5 Stages of Distrust and How it Destroys Your Relationships

Distrust1By nature I’m a pretty trusting person. Under normal circumstances I tend to extend trust to others expecting they will reciprocate in kind. If the other person proves to be untrustworthy, then I’ll dial back the level of trust I place in him/her. In relationships where I’ve experienced distrust, I’ve found it usually isn’t caused by one significant breach of trust (although those are the ones that grab our immediate attention), but rather several smaller instances over time. A broken promise here, a missed deadline there, and a pattern of unreliable, unethical, incompetent, or uncaring behavior becomes the trend.

Distrust doesn’t happen overnight. It develops progressively through stages, and if we can recognize these stages when we’re in them, we have a chance of addressing the situation before distrust takes root.

1. Doubt – The first stage of distrust begins with doubt. You start to experience a slight uncertainty about someone’s trustworthiness that causes you to pause just a bit. It might be that nagging doubt in the back of your mind that you can’t seem to dismiss, or something just doesn’t feel right about the situation even though you can’t put your finger on it exactly.

2. Suspicion – Doubt, if unresolved, grows into suspicion over time. Suspicion is belief without proof. You’ve started to see a pattern of behavior that may indicate a lack of trust, but you don’t quite have enough proof to make a firm conclusion. Your trust radar is telling you that something is wrong.

Stages of Distrust3. Anxiety – The third stage of distrust is anxiety, a feeling of apprehension or uneasiness, that is often manifested physically. When dealing with someone you don’t quite trust, you may may experience nervousness, a rapid heartbeat, anger, a knotted stomach, or even disgust.

4. Fear – At this point in a relationship, distrust has risen to the point where you are afraid to show vulnerability. You have experienced repeated breaches of trust and have grown to distrust another person to the point you are afraid for your emotional well-being.

5. Self-protection – As a result of the fear you experienced, you move into a state of self-protection. You put up walls in your relationship to prevent the other person getting close to you. This act of self-preservation reduces your vulnerability, but also cements the state of distrust in the relationship.

Trust is the cord that holds two people together in relationship, and when it’s severed, disconnection occurs. When you can no longer be vulnerable with the other person, you begin to experience different things in your relationship. In his book, Beyond Boundaries – Learning to Trust Again in Relationships, Dr. John Townsend describes several common experiences of damaged trust:

Withdrawal – Instead of acting carefree, which is normal in a trusting relationship, you become more reserved in sharing personal information. You quit taking risks in the relationship because the safety net has been removed. Loneliness or feeling dead or frozen inside is common.

Movement to task – To compensate for the lack of trust in the relationship, you may over-invest yourself in tasks related to hobbies, work, school, church, or other activities. You stay active in other parts of your life because you find it easier to “do” than to “connect.” You shut down the personal part of your relationship with the other person.

Unbalanced “giver” relationships – Townsend points out that it’s common for a person to be the “giver” in all relationships and to avoid “receiving.” Being the giver allows you to remain safe from being vulnerable with another person. You will listen, help, and guide others, but withhold letting others help you. Being the giver also manifests itself in co-dependent relationships.

Bad habits – Trust issues can often lead to problematic behavioral patterns in your life. It’s easy to suppress our emotional feelings by over-eating, drinking too much, or other addictive behaviors.

Distrust can spread through a relationship like a wildfire. What starts as a small ember of doubt can mushroom into a full-on blaze of distrust if we don’t take steps to address it early. The best way to prevent distrust from taking root is to proactively focus on building trust. Trust must be continually developed and nurtured throughout the course of a relationship, not just when it’s been damaged.

47 Comments on “5 Stages of Distrust and How it Destroys Your Relationships

  1. Randy, I really appreciate this post, on a personal level – great insights. Thank you for sharing

    Best regards,
    Carl
    @SparktheAction

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      • Hi Hayden,

        I’ve written several articles on how to rebuild trust. Search my blog site for “rebuild trust” and you’ll see plenty to choose from.

        Take care,

        Randy

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  3. Trust is like a joint checking account. Both parties make deposits and withdrawals. Anything that breaks down trust is a withdrawal and anything the reinforces trust is a deposit. Build some wealth in that account and amazing things become possible.

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    • Absolutely right Cale! When it comes to trust you always want to be making many more deposits than withdrawals!

      I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

      Randy

      Like

  4. What an important subject Randy, I wish the stage of distrust in real life were as simple as they look on paper. Its important to recognize thing as they really are without trying to find excuses. It is what it is and as the good words says, “The truth will set you free”.

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    • Hi Maria. You make a good point – it is usually much harder to recognize and deal with these stages of distrust while we’re in the midst of them. Being aware of these stages equips us to be more knowledgeable and prepared when we find ourselves in those situations.

      Best regards,

      Randy

      Like

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  6. This is indeed an Awesome Article…I would encourage the readers to use this article not only for the relationships you have with others but also the relationship you have with yourself. You cannot truly love or trust someone else useless you Trust Yourself FIRST.

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  7. Wow, this is an incredibly important subject that spans both personal and work areas of life. It’s amazing how difficult communication becomes when there are low levels of trust. But, on the other hand it’s equally amazing how easy communication becomes when high levels of trust are built and nurtured. Randy, this is an outstanding read.. Thanks for sharing!!
    Best regards,
    Mike

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      • Okay, so how do you deal with people who are not trustworthy in spite of you putting your entire trust in them? I am blessed; my husband is my rock and wonderful. I am more wondering about extended family and friends who have proven themselves to be untrustworthy over and over. I’ve been so heavily burnt in this regard (even by my own Father, who abused me) that I feel like I just keep laying myself out and getting burnt over and over. Ultimately it leads to me cutting off the relationship, but I wonder if there is a healthier way to deal with it. Do you have a recommendation for reading in that regard? I can see the steps I take to not trusting; how do you deal with fixing that when it seems you are always proven right by these people? I am always so open with people but have become very guarded over the years now until I get to know someone. I hate feeling that way towards everyone.

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      • Hi. Thanks for expressing your vulnerability.

        I believe you have to exercise “smart” trust. Continuing to trust people who have proven themselves untrustworthy is foolish. It doesn’t mean you have to excommunicate them from your life, but you would be wise to put boundaries in place to prevent yourself from being harmed.

        My best to you,

        Randy

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      • Thank you, I did read the Boundaries book and have been doing this more and more; I think I am finally strong in that regard. But I am feeling like these people don’t respect boundaries when I lay them out, so I end up having to break off the relationship cold turkey because they just keep bringing turmoil in my life when I push back. And in major things, not silly things. Perhaps I just went so many years allowing people to step on my boundaries that I surrounded myself with people like that; so I am feeling a bit frustrated with it. I did order some more of Dr. Cloud & Townsend books so I am hoping they will help me take the next steps.

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      • I should clarify that they start harassing me and being antagonistic; and when I refuse to respond to it, they then go behind my back and try to slander or break apart other relationships I have with good people; or just keep sending constant digs to me and take every opportunity to highlight what we disagree on in spite of agreeing to disagree previously. I made a decision to not respond to anything like that (I am a busy homeschooling mom!) and they refuse to let go. I’m realizing that my whole side of the family is messed up and don’t know how to have proper relationships. It’s hard though; I really do feel like I have lost all of my extended family with the exception of a couple people; simply because I set down gentle, reasonable boundaries. Is there nothing I can do about this?

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  9. What about when you are in a marriage? The other person is comfortable with who they are and believe it is okay to lie to their spouse to avoid disagreements and for the spouse to feel better about a situation. Questions get diverted and remain unanswered, which causes more distrust. The marriage is only a year old and the honeymoon stage has been over. Don’t want to end it, but how does this get repaired?

    Like

    • Hi Nadea. Distrust can be cancerous to relationships, especially marriages, and speaking to a professional therapist/counselor is a step in the right direction.

      My best,

      Randy

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  12. Very useful information. I also find our concept of reciprocity related to our expectations helpful in determining trust or distrust levels between those in relationships.

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  13. Could you please advice me? I’m in a relationship with a man who in his marriage felt that his wife and her family were pathological liars. It happened twice since we met almost 3 years ago that this man misinterpreted what I said. Of course negatively. He perceived things not as the were presented. Instead asking clarifying questions he believes that I’m being dishonest. I don’t want to defend myself but what else can I do? I’m concerned that at some point he will also accuse me of being a pathological liar. How can I best address this situation?

    Like

    • Hi Olivia,

      Thanks for your question. I won’t pretend to be a professional counselor and offer you a piece of “cure all” advice. The one suggestion I would offer is to have a conversation about the role of trust in your relationship. The worse time to have that conversation is when in your in the midst of an argument or an emotional situation. It may be helpful to have a neutral third-party facilitate the conversation for you. A healthy, honest, non-emotional conversation may help both of you to have a more objective viewpoint about how you can work on building trust with each other.

      Take care,

      Randy

      Like

  14. Hi Randy,

    What if everything went well except when my best friend tell me after 2 months into my relationship at their last meeting (before I met my Girlfriend) where she was passed-out drunk, he would have slept with her and then he would have been with her instead of me and that I should be lucky??

    From there, things came downhill, even if she never deserved that I changed and became suspicious every time they have their work meeting where they sleep over for one night (they work together)

    I am trying to figure out how I should’ve reacted.. because for me, my best friend put doubts into my mind so I feel he’s to blame.. but since every time I was afraid they could do it and not telling me, how could I have reacted differently and then I would still be with her today? We’ve been together for 16 months.. and that was the major issue. After that she withdraw, silent treatment, stonewalling, lying, even.. cheated on me with another guy that my best friend is covering up for her. I lost my best friend as well, since I tested him and found out he’s not trustable.

    Thank you,

    Simon

    Like

    • Hello Simon,

      I appreciate your vulnerability in sharing these personal issues.

      It sounds as though you are dealing with some very serious issues regarding the trustworthiness of your friend and girlfriend. Trust is a two-way street – you extend it to others and they reciprocate by being trustworthy. Trust doesn’t work if it only goes one way.

      I recommend you check out Henry Cloud’s book “Necessary Endings.” It could help educate you on the dynamics of healthy & unhealthy relationships and give you ideas on ways to move forward.

      Best wishes,

      Randy

      Like

  15. This article is interesting. But when can you do if your partner you caught him cheat on you more then a couple of times and you try to start to trust again ? You see some patterns that scare you and doubts and it is you cannot quiet put on and what is wrong . The thing is that he does not acknowledge that half of my anxiety is because what he has done in the relationship . He tells me i am only responsible for my own thoughts and feelings . What do you think?

    Like

    • Hi Catherine,

      Thanks for being vulnerable and sharing your experience. My thought is you have to judge a person’s trustworthiness by their actions. If the person has repeatedly broken your trust then the likelihood is they will do it again. It is foolishness to keep placing your trust in someone who repeatedly violates it.

      My best,

      Randy

      Like

  16. I am someone who has violated my partner’s trust multiple times. I am not making excuses for what I’ve done, but I am very sorry that my lack of confidence in her and myself drove me into bad choices.

    I have a family with her. We live together. What can I do to help us? She know says she’s completely done. I don’t want to be. When we get along, we are awesome.

    But this is where we are now.

    Help me. Please.

    Like

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  18. How do start to trust again after repeatedly being betrayed. My partener seems to have moved on and I seem to be stuck in the hurtful moment.

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