“Again. I keep getting hurt by all the people that I love and it seems like all I ever do is get hurt. My trust has been broken so many times by… everyone that I don’t even think… I can’t trust. What’s even the point of having friends if you can’t trust them?”
I get questions like these a lot in my practice. It is also so much more than a question about others motivations or intent, because it is a single moment of hurt compounded by many, an innumerable many, moments of hurt. It is also a hard question that I can’t really answer. However, it is a question that comes from a single perspective, and it is the perspective itself that I’d like the liberty to reshape.
Admittedly, I know many people that anchor their relationships in a felt sense of trust, and as their relationships grow, and the other person comes closer, trust is seemingly measured by a feeling of closeness. One can also think in the reverse order as well and measure how close they feel about a person by how much they can trust the other person. With both angles, trust then becomes this intertwined closeness thing, this thing that is a measure of kinds of relationships, this thing that can make relational distance, and this thing that can be broken and sever a felt sense of closeness. To break someone’s trust, then, is to no longer be close, and to feel as if another person is a far ways away.
In this operational breakdown, and why I am breaking it down, is to show more than the single direction of others moving away from us when they break our trust. It is my intention to show the movement as multidimensional; it is not a one-way movement. We, too, move away from others when we break their trust, and sometimes we don’t even move closer when attempting to repair the relationship.
This perspective on trust, that it is hard to trust others because they have broken our trust, that others are continuously in the wrong, that we are forever the ones having our trust in others broken, also denies the experience and realities of you having been the one that has, as well, broken others’ trust. To maintain the perspective that you are the one that has been hurt, that you alone cannot trust others, that you are beyond hurt and the relationship beyond repair, that you do not want to be the one hurt, is to narrowly focus on what others have done to you. They have gotten close to you and hurt you by being so close. You have also been close to others. You have also broken their trust as well. To focus on their wrongs and selectively choose to not see your own wrongs is, in not so many carefully chosen words, how you hurt your friends.
Most people hold varying perspective that they didn’t hurt someone, that the other person has the problem, or that the friendship is categorically over because there is a problem, or that there is no point in friendship because trust is lost, or that there wasn’t “really” trust in the first place. I often wonder where people get this idea that relationships should be … conflict free.
To maintain the perspective that you are the one that has been hurt, that you alone cannot trust others, that you are beyond hurt and the relationship beyond repair, that you do not want to be the one hurt, is to narrowly focus on what others have done to you.I think that some of these thoughts stem from ideas, mantras, internet memes that say: “real friends or real love you never have to chase,” “your closest friend may be your biggest hater, because people pretend,” “true friendship doesn’t take work,” or “true friends don’t judge each other; they judge other people together.” These ideas are framing friendships, and supposedly “real” ones as ones where disagreement, differences, and anything other than loving kindness is a sign of not being friends, or not loving your friends at all. It is a really limited view, and an even more limited litmus test, of relating.
To me, it is a natural part of any relationship and any friendship to disagree, to differ, to offend, and to make many mistakes while struggling to do right by the other person. It is also natural to not know the unspoken and the evolving or unformed thoughts of someone we love. I write this all as a preface to say: more often than not we will probably hurt the people we care about.
Simply treating others as you would like to be treated is nice and all, yet it lacks personal nuance; the golden rule is lovely, but not everyone loves gold.
Metaphory digressing aside, there is a sparklingly clear quote by Sidney Hook (p. 29) that says it in another way: “We are all crueler than we know, not because we are evil, but because our senses and imagination have such a limited range.” [Pragmation and the tragic sense of life (1974). New York: Basic Books] In many ways, and especially in thinking about friendship and our ability to hurt others, it can be helpful to think that the people you will have the most conflict, the most problems with, are those that are simply the closest to you.
The poet Dante, in his Divine Comedy, captured this idea with perfect clarity: the worst sin, the worst wrong we can do to another is to betray trust.
Cassius. Judas. Brutus.
The deepest parts of our hells are reserved, especially, for those that betray trust. We place them the furthest from love. Dante captured this feeling in some of the most beautiful imagery I know. It is also a beautiful image that holds more insight; the deepest part of hell, the furthest we can be from feeling loved, is also the closest to returning to another’s grace. The ascent towards grace was, in the allegory, one step deeper into the hurt of betrayal, and then gravity shifted only to make the decent turn into an ascent. Betrayal and breaking another’s trust is the furthest we can get from loving someone and yet it is from being in that hell that we have betrayed another that we can begin to get closer, to heal, and to love. Even in the breaking of trust, we are closer than we may realize or feel.
Yes. Trust is broken. Betrayal feels like the worst pain, and yet, I expect trust to be broken countless times in every relationship, some intentional and some unintentional, but all done because the process of getting close to another person is incredibly difficult.
When problems invariably arise, it is so difficult to apologize to friends, in part, because we must first admit to hurting them, to being an aggressor, to being unkind. In doing so we must look at those difficult parts of ourselves, our guilt, our meanness, our carelessness, our cruelty, our inconsideration, our betrayal, or any part of ourselves that has hurt others, if we are to grow. We must look at ourselves and not excuse our actions away, whether by blaming others for our actions, or blaming the relationship as at fault rather than your actions in the relationship. To look at our own behavior, and to own our actions, is an opportunity to grow, and as is often the case, we discover these things in our relationships when things don’t go well.
If you don’t care about someone that you’ve hurt in someway, perhaps a stranger on the street, then apologizing to them, if at all, doesn’t really alter your self perception, your social world, your feelings of love, of your lovability, acceptance, and belonging. However, if the one you hurt is your friend, one you love beyond words, then all of those things may come up for you. With this, many people feel hurt at having hurt their friends. However, your feelings of hurt at the thought of hurting your friend are secondary to your friends hurt. To apologize to your friend is to acknowledge their hurt first and address it before all else.
So where do you start? Where can you start?
To look at our own behavior, and to own our actions, is an opportunity to grow, and as is often the case, we discover these things in our relationships when things don’t go well.In some ways, a first step is acknowledging that we hurt those that we love, and it also one of the hardest places to start in apologizing to a friend. Apologizing in many ways involves not dissolving our own responsibility because some else, “feels that way.” If that’s the case, that you really believe the problem is theirs, and you aren’t an agent of their hurt, then any apology will sound dismissive: “I’m sorry you feel that way.” “That wasn’t my intention.” These non-apologies are a missed opportunity, because in part, apologizing and repairing any rupture in a relationship involves taking responsibility for one’s actions and not shifting the focus or blame onto the party that is hurt. You’ve got to feel, and own, the distance you’ve created, so that you can again move towards your friends.
The point of this writing, and the note I would like to end on is not that trust is the most important part of a relationship, nor that loving someone means never breaking their trust. It is that others will break your trust, and you will break theirs. They are hurt, and you have an opportunity to grow as a person in seeing how you hurt them. Take responsibility for your behavior, understand the impact of your actions, and with that, you have an opportunity to personally grow, and to become a closer friend.
It is in our relationships that we can grow. Spending time together, sharing interests, and agreeing are all icing on the cake of our friendships. The cake though, because I like ending my ramblings with a metaphor, is how you heal the emotional scrapes and tears that come from getting that close to another person.