The trust needed for a good relationship – and the betrayal felt when trust fails – is deeply rooted in human nature. It is, in fact, the first developmental task the newborn confronts soon after birth, when he or she has to develop a sense of safety based on depending on another person, normally the mother. This early dependency for safety and security creates the first building block for trust since according to many research studies, trust develops out of “the infant’s earliest experiences of being cared for and protected in a constant and loving way.” As a result, if the infant doesn’t acquire this trust, because, for example, he or she isn’t fed regularly or isn’t held lovingly, he or she may not survive. Without the psychological nourishment that comes from trust, the baby may stop eating and fail to thrive.
As we become adults, an inability to trust is not usually life-threatening, but we still need it to create the bonds for good relationships as well as to gain confidence in ourselves. Trust in others is critical because it forms the underpinnings of our personal security. Take that away, and we are left feeling uncertain not only in others but in our own worth.
We can see many examples of what happens when the bonds of trust are broken, such as when a child grows up in a home where he or she feels unable to depend on his or her parents. Perhaps he or she is not nurtured properly because of problems with alcohol, drug abuse, or a high level of conflict or domestic violence in the home. The child commonly grows up feeling especially empty because his or her emotional needs haven’t been satisfied by those closest, and without this support, he or she experiences a damaged sense of self. As an adult, he or she may feel especially fragile and be reluctant to trust others out of fear of being hurt again.
Alternatively, that child may be more likely to betray others, acting from his or her own excessive caution or suspicion. Or, in another common scenario, the emotional neediness may cause him or her to become all-too-trusting in a search for love, only to be a devastated victim of repeated betrayal.
In contrast, individuals who grow up in a safe, secure environment have a better foundation for establishing a confident sense of trust in others and themselves, although at all stages of life there are still more challenges. For example, the child starting school may encounter other children who lie or play tricks on him in the playground. A teenager may find herself facing devious game-playing at school as the battle over dating heats up and cliques form between those who are in and out. All of us are challenged to negotiate the uncertainties and the dangers of these many relationships we develop; we must learn lessons about how and when to trust under varying circumstances. The developmental process is a little like swimming through unfamiliar waters where we tread carefully, as we learn where it is safe to swim while avoiding the rocks that threaten our safe passage.
The need to trust and be trusted continues throughout the life cycle. At every developmental level from childhood to young adulthood to middle age and on, we are more likely to have good relationships and be successful in whatever we do when our relationships are based on trust. In contrast, whenever trust breaks down, as psychologists well know, individual development is inhibited. We can’t grow as fully as individuals, and we are less able, even unable to have satisfying love relationships.
Finding love becomes a casualty because trust is at the foundation of any relationship. Without it, intimacy becomes difficult, if possible. We become afraid to open up because we don’t feel emotionally safe. We do not allow our vulnerability to become exposed. We avoid opening the keys to our heart, a requirement in love relationships. And so, love may never develop or perhaps wither quietly, but in any case, it will ultimately be unsatisfactory.