The Subtle Ways Trust in a Relationship Is Broken

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I was coaching a couple this week about how they take turns getting angry and shutting down in silence.

During our session, she said she often felt a lack of trust, which impacted her desire and ability to open up to him.

This is a frequent comment from couples. Plus, Sonika & I are leading a mini-workshop for couples on rebuilding trust in a relationship, so I’ve been thinking about trust a lot. Plus, it comes up in almost every couples session, one way or another.

Misunderstandings around trust

From talking to couples, I’ve learned that there are a lot of misunderstandings around trust in a relationship. Bluntly put, it’s as if most of us think we should be trusted unless we do something terrible. We understand that trust can be compromised if we do “big stuff” like have an affair or use our retirement funds for gambling. Those are easy breaches of trust to recognize.

But the couple I mentioned above are a good example that trust is much more subtle than that. This couple don’t do affairs and big lies, and they’re really good with self-reflection and responsible communication (both essential elements of a successful relationship). Nonetheless, it’s still an issue for them.

Trust can be broken in subtle ways

Trust can be broken or compromised in so many ways, often so subtle that no one can put their finger on it directly. But even if you can’t name it, your body still feels it, and you’ll notice you don’t want to come forward or open up. That’s what the woman above was trying to say.

When you have an un-nameable feeling of distrust it’s very difficult to make yourself open up or reveal what’s really going inside you (also essential elements of a successful relationship).

Here are some of the more subtle ways trust can be compromised …

– Getting angry, yelling, throwing things
– Going silent
– Avoiding engaging with conflicts
– Turning away when your partner is upset or stressed
– Withdrawing emotionally
– Leaving the room/house in a huff
– Not showing up at the time, or in the manner, you said you would
– Using sarcasm
– Refusing to talk about feelings or breakdowns
– Explaining and deflecting

And this is not an exhaustive list, by any means.

Doesn’t everyone do this?

I know, anyone looking at this list might say, “But those are human reactions! We all do that sometimes. Do I need to be some sort of saint to maintain trust?”

Fair questions. We do indeed all engage in some of those behaviors at various times. Whereas each of these behaviors is worth looking at and dealing with as matter of personal growth and accountability, that’s not the main point in a discussion about trust.

More important is how we deal with it during and after a behavior like this shows up.

In my relationship with Sonika I have gotten angry, gone stone-cold silent and checked out. I’ve gotten defensive and righteous and much more. But I’ve never stayed that way and we’ve never let it go un-spoken and un-acknowledged. Early on, a week or more could go by while I was stewing. Now, we’re counting it in minutes or at most a few hours.

Don’t leave it un-spoken

By not leaving disruptions un-acknowledged, and by coming back together to debrief and/or deliver genuine apologies after an eruption, we have consistently built a trust that can withstand a lot of pressure.


You’re not expected to never get mad or defensive or put your foot in your mouth. But if you don’t clean it up or reconnect afterwards, you can expect fissures in your trust to appear.

Of the many behaviors in the list above, I want to emphasize one in particular, Explaining or Deflecting. This typically shows up when your partner says he/she doesn’t trust you or don’t feel safe to share or open up. Or some other tension or conflicts is voiced.

In-the-moment breaches

In that moment, you have an opportunity to either shut it down (by explaining it away or deflecting), or to strengthen your trust right there on the spot. If your response is along the line of …

– “That’s not what’s happening”
– “You’re imagining things”
– “You’re making a big deal out of nothing”
– “I don’t want to talk about it” …

you will definitely make a little crack in the trust your partner has for you, and hence in your relationship.

Over time, this is how trust gets undermined, just as much as through more dramatic events like affairs. This is true even for couples who otherwise are pretty good at talking it out. In the moment, it might not seem like a big deal, and you might move right along with your respective days, but it still leaves a crack.

A better way

A much better and more effective choice is any version of acknowledgement. You could say something like …

– “I’m listening”
– “What has you say that?”
– “Tell me more”
– “It sounds like there’s something for us to talk about here …”.

Or don’t say anything at all, as long as you stay present and engaged with your partner and be open to what he/she has to say.

Trust in a relationship is not like a certificate where once you earn it, you have it forever.

Trust in a relationship is built and maintained moment-by-moment, every day.

What to do next

It’s easier said than done. And because so many couples have issues with trust, we’re offering a brand-new mini-workshop specifically designed to build and rebuild trust. In just 90 minutes you’ll learn a process you can repeat over time and you get to practice with our guidance on the spot.

Learn more here:

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Christian Pedersen

Sonika Tinker, MSW & Christian Pedersen

We are a married couple, husband/wife team, who have devoted our lives to studying and teaching love and relationship, and we are still happy and in love after many years of being together (we walk our talk).

Our clients say we are wise, experienced relationship master trainers and relationship experts – we like to think of ourselves as “relationship awesome-izers”.

We are the co-owners of LoveWorks, a leading-edge transformational relationship training company, where we daily delight in empowering couples and singles to transform their relationships from stuck to soaring in a fun, positive, and practically useful way.