if a friend or partner is repeatedly flaky, you have to ask whether the problem is deeper than the occasional scheduling mishap. Inconsistent behaviors and a lack of accountability create an unnecessary state of confusion, which may signal that a person’s intentions are questionable, says Holzberg.
5. They give you a strange sense of anxiousness or unease
Often, one of the surest signs of an untrustworthy person is a gut feeling—sometimes, literally. “For instance, that feeling of having butterflies in your stomach when you’re around someone may actually be your body cueing you into something that feels unsafe or off,” says Zinn.
If a person’s presence makes you uncomfortable or uneasy, even if you can’t quite explain why, it’s worth tuning into that feeling. “We have to spend more time concentrating on how we really want to feel, and asking ourselves, Does this person feel emotionally safe? Do they make me feel good? Do they renew me?” Zinn says.
If you’re spending time trying to assess why things feel off when you’re around them or whether they might be untrustworthy, the answer to the above introspective questions is very likely, ‘no’ and it’s worth trusting your intuition. “We only have so much energy every day,” Zinn says, “and when people or our emotions about them are depleting us rather than renewing us, it doesn’t allow for balance in our lives or a healthy relationship.”
What to do if there’s someone in your life whom you can’t trust
If you notice some of these signs of untrustworthiness in your partner and you want to stay with them, it’ll take work. According to clinical psychologist Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, you should talk to them about how realizing you can’t trust them makes you feel and give them a chance to change their behaviors and work to gain your trust. “If you have tried to express your concern and don’t believe the person is receptive or willing to work on themselves, you can revise the relationship so you are not putting yourself in a position to get hurt by them,” she advises.
If you have tried to express your concern and don’t believe the person is receptive or willing to work on themselves, you can revise the relationship so you are not putting yourself in a position to get hurt by them."—Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, clinical psychologist
Setting boundaries for your relationship with this person is key. If there’s someone already in your life, most likely a family member or friend, you might “need to keep them at a distance, like spending less time with them, not living physically close to them, or not sharing emotional details with them,” says therapist Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT. Keep in mind though that this may be extremely hard to do with a romantic partner because advancing the relationship will require vulnerability and trust; as mentioned above, rebuilding trust takes time and effort.
If there is someone with whom you are considering letting back into your life after realizing they can’t be trusted, be sure they’ve demonstrated that they’ve changed. For example, don’t overlook the red flags when getting back with an ex if you notice behaviors that give you pause.
Frequently Asked Questions about signs you can't trust someone
How do you test if you can trust someone?
To test whether someone is trustworthy, you can try “taking small risks of vulnerability,” says Dr. Romanoff. Give them chances to prove their trustworthiness in ways that won’t cause you harm or anguish if they fail.
“Imagine this process as getting into a pool and their trustworthiness is your floatation device. Start in the shallow end and slowly work towards the deep end to decide how trustworthy this person is,” she says. “If they are trustworthy, you can be more vulnerable and rely on them for more serious things in the deep end so you don’t have to fear drowning.”
What might this look like? Rather than asking someone to take care of your pet while you’re out of town, which could backfire spectacularly if they fail your test, you could ask for small favors like seeing if they’re able to pick up something for you at the store, or seeing if they’ll meet you on time to hang out.
Can you love someone and not trust them?
Yes, it’s possible to love someone and not trust them because love and trust are separate entities, says Dr. Romanoff. “Often love can blind us to how much we should trust others, [so] it is important to separate how we feel about those we love and how their actions demonstrate if they are trustworthy or not,” she says.
This can be especially true with parents or other family members, says Divaris Thompson. For example, if you have a parent who struggled to care for you growing up—you may still love them, but not necessarily trust them. In this case, it may be possible to have them in your life in some capacity if you set boundaries, such as not living near them or restricting how often you see them or how much you tell them about your life. Although trust is a key part of relationships, as an adult you may not rely on your family as much, which makes it easier to keep them at arm's length without cutting them off entirely. However, this gets tougher when applied to your S.O. because trust is such an integral part of romantic partnership.
Can you be friends with someone who is untrustworthy?
Both Divaris Thompson and Dr. Romanoff say it’s possible to be friends to a certain extent with someone you consider to be untrustworthy, but that this trait will prevent the relationship from progressing and deepening.
If you are going to be friends with someone you deem untrustworthy, it’s important to set boundaries for yourself to avoid getting burned. “You don’t need to cut off a person completely,” says Dr. Romanoff. “Perhaps this person is best to have fun with and you can avoid deeper or more vulnerable topics.”
For example, you may find that a friend isn’t exactly trustworthy when it comes to not spilling details about your personal life to your larger friend group. You might decide that you don’t really want to get into details about your relationships with this friend, but you might still like their company enough to get coffee or go see a movie with them, says Divaris Thompson.
How should you talk to someone you can’t trust?
If you do decide to remain close with someone you can’t trust and are wondering how to talk with them, Dr. Romanoff recommends trying not to point fingers about their untrustworthiness, which only serves to make them defensive. “Instead start with a more vulnerable position and communicate how they might have hurt or impacted you,” she advises.
If you reach a point where this person is constantly violating your boundaries and the relationship takes more effort than you want to expend, it may be time to let them go. “If you can't keep them at a distance, if it feels as if their dishonesty and their deceitfulness is impacting your life, and you're on an emotional rollercoaster and you can't get off, it is a good time to ask yourself if this person is even worth having in your life,” says Divaris Thompson.
- 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
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