Learn how we define trust issues, recognize them, and work to improve them.
Trust is believing that it is safe to be vulnerable with somebody else because they are willing and able to respond to you in a way that will meet your needs, or at least not harm you. The amount you trust another person comes down to how confident you are that they will respond that way. The more confidence you have, the more consistently you believe they will meet your needs or even respond with the same level of vulnerability and trust that you showed them.
Having trust issues means suspecting that another person does not have the ability or the integrity to meet your needs in a situation (Covey, 2006). Somebody with trust issues does not believe it is safe to act on the actions, words, and decisions of another person; in fact, people with trust issues often think that the other person is acting in ways that will deliberately harm them (Lewicki & Weithoff, 2000).
Social scientists have studied closely how consistent trust issues are for people. They have found that while our levels of trust vary a lot from one situation to the next, most people have a range of trust that they show others (Fleeson & Leicht, 2006; Weiss et al., 2021). In other words, most everybody trusts a close friend more than an acquaintance or a stranger, but some people will trust their close friends more than other people will. Our perceptions of the trustworthiness of other people are important determinants of how trusting we are in each situation (Weiss et al., 2021).
What are some symptoms of having trust issues? First of all, we know that people who are regularly jealous of others have lower levels of trust (Guerrero et al., 2014). For example, somebody who gets jealous when they see their romantic partner talking to somebody else probably does not trust their partner to be faithful.
Second, we know that people who see others as threatening, lacking integrity, or generally incompetent will be less likely to trust other people (Mayer et al., 1995).This finding makes a lot of intuitive sense – if you thought other people were going to mess things up or hurt you, even if it was unintentional, how much would you trust them? So people who make frequent statements that indicate they believe others are dishonest or unable to do their jobs may be experiencing trust issues.
Like so many relationship issues, trust issues are usually thought of as resulting from insecure patterns of attachment (Cassidy & Shaver, 2008). We form insecure patterns of attachment when we don’t consistently get the love and support we need from caregivers as children. Perhaps a parent promises special time with a child and rarely delivers on the promise, or only sometimes comforts the child when they are clearly very upset. When this happens again and again over time, we develop a “working model” of relating to others that tells us not to trust others with our needs and desires (Bowlby, 1982).
We are constantly changing our ability to trust others. Sadly, this means that people who experience huge, painful breaches of trust in adulthood, even if their early relationships were solid, can develop trust issues. Indeed, many adults who have trouble keeping a romantic relationship going report that broken trust in past relationships is a big reason why (Peel & Caltabiano, 2021). At the same time, it also means that people who had few trustworthy relationships in childhood can work on and heal from their trust issues in adulthood.
How to Improve Trust Issues
One way to improve one’s trust issues is to cultivate the sensations that are opposite to what we feel and experience when we are distrustful. In place of the negativity, uncertainty, and closed-off way of approaching the world that come with trust issues, we can seek to build openness, positivity, and confidence in our conflict management skills (Suwinyattichaiporn et al., 2017).
What might this look like? It could involve activities that help one intentionally focus on instances when trust has been rewarded. Identifying positive instances of trust throughout one’s day could help: from the other drivers who stayed in their lanes during one’s commute to the family member who calls regularly to say hi, people are being consistent and trustworthy more often than we might give them credit for.
In relationships where trust has been broken, we can also learn how to seek greater trust. If there are people in our lives who have withdrawn from us or let us down, we can find new ways – often, softer and gentler ways – to state our needs, describe how meaningful it would be to have the other person meet them, and hope for the best (Burgess Moser et al., 2015).
Trust issues happen for almost all of us somewhere in our lives. That’s natural and good. If you can find somebody who’s never been betrayed or hurt or let down, don’t be jealous. That person has never had to figure out who is trustworthy and who isn’t, and how to make sure their trust is better returned next time. We are all constantly in this process of figuring out where and when we can be vulnerable.
If trusting others has been hard for you, remember how common this is and that you probably are this way for very good reason: somewhere along your life’s journey, there’s been at least one relationship that taught you not to trust. That’s not your fault. Hopefully, you now feel a little more empowered to take action to help yourself, or somebody else, with trust issues.
Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Basic Books.
Burgess Moser, M., Johnson, S. M., Dalgeish, T. L., Lafontaine, M.-F., Wiebe, S. A., & Tasca, G. A. (2015). Changes in relationship-specific attachment in emotionally focused couple therapy. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 42, 231–245.
Cassidy, J., & Shaver, P. R. (Eds.) (2008). Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Covey, S. M. R. (2006). The speed of trust: The one thing that changes everything. New York: Free Press.
Fleeson, W., & Leicht, C. (2006). On delineating and integrating the study of variability and stability in personality psychology: interpersonal trust as illustration. Journal of Research in Personality, 40(1), 5-20.
Guerrero, L. K., Andersen, P. A., & Afifi, W. A. (2014). Close encounters: Communication in relationships (Fourth ed.). Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications.
Lewicki, R. & Weithoff, C. (2000). Trust, trust development and trust repair. In M. Deutsch and P. Coleman (Eds.). The handbook of conflict resolution: Theory and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Mayer, R. C., Davis, J. H., & Schoorman, F. D. (1995). An integrative model of organizational trust. Academic Management Review, 20, 709-734.
Peel, R., & Caltabiano, N. (2021). Why do we sabotage love? a thematic analysis of lived experiences of relationship breakdown and maintenance. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 20(2), 99-131.
Suwinyattichaiporn, T., Fontana, J., Shaknitz, L., & Linder, K. (2017). Maintaining long distance romantic relationships: The college students’ perspective. Kentucky Journal of Communication, 36(1), 67-89.
Weiss, A., Michels, C., Burgmer, P., Mussweiler, T., Ockenfels, A., & Hofmann, W. (2021). Trust in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 121, 95-114.