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Building and breaking trust in a relationship

Image of Building and breaking trust in a relationship

Just how important is trust in a relationship? Renowned American psychologist John Gottman likens trust to a key pillar providing support for a “sound relationship house”. Zach Brittle, a certified Gottman therapist, further describes trust as “one of the weight-bearing walls that form the basis of stability in relationships”.

But how exactly can couples build trust – a process that we know takes time? According to Dr Gottman, the basis for building trust is encapsulated in the acronym “ATTUNE”:

The extent to which we are attuned with our partner’s emotions will define the degree of trust that exists in our relationship with them. For example, upon noticing your partner appears sad or troubled, consider the choice between: completing an important work email, versus putting that email aside, and walking up to your partner to check on him or her. Choosing to attend to your partner’s emotions can open up an invaluable trust-building moment. On the other hand, choosing to turn away can gradually erode trust between a couple. 

The flipside of building trust: Betrayal

Just as trust can be nurtured, it can also wither if not tended to delicately and dedicatedly. In the case of betrayal, trust is not merely eroded but broken. Betrayal is more than “turning away” or failing to attend to your partner’s sadness. As Ellie Lisitsa, staff writer at The Gottman Institute, puts it, broken trust is like a shattered mirror. Even if its fragments are glued back together, the mirror will never be the same again. And the reason for this is because the offended partner usually:

  • builds up a wall of resentment

  • takes the stance of “I can do better”

  • trashes the partner

  • becomes intolerable of their partner’s negativity

Let me try to illustrate the impact of betrayal on trust with a little fable. The following is a excerpt from American author Lewis Smedes’s book, “Forgive & Forget: Healing the hurts we don’t deserve”.

In the village of Faken there lived a baker named Fouke, a righteous man. His wife, Hilda, loved him too, but her heart ached for something more than his righteousness. And there, in the bed of her need, lay the seed of sadness. 

One evening, Fouke came home and found a stranger lying on Hilda’s round bosom. Hilda’s adultery became the talk of the tavern. Everyone assumed Fouke would cast Hilda out of his house. But so righteous was him, he surprised everyone by keeping Hilda, saying he forgave her.

The truth was, he only pretended so he could punish her with righteous mercy. In his heart lingered a secret sense of hatred towards Hilda. Each time Fouke feel his secret hate toward Hilda, a small pebble dropped into his heart.  The pebbles multiplied until Fouke’s heart grew so heavy that he could no longer stand straight. One night, an angel came to Fouke and told him how he could be healed of his hurt was through a pair of magic eyes. The angel said, “You cannot change the past. But each time you see Hilda through magic eyes, one pebble will be lifted from your aching heart.”

Soon Hilda began to change in front of Fouke’s eyes, wonderfully and mysteriously. He began to see her as a needy woman who loved him instead of a wicked woman who betrayed him. He invited Hilda to come into his heart again.

Those “magic eyes” are in fact nothing mystical, but a symbol of the quality of forgiveness – the glue needed to mend a shattered mirror. Though the mirror will never look the same as before, just as broken trust may never be fully restored, we can nonetheless choose to forgive, and be healed from the pain.

Written by: Isabelle Ng, Marriage Educator, Fei Yue Community Services


Gottman, John (2015). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. New York Harmony.

Lisitsa, Ellie (July 18, 2014). Build Bridges of Trust. The Gottman Institute. Retrieved 14 September 2020 https://www.gottman.com/blog/weekend-homework-assignment-build-bridges-of-trust/

Brittle, Zach (July 17, 2015). How to build trust in your relationship. Retrieved 14 September 2020 https://www.gottman.com/blog/trust/

Smedes, Lewis B (1996). Forgive & Forget: Healing the hurts we don’t deserve. HarperCollins Publishers.