Trust: How Avoiding Risk Damages Us

How We Avoid Risk

Let’s consider the damaging things we humans do for “safety” and to avoid the pain of surprise. Of course these “efforts” are not conscious or thought out, but natural and automatic.

Avoiding Interpersonal Interaction

Avoidance mechanisms bear the stamp of the age at which they were “invented.” As our minds grow more complex, more conscious and more sophisticated, our solutions to the problem of avoiding pain evolve. The earliest are the nonverbal patterns learned between the ages of six months and two years that are referred to as attachment styles. Because they become ingrained so early, they tend to remain in place and can last a lifetime. They may even color the way we relate to our own children and the patterns they develop. Perhaps the simplest way to keep from being hurt in a relationship is learning to act as if we have no needs. The “avoidant” attachment style does just this.

Developing later, more complex versions involve withdrawal as soon as there is a feeling of closeness or when we begin to feel stirrings of need or dependency. As in the example of the boy who was successful in business, these moves are aimed not only to avoid coming close enough to be hurt, but also to control our own longings lest they draw us into vulnerability.

The result of these measures is to deprive us of the human contact we most need. Deprivation only heightens our needs, making for intense inner conflict with part of us wanting closeness and another part pushing it away.

This combination of stored up need and inability to receive is common. One of the solutions is to seek substitutes. Here are some of the things humans seek: food, drugs, admirers, possessions, “gifts” (shoplifting, gambling), prescriptions, surgery, and powerful sensations like cutting and vomiting. I’m sure I have left many out. Dallin H. Oaks put it very well: “You can never get enough of what you don’t need, because what you don’t need won’t satisfy you.”

In a further twist on the seeking of substitutes, Anorexia Nervosa (at the risk of oversimplifying) embodies the triumph of control over neediness, played out metaphorically in the realm of food. Thinness represents a victory against appetite so it can’t betray one into vulnerability.


Another major strategy to reduce risk is trying to take the uncertainty out of human relationships. People are fallible, so it is tempting to try to get proof of their trustworthiness. This is what drives lovers to check each other’s cell phones or demand access to private information. Unfortunately, the more we seek proof, the less we trust. What? Well, trust is a conviction that the other person is trustworthy. It is a kind of faith. From our first taking a chance, it grows only through taking risks and learning from experience that our trust is well placed. When we try to gain certainty by testing, faith is lost and we grow less willing to take risks or believe that the other person is really on our side.

Destructive Testing

There are many ways to test the other person besides checking their phone. We can do what engineers call “destructive testing.” Say you wanted to make a machine part as light as possible but just strong enough. You could carve away material, making the part thinner and at each step and testing to see if it breaks under load. When it finally does break, you can be confident that one step less was the right one. In human relations, we sometimes test this way, to see, for example, if the other person will still love us. We inflict pain on the other person to see if he or she will still love us in spite of our hurtful behavior. Unfortunately, each time the other person passes the test, we wonder if the test was rigorous enough. So the next time, we push further. Inevitably, sooner or later, the other person will “fail” the test by becoming angry or expressing dismay. Ah Hah! Now we have proof that they are definitely untrustworthy.

Manipulation to avoid trust

Do you know anyone you would describe as “manipulative?” This can be yet another way to avoid the risk of trusting. My definition of manipulation is “bypassing the other person’s free will.” The healthy way to get our needs met is usually to honor the other person’s separateness by asking. When we ask or invite, we are overtly acknowledging the other person’s free choice to say yes or no. But that involves emotional risk. To avoid the risk, there are many ways to manipulate, giving the other person no option but to do what we want. When dealing with people we have no reason to trust, this may be a good strategy, but in intimate relationships, it is a very costly way to avoid trust. No one likes to be mistrusted or to have their free will bypassed.

In fact, people who habitually manipulate may end up with a skewed group of friends. People who make a point of being trustworthy are especially hurt by being mistrusted. On the other hand, those who are untrustworthy or who don’t expect to be trusted are not so troubled. You can guess which ones eventually distance from a person who avoids trusting. Understandably, manipulation carries a very negative connotation, but when people use it often, what it really means is that they are terribly afraid of being hurt, originally, no doubt, for good reason.

I’m sure there are many more ways to avoid the risk inherent in trusting. In the next post of this series we’ll look at how to trust the right people and steer clear of the wrong ones.


Next in the series:  Trust 4:  Getting it Right

Previous Entry:  Trust 2: When trust is hurt



  • In your paragraph titled “Destructive Testing, at the end you say, “Inevitably, sooner or later, the other person will fail the test by becoming angry or express dismay…..”
    I have major issues with trust and have continued to test my therapist, even though I have been seeing him for almost two years. He has been able to “weather the storm” of my constant testing and I have attempted to ignore the need for testing, but sometimes the need is greater than at other times.
    My question is: You state that it is inevitable that the “other person” will fail the test and I am wondering whether that includes my therapist. I can consciously agree that he attempts not to show annoyance or anger and so can discount if I pick up something that I interpret as “failing” the test. However, since I am so hyper about this, I do not trust my sensitivity and have trouble figuring out what I am sensing. I am also wondering whether to expect him to “fail” sometime and just consider this as “normal” or to pay attention to it and be concerned.
    Thank you so much for your consideration of our questions. It is a delight to read your writings on the many topics you pursue.

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