How Distrust Can Lead to Conflict


When trust breaks down, a conflict usually results. You’ve probably experienced this before. The friend who let you down; the contractor who failed to do a good job or the partner who cheated on you. The examples are endless and a loss of trust can evoke alarming and uncomfortable emotional reactions. “I’ll make him/ her pay” is a common response but this usually hides the hurt, rejection or vulnerability that results. It’s easy to see how this can lead to conflict that can last for years and may never be resolved.

What is trust?

Before we get to why our reactions to a breach of trust can be so emotionally devastating, it’s important to understand what trust is.

There are two types of trust:

  • Contractual Trust

The first type could be viewed as a perception that a person will reliably complete a task. You might have complete trust that your plumber will fix your leak properly, even though you have only known him for a short while and your perception is based on research, online reviews and the recommendation of a friend. In this type of relationship, all you are interested in is the completion of a task and your personal interaction with that person is minimal.

  • Deep Trust

This type underscores your most intimate relationships but has varying degrees. It’s the knowledge that you can express your vulnerabilities to somebody and feel safe they will not take advantage of them for their own benefit. For example, you trust that you can tell your partner about your fears, phobias and worries knowing that they will not use them to manipulate you in some way.


There is often overlap between the two, you may have a work-related relationship that combines both types of trust. They are not just a colleague, they are a long-standing friend. The degree of trust in all relationships may vary. You may know that your colleague can keep your secrets but you don’t have faith in their ability to complete your work tasks whilst you are on holiday.

Our ability to trust

Our willingness to trust is based on our perception of somebody’s behaviour and this is influenced by several personal factors such as our childhood and later experiences. Some people may have been taught that expressing vulnerability is a weakness to be exploited, whilst others have seen that vulnerability is what makes us human and draws us closer to others. The beauty of that closeness is so profound, I feel a surge of love when I think of the bonds I have formed in my most vulnerable times.

Social Contracts

Almost all relationships are based on a perceived contracts of what we can expect from each other. Sometimes, there is a written contract that regulates this but often, we have our own ideas of what that should be. For example, you may perceive that you can trust your spouse because you have both agreed that you are in an exclusive relationship. This is not the same for everyone; you may be happy for your partner to have other intimate relationships, but you trust them because they commit to your relationship in some other way.

Employment contracts are often written but each employee has a different view as to what it entails; some believe that regardless of what their employer says or does, it is inevitable that they will only act in their own interests. Others feel that the employer is morally and duty bound to act in your interests. You can imagine what the emotional impact on the latter type of employee will be if the reality is different to their perception and how this can lead to conflict.

Trust and Conflict

When contractual trust is broken, the conflict is a reaction to the failure of one party to complete a task as the other perceived or expected it to have been completed. This could be a contractual breach, an employment dispute or a complaint about a service or product provided. When deep trust is broken, this can be a life-changing, painful experience that shifts our perception of the world and our place in it. It severs an intimate bond which can make us feel especially aggrieved and questioning of our ability to trust our own judgment. The latter can be very difficult to resolve and the emotional fallout of it can sever ties and create a need for revenge. When positions become entrenched and emotions are high, you may need a conflict resolution expert to intervene.

Trust is a precious bond that allows us to interact on different levels of intimacy. It is what enables cooperation, growth, peace and connection. It creates safety, encourages love and acceptance and gives us permission to express who we are. It’s no wonder then that breaking any type of trust can lead to conflict.


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