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Trust is the Foundation
Trust is the foundation of intimate relationships.
But if you have betrayed your partner's trust in a significant way, it can be overwhelming to see if you will ever be able to restore that trust. So how do you build trust? How do you restore trust after you have betrayed your partner's trust?
One thing is clear: saying "I'm sorry" isn't enough. Swearing you'll never do it again, likely won’t cut it. If the betrayal goes deep enough, you won't be able to merely smooth it over. So what do you do when saying you're sorry isn't enough?
Today we are going to talk about a powerful principle for rebuilding trust that I find very helpful for my clients.
Here's the principle: Trust is built by being consistent in attitude and action over time.
This simple but powerful truth is worth repeating again, and I want to encourage you to write this one down and reflect on it deeply! Trust is built by consistent attitude and action over time.
The formula for building trust
Trust = Attitude x Action + Time.
Let's break this down.
First of all, it may be helpful to acknowledge if you really have broken your partner's trust. I've often heard my clients tell me that the most hurtful thing about a deep betrayal is not the specific action, ongoing affair, etc. but the broken trust.
So the first step might be to acknowledge that your proverbial house is on fire. If you want to understand how to rebuild trust, first you have to accept that your spouse's trust has been damaged. Perhaps your spouse does not trust you at all, sexually. If you don't acknowledge this, then you won't be able to put out the fire and it'll keep burning.
Now that you've acknowledged the reality of the broken trust, if you want to rebuild trust, start with having a trustworthy attitude.
What do I mean by a trustworthy attitude?
To start, let's look at what I don't mean.
What kind of attitudes do not build trust? What attitudes hurt trust?
A Damaging Attitude
Defensiveness. If your partner asks you a question about something you have done in the past to hurt her and you feel attacked and get defensive, this doesn't build trust.
Anger. Frustration. Getting angry or frustrated when your spouse expresses their fears, feelings, or questions about your betrayal.
Blame. Switching the focus of the conversation from your betrayal back onto your spouse. "You think I have a problem? You're the one who _!"
Minimization. Minimizing your partner's pain. "Why are you making such a big deal about this?" Minimizing your betrayal. "It could have been a lot worse!"
Justification. Making excuses, or justifying your betrayal. "I wouldn't have looked at pornography if you would have been nicer to me." "I'm so stressed out right now, I need a release." "I didn't feel like you gave me enough attention so I went and sought attention from others." "All guys do it. Give me a break!"
Comparison. "What I did wasn't as bad as so-and-so".
Avoidance. If you avoid talking about difficult things you won't have the chance to grow. Your partner looks like she is feeling okay, so you don't want to upset her right? Why bring up a difficult topic, or be vulnerable? Won't it only upset her, or ruin the mood? Don't avoid tough conversations. Initiate. Don't only say the minimum to get by.
What do all of these attitudes have in common? They lack ownership. To sum it up, a trustworthy attitude has ownership. Let's explore this more.
A trustworthy attitude
A trustworthy attitude owns behavior, acknowledges pain, and accepts vulnerability.
Be gentle. Be kind. It is true that a gentle answer minimizes conflict.
Tell the truth. Honesty is an incredible way to live. Acknowledge your lies. Admit the entire extent of how you have betrayed your partner. Be honest about the ways you deceived, hid, covered up, and managed your image to get away with things.
Be transparent. Part of honesty and rebuilding trust is being transparent with your phone, laptop, computer use, texts, bank accounts, and passwords. If you refuse your spouse access, this communicates you have something to hide. Instead of always keeping your phone with you, putting it face down, deleting old messages, etc. Keep your phone out in the open, face up, and share your password to your phone with your spouse. Be open and let your spouse check your phone if they ask to. In the long run, the betrayed playing detective won’t work, but in the short term, it can help if you are transparent and accept this without resistance.
Own your behavior and mistakes. It’s not enough to say “I’m sorry, but ...“ That justifies your behavior. Instead of making excuses, own what you did. Own your own selfish choices that led to the betrayal. Own all of the behavior that is connected to your betrayal.
Empathize with her pain. Cry with her. Seek to understand. Reflect back the pain, despair, doubt, and hopelessness your betrayed spouse has. Accept it, and don’t try to change their feelings. Just sit with them in their pain. This will allow them to grieve. Grieve with them, for what you stole from the relationship when you betrayed your spouse.
Build self awareness. Learn how to identify and connect with your and your partner’s feelings. This is a powerful skill that you can learn and you can grow in, no matter how good or how poor you think you are at it. You can use the pain of this situation that you are in to learn powerful skills that will help you experience deeper connection and intimacy in every important relationship in your life.
Be curious and ask questions. If you are curious, this is an infectious, attractive attitude. Ask yourself questions about your spouse. Ask what she might be thinking and feeling? Wonder how she is doing? Ask how you think her day might have been. But then, instead of just assuming the answers, ask her! Intentional questions will draw you to your spouse over time. It will help you get to know her better over time.
How well do you actually know your spouse? When is the last time you talked about what she likes and dislikes? When have you talked about her childhood? Perhaps her taste has changed over the years and you don't even know it! This is an opportunity to re-discover her, or learn more about her. This can refresh your relationship and help you feel closer together.
The more you ask, and know, about your partner, the better you can support and encourage them. The more they feel known and valued, the stronger you will be as you navigate conflict and difficulties. Genuine curiosity in your partner is a powerful attitude to foster and develop.
Listen deeply. Listen to your spouse. Listen carefully to the words they are saying, and let go of what you assume them to mean. Every couple I work with struggles in this area. We all do. It is easy to experience listening blocks and assume a different meaning than what your spouse intended. Listen carefully to what they are saying, to their actual words, and focus on being present, in the moment, to whatever it is that they share.
Let them talk as much as they need to. Many late night conversations are the norm in the initial, crisis stage, following the discovery of betrayal.
Normalize her feelings. "Of course you feel this way. It makes total sense. Anyone who has been lied to like you have would feel this way. Would experience this confusion, this incredible pain, this rage. It's okay."
All of these things add up to having a consistent, trustworthy attitude. No you won't be perfect and of course you will have a bad attitude at times. You might even get tired of hearing about the pain of your betrayal time and time again as she copes with it. This is a chance to stay the course, and continue to lean in and let her grieve. The more consistent you are with having a trustworthy attitude, the more likely you will be able to build trust with your partner.
Consistency in action
If you have betrayed your partner, it's like you put a hole in the boat of your relationship. You can stay calm, tell the truth about the hole in the boat, acknowledge it exists, empathize with your spouse about the pain and difficulty of the relationship sinking, and tell your wife you are committed to plugging the hole. But until you plug the hole in the boat, you will sink!
Words can be helpful, but alone they aren't enough, you must take action to become trustworthy. Being consistent in trustworthy action can begin to plug the hole and prevent your marriage from crashing against the rocks of ruin. What kind of action rebuilds trust? First of all, it's important to say that there is no guarantee your spouse will trust you again. That is not in your control. But you can take action to increase the likelihood that she will trust you.
Recommit to the relationship. Invest the time, effort, and whatever it takes to prioritize your marriage. This takes courage for both the betrayed and the betrayer! This commitment on your part, as the one who has betrayed your partner, requires the courage to be vulnerable, own your behavior, and take new action.
Cut all ties. Set boundaries and cut ties with the ways you betrayed your partner. If you had an affair, whether sexual or physical, the general guideline is that you must cut all ties with the affair partner. What other boundaries do you need to set? What other ties do you need to cut? Perhaps you need to quit pornography. Perhaps you need accountability software like Covenant Eyes or Ever Accountable. Perhaps you need to take a break from social media, or stop following certain people.
Commit to who you are becoming. Focus on your own growth and living out of your values, no matter how she responds. At the end of the day, you can’t control how your spouse reacts, responds, or what they choose to do, say, or not do. But you can control your own choices. You can focus on your own growth. You can seek to live a life of meaning, purpose, peace, and service to others.
Accept and support their boundaries. When betrayal is significant, significant boundaries might need to be put in place by the betrayed. Sleeping in separate bedrooms, significant changes to your work, or separation might be necessary. Your spouse deserves to feel safe. They may need time, they may need space, they may need you to change in big ways if they are to trust you. Accepting rather than fighting against or questioning boundaries will help restore trust.
Be consistent. Your actions to rebuild trust must be consistent if they are to be successful. If you don't take consistent action in rebuilding trust, why should your spouse trust you? If you betrayed your partner's trust, then it is wise to simply accept that for the time being you are untrustworthy in this area. That can change, but not without consistent action over time.
Limit surprises and get ahead of uncertainty. After being betrayed it is common for the betrayed partner to have legitimate fears and questions about if their partner is continuing to lie and hide. You can help by seeking to limiting surprises. Common examples would be communicating where you will be, and then following through. If you need to stay late somewhere, text your partner and let them know.
Essentially, since you broke your partner’s trust, it’s on you to work to rebuild it.
Yes, her choosing to trust you is a choice she can make, but you can make that choice easier if you are consistent in communicating where you are, who you are with, and what you are doing. Can you lie about this? Of course you can. But if in the past you avoided this kind of communication, it can definitely help her to see a difference in your behavior when you text and call and communicate with her that you are thinking about her throughout the day.
Initiate vulnerable conversations. Commit to having at least a once a week check-in conversation. A check-in conversation is an intentional conversation with your spouse where you talk about your life, your healing, and your relationship. Read this essay on how to have a check-in conversation, where I go into depth about how to have an amazing vulnerable conversations.
Schedule it. Initiate it. Follow through. Set an alarm, do whatever it takes. Having an intentional check-in conversation could be the most important thing you do to save your marriage.
Prioritize your healing, your recovery, your self-care. The first rule for caring for others is caring for yourself. If you want to care for your spouse better, you must first take care of yourself well.
Find trusted community. Don’t go through this alone. Determine who you will tell, and what you will tell them. Agree on this together. As you have accountability, let her know you have guys you are checking in with and also being accountable to. Then the weight of your change is not carried all on you and her.
Invest in your healing. One way to prioritize your healing is financially. Pay for counseling, coaching, and all that comes with it.
Set and honor new boundaries. Part of the necessary action required to rebuild trust often includes setting boundaries. Restrict your freedom. Take steps to limit your options. If you used to not
Communicate early and often.
Invest in your relationship. Get the babysitter, go on regular dates. Commit to two dates a month where you are focused only on each other. Spend quality time together. Pursue your spouse. Think of how you can have fun with them.
Whenever you can, ask yourself, is this action going to build trust? How can I build trust here?
It’s a Matter of Time
Remember, trust is built with consistency in attitude and action over time. We've covered attitude, and action, now we need to focus on the time it can take.
Rebuilding trust is not a get rich quick strategy. It’s not a hack. It’s not something you can fake. If you try to cut corners, or continue to lie to your spouse it won’t work. Eventually the truth will come out. It always does.
Rebuilding trust is a long term investment strategy.
Becoming trustworthy and rebuilding trust creates compound growth in your relationship. Being consistent with trustworthy actions is like making consistent investments in the stock market. It’s not a short term game. At the beginning it hardly feels like it makes a difference. It’s a risk, and it feels like you could lose your entire investment if you are rejected. In fact, initially you might feel like you are losing your investment, because of the conflict and pain you have to experience. However, your consistent investment can begin to add up slowly even though initially you may not notice a difference in your spouse. Given enough time, your investments can build on themselves and you can experience compound growth in your relationship.
It is wise to think in terms of your relationship healing in months and years, not in days and weeks. You might see massive change quickly, but accepting and committing that you’re in this for the long haul and don’t need your spouse to change quickly can be very helpful.
You didn’t get to this place of difficulty and crisis overnight. It will take time to restore and rebuild. A year from now, 5 years from now, you won’t regret the investments you are making today. It’s like anything else you want to grow and thrive in for your life. The more action and energy you put into your own growth and into your relationship now, the more you will get out of your efforts and the more likely you will be to rebuild trust in the future.
To learn more about a powerful tool you can use to rebuild trust in your relationship check out the Couples Check-In Guide.
You can rebuild trust. Choose to start working on it today. Find at least one thing from the lists above, and commit to making a change and implementing it this week. Make every day, and every situation a chance to be trustworthy. Then, regardless of what your spouse chooses, you won’t regret living with integrity.