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Trust and Cruelty


Due to some recent events, I have been thinking about the nature of relationships–not just romantic ones, but all close relationships between individuals. It’s one of those areas where it’s hard to find the right answers to a given issue, if there even are right answers.

Specifically, I was thinking about trust. A relationship of any seriousness must have trust. Trust can be defined a lot of ways, but I would summarize it as the state of being emotionally vulnerable to another person, on the assumption that they will treat you honestly and fairly, with love and care.

Unfortunately, one usually only finds out someone is untrustworthy after making the mistake of trusting them.

But we are social creatures and, by and large, we want to be close to others. We want friends and loved ones. And yet, there is always the danger of opening oneself up to the wrong person and getting hurt. This tension even has a metaphorical name: the hedgehog’s dilemma, which is self-explanatory if you think on it for a moment.

There could be a lot written on the topic of to what extent one’s trust can be broken before a relationship is irretrievably damaged. I will avoid most of those to focus on a single issue: cruelty. Cruelty comes in many forms, and it would be impossible to describe them all. But at the most basic level, it is treating another person with malice, and without the slightest care for that person’s dignity or well-being. Far worse than indifference, it is an active harm inflicted on another.

In any given relationship, moments of cruelty may occur: one is angry about something else and, however briefly, takes it out on the person most readily available. This can range from snapping at another person all the way to physical violence. The former is probably common, and usually quickly forgiven so long as amends are made promptly. The closer one gets to the latter, though, the less tolerable such behavior can become. Certainly, there is no excuse for physical violence, no matter any supposed provocation. I don’t intend to dwell on physical violence here, since it is quite obviously abuse and I don’t think there is any need to attempt to reconcile it–it is flatly unacceptable.

In the middle, however, is a vast gray area–behaviors worse than popping off a couple unkind words, but not approaching a physical attack, verbal knives plunged suddenly into the trusting and unsuspecting. Even with apologies, these can be very difficult to forgive and forget. The pain they cause is real, and it can linger far past any stage of making up and moving on. It can damage the relationship in obvious ways, or even very subtle ones. Cruel behavior can form cracks in a mountain, or build up to erode the bedrock of a relationship. One is then left in the unenviable position of having to choose between losing a relationship–one which may have been built over many years, with a plethora of shared, cherished memories–or continuing to associate with someone who takes advantage of that trust to commit harm. Both are painful in the short-term, which makes action all the more difficult. This can, of course, affect friendships as well as romantic liaisons.

One may not be willing to abandon a relationship due to a single incident, which is perfectly understandable. It’s easy to think it might be a one-time outburst. Sometimes it is. But what if it isn’t? Humans are rationalizing creatures. It’s one of the things our brains are built to do–it is a defense mechanism that keeps us from second-guessing our decisions constantly. But it can also lock us into an ever-deteriorating situation while convincing ourselves that things are getting better, or that they aren’t so bad. All the while, the trust that once seemed so solid is damaged, and likely to remain so. Regardless of what one chooses to do about it, it can be deeply painful and unpleasant.

I could say that there is one right answer, here, but probably isn’t. It’s impossible to know whether a single instance of cruel behavior is a fluke generated by circumstances, or the beginning of a dangerous pattern. For myself, having lived through an escalating cycle of abusive behavior, I am more inclined to bail at the first sign I can’t trust someone. A little pain now is better than a lot of pain later. Admittedly, this may not be the best way to go about things, either. It’s difficult because it depends on so many unknowns–if one could be certain of the trajectory of a given relationship, it would be easy to make decisions about whether to continue. But things are always in flux, and the future is unknowable. Your best friend today could be your worst enemy tomorrow… or still your best friend, 20 years down the line.

I haven’t always been the best-behaved person, myself. I’ve snapped at people I cared about out of anger. I’ve never been physically violent, but I’ve had acrimonious arguments that turned into accusations. Events can spiral out of control quickly. I’ve been on both sides of such altercations, and I’ve certainly regretted things I’ve said in a heated moment. Rarely, I have been malicious, and have regretted it every time. I can easily become frustrated when there is an issue and I don’t understand the other person’s perspective, doubly so if it’s someone I trust and care about. I have written a little before about trying to assume good faith, and that’s a good rule to live by in these matters, as well–not in accepting the cruelty of others, of course, but using it to regulate your own responses. I am not the best at taking my own advice in such matters. I am trying to do better.

What I do know is that I’m no longer willing to tolerate cruelty from people who claim to care about me, nor should anyone put up with it from me. I don’t plan to stick around to see how bad it gets, and if I’m engaging in that behavior myself, you shouldn’t want to deal with me, either.

Photo by HeyDanielle