The Two Reoccurring Moments That Destroy Trust in Relationships

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(Image/Clearway Community Solar)

In one home, it’s a pair of dehumidifiers near the family’s basement laundry room.

In another home, it’s a little double-sided sign stuck by magnet to the dishwasher. One side reads ‘Clean.’ The other reads ‘Dirty.’

In my home, it was all sorts of things, but a dish by the sink—a drinking glass for water—stands out as the star of the marriage-killing show.

This is how your marriage ends. This is how your relationship ends. In the sometimes difficult-to-hear whisper of a busy, routine-filled life speckled with what one person considers a “little thing”—a minor infraction so slight as to be deemed inconsequential. This same seemingly benign event is experienced by their partner as an emotional papercut at best, and an emotional gut punch at worst.

Relationships full of stress and conflict lack the ingredient most needed for relationships to succeed—trust. Above all, we must have trust. And relationships—and their participants—are routinely damaged because of these nuanced moments in which one person interprets it as painful and the other perceives it as harmless.

It’s this discrepancy between the two individual experiences that triggers the moments which can strengthen strong, healthy relationships, but usually ends up eroding the integrity of most.

In one home, a kind, loyal, but increasingly sad woman, makes her way to her basement laundry room nearly every day in service of her family’s clothes-cleaning needs. She dutifully washes everyone’s clothes in the washing machine, transfers those clothes to the dryer, and afterward folds or hangs up clothes for everyone in the house. Her children. Herself. Her husband.

And while she toils silently doing this lonely, invisible, thankless work that she’s been doing for more than two decades, she sometimes glances over at the two dehumidifiers. The lit-up red indicator lights scream: Your husband didn’t take 45 seconds to come downstairs and empty the water bins again even though you have kindly asked him dozens of times and he promised he would do it.

He’s upstairs in his lounger having a beer and watching baseball on TV. She’s folding his underwear. She’s crying and feels like the loneliest, most invisible, most unimportant, most unloved person in the world. She’s strongly considering ending a marriage that has taken up most of her life, and which her entire identity is wrapped up in. And he’s upstairs in the family room watching the next pitch, oblivious to her growing sadness which has become suffocating.

In another home, a kind, loyal, but increasingly frustrated woman makes her way to the kitchen with her used plate and fork. The dishwasher sign indicates the dishes are dirty. She opens it up, to place her plate and fork in the rack, but the detergent reservoir lid pops open indicating the dishes had been washed recently.

Not only did he leave these for me to do again, but he didn’t even have the courtesy to flip the sign over to the other side like I’ve asked him to do dozens and dozens of times. He promised he would. But I can’t trust him to. He doesn’t keep his promises. I’m too young to subject the rest of my life to someone who doesn’t respect me enough to do what he says he will do. What’s it going to be like when we have kids?

That’s probably close to what my wife thought about in the years leading up to her decision to divorce me because I left dishes by the sink or because I was a shitty father.

We destroy trust—and as a result, our relationships—by recycling two moments over and over again. This is what the majority of my discussions with coaching clients revolve around.

These sometimes obvious—but most often, nuanced—moments in which trust erodes.

The first reoccurring moment that destroys trust is the incident itself. A major relationship crime like cheating, lying, hiding financial activity, or verbal abuse. Or typically something more subtle. Usually something one person perceives as some type of relationship-damaging infraction that the other person disagrees is important.

In heterosexual relationships, it most commonly shows up as female partners in pain resulting from the actions or inactions of their male partners.

Good grief. She’s whining about the dehumidifiers again. Imagine what she’ll do during the next power outage, or God forbid, a death in the family. She really needs to get a grip.


Holy shit. She’s bitching about that stupid sign on the dishwasher again. I cooked for both of us. I cleaned up the kitchen. I emptied the sink, loaded the dishwasher, and ran it. And NOW SHE’S UP MY ASS BECAUSE I FORGOT TO FLIP THE SIGN AGAIN. Imagine being this petty about stuff. Gee, I hope she doesn’t chip a fingernail soon, or we’ll probably need to start a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for her emotional recovery.

The second reoccurring moment that destroys trust in relationships is the conversation about the incident.

The one where one person attempts to communicate that something is important and potentially painful for them, while the other person deflects, minimizes, defends themselves, or justifies their own actions.

One person is simply begging to be seen and heard.

I spend every moment of my day serving my husband and children, and he can’t even prioritize giving up one minute of his evening or weekend to empty the dehumidifiers. Something I care about isn’t worth him remembering. I don’t matter enough to him.

Another person is simply begging to be treated with enough respect so that she can trust that he will have her back as life gets more difficult and they face greater challenges together in the future.

If I can’t trust him to flip the Clean/Dirty sign, then how can I trust him to be my children’s father? Nothing I say or do seems to get through to him how important it is that I be able to trust him. Maybe it’s time to cut my losses before I get in any deeper.

My first client is now dutifully emptying the two dehumidifier containers every day. Not because he’s submitting to the nagging wishes of his ungrateful wife. But because he loves and respects her very much, and he truly appreciates how much she sacrifices so that he and his kids can have the life that they do. Because he never even thought about how sad and lonely and afraid she used to feel while folding his clothes and seeing those two dehumidifier indicator lights. He didn’t know what those lights meant to her. But now he does and he’s doing something about it.

He’s doing the work.

He has made the decision to not allow the woman he loves to feel pain because of his blind spots. He wasn’t going to allow her to feel lonely and unloved simply because he was previously too busy and comfortable to remember the dehumidifiers. So now he does. Now, he embraces the opportunity for his wife to look over at those dehumidifiers and feel SEEN and RESPECTED and CONSIDERED and SAFE and LOVED because the indicator lights are dark and the two units are running.

And once he was able to connect dehumidifier indicator lights with very real emotional experiences his wife had been having, he learned how to connect other moments—and other conversations about those moments—with very real emotional experiences she was having.

He learned how to mindfully love his wife—not just with empty platitudes and brittle reassurances—but with love in action. The invisible became visible.

Emptying dehumidifiers equals building and maintaining trust with his wife. He doesn’t care about the dehumidifiers running nearly as much as she does. But he very much cares about her feeling pain because he was too busy or too comfortable not paying attention.

He did the work. And now she feels a new level of being loved and respected in their marriage.

I’m insanely proud of this guy for doing the work I was too big of a wimp to do in my marriage.

I’m rooting hard for my new guy—the Clean/Dirty sign guy. Because he doesn’t lack emotional intelligence. He doesn’t lack kindness or goodness. He simply lacks the mental habit of remembering that things we do or don’t do can feel very bad for someone else, even when they don’t feel bad for us.

He’s practicing. Grinding for a new normal where she will perpetually feel seen and respected and considered and safe and loved.

This is the work of turning relationships from ones filled with conflict and mistrust and frustration and resentment and loneliness into the kind of relationships we all believed we were signing up for when we first agreed to venture through life with someone else.

This is what it looks like to sacrifice, in small, unsexy ways for someone else—not because you think the thing is important, but because THEY believe it’s important.

This is love in action.

It’s not always easy to notice the stuff that we historically haven’t cared about but which matter to someone else. It’s just always worth it.

43 thoughts on “The Two Reoccurring Moments That Destroy Trust in Relationships”

          1. You’re 95% totally right. Imagine everyone letting me get away with this mishap for so long before now.
          2. I withheld 5%, because while I completely agree that I was ignorant and didn’t realize this nuanced distinction, I accidentally lucked into “reoccurring” not being technically wrong. It’s also true, it turns out. But that’s just a happy accident, and it’s definitely less precise than the other.

          Thank you for making me a little smarter (less moronic?) today. I’m good at not forgetting these things once I learn them.

  1. Matt…once again you nailed it! So simple, so basic, yet so big in the scope of relationships.
    What a gift to you have become to your readers and those you coach by turning your loss and shortcomings into success multiplied!
    Keep going…I am anxiously awaiting the publication of the book.

  2. MIld illness can provide some of the worst defining moments. The wife with flu hopes that her husband will make warm, illness-appropriate meals and keep the housework going. He thinks she’s being ridiculously fussy and that a pop tart for breakfast and spicy chili from a can for dinner is perfectly adequate for someone down with the flu. And the house can go without vacuuming, laundry, and dishwashing until she’s able to get to it. Way back when, my husband uttered these fateful words: “I don’t mind if the house is messy until you feel better,” reassuring me that I wasn’t failing to fulfill his needs without a clue that he was failing me.

    1. Goodness. That’s quite the quote. “I don’t mind if the house is messy until you feel better.” I’m not sure whether I should laugh. It’s not funny. And I’m so sorry that was something your husband said to you.

      But, damn. That’s a hell of a line. Thank you for sharing for your story.

    2. Oh my gosh… ironic. My ex husband said something similar to me once.

      It was my birthday and he asked me what I wanted (for my birthday) and I just looked over at the sink filled with dirty dishes and I said “I just don’t want to have to wash those dishes.”

      His response – “Well, I don’t mind if you wait until tomorrow.” ?

      1. Wow! Hard to believe that level of insensitivity. I know I have my own moments of insensitivity as well, but I wash dishes. : )

    3. My mother-in-law told me the start of the end for her was the evening they both got home from work, she was rather unwell, indicated her need to lie down in the dark and quiet for a time, and…. her husband shook out the newspaper and said… “That’s fine, don’t rush with dinner.” This has now become a tongue-in-cheek quote for my husband and I, if we feel one of us is not hearing what we’re saying. So, silver lining, I guess :/

  3. As ‘that’ woman, of course this felt great to read. It summarizesd so succinctly that it’s not about the dehumidifier or dishes but rather the lack of trust we feel in being seen and heard, that our perspective is regarded as valuable and that we’re meaningful. l also appreciated how you wrote, “how much she sacrifices so that he and his kids can have the life that they have.” This! Because the reverse is thrown into the face of every woman who stays home while the husband earns the money. And it reflects how little SAHM are seen and valued because we’re told not to complain or ask or have needs because well, “look how hard he works.” Women sacrifice too and we don’t get a pay check or performance review for any of it. Add a cluelss husband, no wonder women are angry.

    So my question is, how should a woman go about communicating the message and “being heard” without having it turn into an argument that leads to defensiveness and deflection and well, divorce.

    1. For close to forty years I have tried to focus on all the good things hubby does, and the list is lengthy. That said I am stymied as to how to broach my needs without him becoming defensive. His line is why does everything have to be an argument? The result is loneliness. Counselling didn’t work.

      1. Coaches and relationship therapists as Laura Doyle and Patricia Love (great name for a therapist) suggest stating the DESIRE not the COMPLAINT.

        So for eg, if your husband is always working late, rather than complain about this, uncover the hidden desire within and state that instead.
        So “I really love for us to spend more time together, maybe we could do X or see….”

        It does work; I’ve been on both sides.

        1. Yes, yes, yes!!! Laura Doyle!! Read her book The Empowered Wife and apply her methods. You will NOT be sorry. Just be patient. Start small. It works.

  4. This. This right here. If I am taking on the majority of the emotional and secretarial labor as well as most of the household chores, the fact that he cleaned out the garage one time — never mind that the majority of the stuff in the garage was his anyway — doesn’t make the balance even. Thankfully, I am now with someone who appreciates what I do and takes care to comment on it and take care of some of it for me when I don’t expect it. It is a world of difference.

  5. In my experience it is *definitely* the second point which destroys everything. If you are always minimised for bringing anything up, no matter big or small, eventually you start to feel you cannot confide your feelings to that person. The intimacy is lost.

  6. On Tue, Feb 23, 2021 at 9:24 AM Must Be This Tall To Ride wrote:

    > Matt posted: ” (Image/Clearway Community Solar) In one home, it’s a pair > of dehumidifiers near the family’s basement laundry room. In another home, > it’s a little double-sided sign stuck by magnet to the dishwasher. One side > reads ‘Clean.’ The other reads ‘Dirty.’” >

  7. Thanks for this great piece. So critically important, I am sending to my young adult children to read (they are both in committed relationships). In our family we have watched a video called “The Magic Coffee Table” a dozen times (link below) so it is part of our family lore, and the other day my husband thought the snow on our front walk magically melted (he wouldn’t take the time to shovel and so I did it)…I said “Oh so now we have a magic front walk as well?” Watch the short video, you’ll understand! Looking forward to your next column, Julie

    1. I showed this to my son when it first came out. His reaction was great. “I always knew you were magic, Mama!” I told him it was a good thing he was cute. 🙂

  8. I literally just professed these same feelings and lack of to my spouse this morning and low and behold a blog with the exact message I’ve been trying to convey to my husband (I fear unsuccessfully) shows up in my email. Thank you! This blog is spot on and validated my feelings.

  9. As usual Matt spot on! Hope all is well with you your son your ex and all the others you love. Quick updates… Anne’s treatments are working well… We’ve become grandparents to a beautiful little girl and expect our grandson anytime now and I started a new career post retirement ( I was losing my mind not working) all in all life’s good and we have much to look forward to hand in hand

    1. Louie!

      I really love this update from you. Thank you so much. Congratulations on grandchildren. That must be uniquely joyful.

      Louie, I don’t think I knew that Anne required any treatments. There are several health conditions that may require them and I don’t expect you to share here what those are. (If you feel like sharing via email or Messenger, please do.)

      You’re all dealing with several major changes at the same time. It’s a lot for anyone. But it sounds like you’re doing it together. I think that’s the best way.

      Exclusively good wishes for you and yours always. Excellent to see your name and hear good news about your life.

      Thank you for your long-time support and encouragement. Good things are happening on this end, and I’m looking forward to being able to share more about those when the powers that be say that I can.

      1. Well Matt I’m happy and excited to hear things are on the move for you and all the great work you do . Please accept my congratulations for everything! I keep my eye out for anything to do with you or who what mention your name . As for Anne’s condition . She suffers from a monster known as Lichen Sclerosus a disease thought to be autoimmune in nature but to that there is debate . It is a rare skin condition that won’t kill you it just makes you wish you were dead. We have been fighting it for some 30 years 3 national major clinics 4 regional medical universities 12 doctors creams injections surgery ultraviolet radiation medicines of every compound . ..nothing . The beast just doesn’t cause discomfort it effects daily life and relationships . You see it manifests itself in the “private” areas. Men get it too but not as severe as men make up about 5% of sufferers . In Anne’s case it cuased degeneration of tissues and structures making simple uinartion dreadfully painful and physical Intimacy impossible as the disease causes fusion of tissues thereby closing up the normal pathways for such. We had been at so many crossroads and road blocks that normal folks would have given up and resigned to the new fate. We continued to press for answers . I happened to be channel surfing one morning and a Dr show had a segment on stem cell therapy . Lo and behold they mentioned how Anne’s condition was being treated successfully with stem cells . I found the only doctor in the US performing the procedure in Los Angeles . I researched him his credentials his licensure any court cases or disiplinary actions . .squeaky clean ! I then reached out to his office , I spoke with his triage / social worker / coordinator got all the details and presented it all to Anne . As a couple we decided that I would retire 7 years early and because the treatment is not covered by medical insurance , raid my retirement accounts to pay for the treatments travel lodging etc. The treatments have worked miraculously and even though normalcy hasn’t returned to our relationship she no longer screams to pee or sit for long periods of time . She can now wear jeans and walk with our dog and live somewhat normally . I’m grateful for that Dr and his great staff. My love isn’t in constant pain which she described as a thousand paper cuts in her sensitive region . The head nurse at the clinic told me I was something of a unicorn there as most husbands leave their wives after diagnosis. I’m not going anywhere . We fought hard to make it as a couple and family I’d rather sleep under a bridge than know she was crying in pain. I’m not looking for a medal or statue I’m just in love and will do what I have to do. She has been a sport and a courageous trooper through this journey . We are looking forward to a “someday ” but having each other is what stabilizes us and gives us hope and clarity . We are excited being grandma and papa. I have a new career as a truck driver ( big switch from 40 years in management ! ) it’s an adventure . .. Anne accompanied me on a trip for the first time this week and we got enjoy each other a bit more . We’re hopeful and together . Peace

  10. Wow. Huge inner struggle just today regarding very similar circumstances. I try to remind myself that *I* was the inconsiderate roommate to my sister when we first moved out together. I became better after 6 years. GW and I have been married for 2. I’m constantly reminding myself of my own shortcomings so that I’ll be patient with him.

    He’s working on getting the trash out in a timely manner. It’s a start.

  11. Hey you! Congrats to your Dirty/Clean guy for picking up a new skill ? A little bit of effort goes such a long way.

    I’m curious, if you’re able to share – are you working with just the husband or with the couple?

    1. I try to avoid working with couples. I already know how radically different the two perspectives and experiences are.

      My role is to help one of them (typically the guy in hetero relationships) learn how to more effectively empathize, validate, communicate, etc with his spouse in order to stop accidentally eroding trust, and mindfully restoring it.

      I hope you’re well. Excellent to hear from you. 🙂

      1. Yeah, I’m well, thanks ?
        Went back to school, applied behavioural sciences, to get certified as a CBT practitioner. (Remember? Im sure i mentioned my fondness for it a time or three) I’ve just started taking on clients, its so freakin cool, Matt!! Lol.
        I work one on one with people who are struggling in one or more areas of their lives and want to improve. Probably very similar to what you do, just with different tools

        Nice to catch up with you and nice to hear one of your success stories!

        1. Please email me sometime if you feel like it so we can better catch up. Really interested in the work you’re doing. Thank you so much for saying hi.

  12. Don’t get me wrong, I admire and agree with a huge amount of what you write.

    I too have been that guy.
    I too am mid shitty marriage and near to its end
    I do not deny my failures to do what I ought.
    I did not do my part. No excuses.

    But therein lies the essence: “my part”.
    A marriage is supposed to be a partnership. Each partner contributing equally, or, at least in shares acceptable to the other.
    People, not just the men, fail to.observe the points you make and ‘people’ includes wives.

    If all spouses read from the same sheet, things would be different and the nearly half of all marriages fail statistic would be hugely different but they do not because each partner to a relationship is human and humans fail and humans includes women.

    Wives also often do not connect “dehumidifier indicator lights” with very real emotional experiences their husbands have been having. Not all men are emotional voids.

    Wives too may not always “do the work” so that their husbands can feel a new level of being loved and respected in their marriages.

    Wives too can invalidate and see things only from their perspective and do not hear what their partner asks, however, reasonable it may be.

    Wives too do things that damage, erode and destroy trust.

    Wives tol do not always do that which is required to mainatain or re-build trust.

    So, a little less of the it is always the man/husband’s “fault” and a litte more nuanced and appreciation that BOTH parties need to play their parts and a little less with the “it is always the man / husband’s fault” approach

    You and I indeed both “got things wrong” in our respective relationships but that does NOT mean it was solely us who got things wrong in our respective relationships.

    1. I’ve found that as an individual, accepting responsibility for what I can control has been the only path to personal growth.

      As a coach, I’ve found that focusing on what we (client and I) can do to adjust what we do or we say is the only path to trust restoration in marriage.

      I simply find it not useful to engage in “Yeah, buts” or blame-shifting.

      I am 100% responsible for me. If I am dating or married to someone who does bullshit things, it’s first on me to examine whether those are responses to me or not.

      If I’m not triggering the bullshit, then it’s 100% on me to enforce personal boundaries and leave a relationship that is unhealthy or in which I’m being mistreated.

      The thing that is pretty much never useful is sitting around thinking about all of the ways OTHERS made our lives more difficult.

      I don’t ask everyone to think like me. I simply know of no other approach that makes sense.

      When we want change in our lives, it’s on us to change what we do, change where we are, or change who we’re with.

      The alternative is to believe we have no say. That life just happens to us and there’s nothing we can do about it.

      In my experience, life doesn’t just happen to us.

      Our lives are the sum of our choices.

    2. I’ve had conversations with you. I’ve been the one aching inside, desperately trying to describe to you my thoughts and emotions about a painful issue that we share by virtue of being married to each other. And you’re the one who will reply with, “Yea but you do it too” instead of, “I think I would feel the same way.”

  13. Pingback: Are You Afraid When the Elevator Doors Open? | Must Be This Tall To Ride

  14. Can you imagine a women divorcing a man, using the family court system to restrict his access to his own children, and also forcing him to forfeit an enormous share of accumulated wealth from many years of hard work, such as the house, to her (and her new boyfriend), and also to pay legal fees for the privilege of being destroyed, because a man misses the “trust” importance of the humidifier? Better that she live in her own home, which she has to pay for and maintain herself, and do what she wants with her humidifier settings, and please allow me to stay completely clear of the family law system. I don’t mean to be disrespectful but what man in his right mind would want to live with this ticking timebomb woman?

    1. It’s a personal choice, John. I’m not a marriage advocate. If someone lacks relational skills OR doesn’t want to apply them to a particular person, they shouldn’t. They should remain single. My work is for the people who mean well. Who enter marriage voluntarily, on purpose. To a man who would say what you’re saying, I would ask where his responsibility lies in all of it?

      A “ticking timebomb” is one of two things: 1. A person who is getting progressively more hurt by things we’re doing (or not doing); or 2. A person we should have chosen to NOT marry if we were unwilling to fulfill marital responsibilities.

      I don’t know what you’ve done, but I didn’t marry anyone who tried to take advantage of me financially and be an asshole to me after our marriage ended. We get along great. She’s a good person and a good mom. Really good. The one part of this I did get right was making a solid partner selection back then.

      If there’s weakness in your argument, it’s you seemingly (and I may be misunderstanding you) not being willing to accept responsibility (or men’s responsibility) for either the person they choose to marry, or how they behave once they do.

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