What The Emperor's New Groove Teaches Us about Trust

The Emperor’s New Groove is one of my favorite movies. I’m not exactly sure how a movie about a llama and a farmer worked its way into the soft, fluffy interior of my heart, but it did. Maybe it’s something about the special alchemy of mixing David Spade’s whining, sarcastic Kuzco with John Goodman’s aw-shucks, deep-voiced Pacha. Who knows.

I was watching the movie recently, and there’s a part where Kuzco and Pacha find themselves trapped in the crevice of a ravine. The scene is great for so many reasons, not the least being Kuzco’s ability to grit out sarcastic insults even under extreme stress. (You can watch the scene here.)

When Kuzco and Pacha fall into this ravine, they get jammed together into a narrow section that suspends them halfway between a grisly death below by the jaws of some hungry crocodiles and the safety of the top.

"We're gonna die! We're gonna die!"

"We're gonna die! We're gonna die!"

Pacha comes up with an idea to get out of the ravine. He tells Kuzco, “When I say, ‘Go,' push against my back, and we’ll walk up the hill.” A risky proposal—at this point, these two characters have a rocky relationship at best, and Pacha’s plan relies on the two of them relying on each other, back-to-back, step-by-step.

"Now stay with me. Stay with me."

"Now stay with me. Stay with me."

With some reluctance and fear, Kuzco agrees, and they begin to work their way up. Eventually, they reach a spot that requires Kuzco to extend himself and push Pacha up a little bit. Kuzco’s eyes narrow. “How do I know you won’t let me fall?” he asks.

Pacha responds, “You’re just going to have to trust me."

Pacha gets at the foundation of any working relationship: Trust. I watch this scene, and it screams to me about the significance of trust. As much as people throw around the words love and respect when talking about relationships, the real secret sauce, the thread that ties it all together, is trust. You can’t have a reciprocal relationship without trust. As simple and obvious as that might seem, it’s a bit embarrassing how often I’ve undervalued trust in the past, and I’m not the only one—I see my friends undervalue it, too.

This is for anyone who finds themselves in any kind of relationship with someone whom you can’t trust, or for anyone who’s walked away from that kind of relationship and feels guilty about it.

Let me start by stating this loud and clear: you can’t have a functional relationship with someone you can’t trust.

In other words, you can’t be back-to-back with someone, lean your weight on them, and work together with them to climb the hill. There are people who are too unreliable for you to function in that kind of relationship together.

I'm not talking about having phantom trust issues because you've been hurt in the past or generally have a hard time with trust. I'm talking about people you actually can't and shouldn't trust because they've proven it over time.

This isn't most people. It's a minority. Everyone messes up, everyone makes mistakes, no one is 100% reliable. But there are people who are liars. Not people who lie every once in a while (most of us)—people whose MO is to lie to duck out of responsibility for their actions, to cover up their tracks, to avoid confrontation, or simply because they don’t have a problem with it. There are people who hide and run—when you most need them to show up and be there, they won’t be. There are people who consistently violate your boundaries—no matter how much you draw and redraw the lines, they find ways to cross them.

You can’t have a functional relationship with a liar. You can’t have a functional relationship with someone who hides and who runs. You can’t have a functional relationship with someone who violates your boundaries over and over again.

You can’t climb the hill with these people.

For those of us who have been or are in some type of relationship with a person like this, we’re conflicted. Assuming you’re overall a good person, you want to give this person another chance. You don’t want to “give up” or walk away. You want to find a way to make it work. We have voices in our heads, real or imagined, that pump guilt into our decision-making. So we try to give it another go.

If I imagine myself back-to-back with this person, relying on them with my weight, trying to climb a hill, it lessens the conflict a bit and gives my next step a little more clarity.

I’ve given this person a second chance, a third chance, a fourteenth chance. I’ve leaned my weight on them, I’ve needed them to show up, I’ve needed them to work with me. Instead, they cut out, dropped out, broke my trust, violated my boundaries. Not only is it unhealthy for them, but I end up falling and in pain, too.

You’ll reach a point with a person like this when you realize you can’t trust them. When it comes to that, the healthiest step is to unlink your arms, take your weight off of them, and find your own way up.

You can still have a relationship with them, but the nature of it will be different. You’re not leaning on that person anymore. You’re getting yourself to solid ground. From there, maybe you drop them a rope. Maybe you encourage them from the top. Or maybe you walk away because they need to figure it for themselves, and you can’t be a part of that process without falling back in and getting hurt.

Whatever it is, don’t feel guilty because someone else continued to violate and vacate the foundation of any healthy relationship—trust. That's not on you; that's on them. What is on you is continuing to play the same game with the same rules and boundaries and thinking that it's going to go a different way.

For all of their problems, Kuzco and Pacha were able to lean on each other. Each of them showed up, propped the other up, and made sure they could climb the hill together.

If you’re going to climb the hill with someone, it has to be someone you can trust. If they keep dropping you, it’s time to drop them.