Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.
In addition to Trust and Mistrust there are intermediate beliefs or positions that fall between these states: We call them Wariness, Understanding, and Suspicion. The different states are not part of a continuous spectrum. Instead, they are separate as each state is emotionally different. But like Trust and Mistrust, they too can be impacted by the other states. This means that although each state is separate, they also interrelate.
We define these separate states in the following way:
With TRUST, the other has proven transparent and dependable over time through their performance. They are truthful and honest and have a history of following through on what they promise. Most critically, they consistently honor their commitments.
With WARINESS, there is uncertainty about the others’ reliability. While they might be trustworthy, that has not been confirmed.
Wariness is that natural state which exists before there is enough experience to know whether or not Trust is possible. While Wariness can occur at any time, it occurs most frequently when a relationship is new and there is a natural period of uncertainty about the others intentions, level of good will, and reliability. Wariness is also a common reaction when there’s an action or event which is not understood and does not seem in line with expectations. Think of Wariness as two dogs circling at their first meeting. This is a time of wait and see.
UNDERSTANDING involves a substantial amount of knowledge about another’s typical behavior. This state is different from the other four states in that it involves more thinking and analysis than feeling.
Understanding is based on logic and facts where as Wariness and Suspicion are primarily emotional, supported by a small amount of reason and logic. Trust and Mistrust are almost entirely emotional but in some instances may be supported and reinforced by reason and logic.
Understanding reflects some level of comfort based on familiarity with the others’ predictable, habitual way of doing things or relating. For example, a friend might say of someone’s new relationship, “Be careful; he or she always plays the field and their relationships are always short lived”. Or, a customer might say of a supplier, “Always give them a quicker due date than we need because they’re often two weeks late on delivery”. In these examples, there’s a repeated behavior that disappoints but the emotional reaction is small and contained. While one may be irritated, there’s no rancor. There can even be some good will toward the offending party as in, “Thanks for the warning. You know, some charmers just never grow up.” Or, “Yes, they are always late but they provide the best quality at a good price and we can order early to compensate for their late delivery”. When there’s only a small amount of emotion being generated in the state of Understanding, a problem can be recognized and managed.
Especially in Understanding, Mistrust can be limited to a single aspect of the relationship. A person may be charming, attractive, considerate, and reliable in every way but have no concept of a budget. If there is money in the bank, or a credit card isn’t maxed out, they feel it is okay to spend it even if the money is needed to pay the utilities and house payment which are due tomorrow. In this case the person is trustworthy in every way except in their spending habits which makes them untrustworthy.
When Understanding results after betrayal, the situation is very different: In Mistrust there is far more emotion than reason. When Understanding follows betrayal, Mistrust remains but can be made somewhat tolerable by the prickly solution of a compromise that has been reached but which doesn’t wholly really satisfy either party.
Reaching a compromise is easier in Understanding than in the other states because the proportion of reason and facts are greater than that of emotion. Data and logic lend themselves to problem solving.
With SUSPICION, One party is convinced their Trust has been betrayed by the other but there’s no proof yet.
Suspicion is the result when one party is convinced they have detected behaviors which are significantly different from what the parties said was their mutual commitment. “This committee has been meeting for 18 months and even though we have a mandate and a mission, we haven’t even agreed on our priorities and goals. I’m getting the feeling that creating this committee was a delaying tactic. The committee was created to look like action was being taken but there’s no progress at all. The other side thinks we’ll just give up after a while. I’ve got my eyes on them and I want to tell you that will not work.”
The usual response to the suspicion of duplicity is uncertainty followed by dread that the betrayal is true, along with the fervent hope that conclusion is false. Those who believe their Trust has been violated typically alternate between rage and despair. The longer Suspicion continues, the stronger the conviction grows that the Suspicion is true, the angrier and more frightened and resentful people become.
Both anger and depression sap energy but taking action invigorates it because taking action gives people a sense of having some control. Initiating action frequently includes searching for further evidence. A wife or husband, for example, might examine their spouse’s emails, checkbooks, credit expenses… and pockets or dresser drawers. When no further evidence of wrong doing is found, they keep looking, confident they just haven’t looked enough.
Mistrust is the result when there is no mutual gain, common values or goals, or there is a feeling the other cannot be counted upon. It can range from the rejection of the boasts of a braggart to the severe injury of betrayal when the smoking gun is found.
Most of those who remain in the relationship after reaching Mistrust move to the state of Understanding. They remain in the relationship despite knowing there is a strong likelihood of further betrayal. They do that either because they have no choice, as in the case of coworkers, or because they feel the benefit of continuing the relationship is greater than the gain that would result from terminating it.
We see the five states as ways of perceiving and interpreting the world:
- Trust: Relationships are based on mutual transparency and a history of shared commitment.
- Wariness: Uncertainty based on a lack of experience or an unexpected event.
- Suspicion: One or both parties are convinced the other has betrayed their trust. They’re certain a “smoking gun” exists and they will find it.
- Mistrust: Is a conviction that at least one party is dishonest or wishes to gain at the expense of the other.
- Understanding: Is largely rational and logical. The only possible way to move away from Mistrust is by going into the state of Understanding.
The way to transition from the heated emotions of anger, betrayal and doubt that are at the heart of Mistrust and Suspicion is to cool down and start thinking rationally about the circumstances that triggered the strong negative emotions. Remaining suspicious and mistrustful guarantees no constructive compromise is likely. Instead the negative emotions will continue to simmer and grow. Logical thinking makes it possible to see options and develop plans; it allows one to make the best choices possible in the given circumstances.
That is the singular power of Understanding.