Trust: Hard Won, Easily Lost

Trust is like water in a wellspring; it is either being replenished or depleted, built up or drawn down. And as water is to life, so trust is essential to the relatedness of all kinds: between friends, spouses, parents and children, humans and pets, businesses, and states. But in the midst of a divorce, the wellspring of trust may have run dry. And when couples want to pursue an uncontested divorce without lawyers, lack of trust can be the biggest barrier to an agreement.

So what is trust? A common definition is that trust is confidence that someone will do as they say they will do. In other words, trust is an expectation of reliability; it is about hope and it is about the future. It is built upon a series of experiences in which you and I do, indeed, reliably live up to our word. You share confidence; I keep it. I lend you my car; you return it with a full tank. Small steps build up reserves of trust and give us the confidence to take more risks and to make larger commitments.

But trust is easily broken – often times by just one betrayal. And when that happens, the one feeling betrayed may become suspicious, alert to further betrayal, and oversensitive to any perceived slights. Caution replaces risk taking; defensiveness replaces disclosure; self-protection replaces openness.

When suspicions grow to general distrust, people usually want to break off a relationship. But this isn’t always possible. Businesses have contractual financial ties, divorced parents have co-parenting responsibilities, conflicting countries have shared borders, divorcing spouses have to work together—to get divorced.

So when acrimony and suspicion rather than trust prevail, can trust be replenished? In a word, yes. But it is a long path, often marked by obstacles and setbacks. The irony is that trust can only be reestablished by risking again with the one who committed the original betrayal – the opposite of what one is inclined to do when feeling hurt and mistreated.

To build trust out of distrust, it is usually necessary to proceed in small steps – incremental risks and commitments that slowly replenish the wellspring until sufficient reserve sets the stage for larger commitments. But as filling a well with a single cup takes time, all trust drains quickly if one betrayal cracks the well.

There is, however, an exception to the slow process of replenishing trust. In some instances, an overarching crisis or event enables people in conflict to set aside their differences and abruptly reverse the erosion of trust. We experienced this as a nation in the months after 9/11. Communities pull together to handle local crises such as natural disasters or Amber Alerts. Families set aside personal animosities to manage a member’s critical illness. Such events heighten the awareness that we depend upon one another, that we need one another, that we are all better off collaborating with one another.

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