Trust is easy to break, hard to rebuild. By request from listener Kate, this week Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 5 steps to put the pieces together again.
Trust is so frequently lost and broken that you’d think some insurance company would have made billions off it by now. But trust can’t be guaranteed. And once it’s gone, especially in a relationship, it takes lots of time and effort to rebuild.
Listener Kate wrote in and asked how to rebuild trust in a relationship, but specified that broken trust goes beyond cheating. She’s right: there are many ways partners betray our trust besides an affair. It may be relapsing on drugs or alcohol after a promise to stay sober. It may be letting us down at a time when we were seriously ill, grieving, postpartum, or otherwise vulnerable. It may be lying about where they’re going or who they’re with. Or it may be hurting us when they were supposed to protect us.
No matter the specifics, betrayals of trust shift your world. As your relationship has grown, the two of you have gotten good at predicting each other’s behavior, you’ve made mutual plans and goals—like saving for the future or starting a family—that depend on each other. And of course, you simply like each other. But a breach of trust can disrupt all those things.
After a transgression, you start to wonder if you’re crazy or if you can trust your own senses and experience. It gets to the point where you can’t even trust chocolate chip cookies because they might turn out to be raisin.
If it’s been a long time since you felt able to trust, here’s a reminder of what it feels like: According to trust researchers, trust is comfort in your partner’s presence, while distrust is unease, anxiety, and discontent. Trust means that depending on your partner gets you more, while distrust means that depending on your partner makes you lose out. Trust means not having to protect yourself around your partner, while distrust means feeling secretive, suspicious, protective, and even making efforts to avoid your partner. Overall, trust is the willingness to be vulnerable because you know you’ll be cared for, while distrust is an unwillingness to be vulnerable because you’re afraid you’ll get hurt.
Only you can decide if your relationship is worth rebuilding. To do that, take an honest look at your reasons for wanting to trust again. Ask yourself: what do you get out of the relationship?
If your answer is extrinsic factors—that is, benefits like money, social connections, status, or access to things you might not otherwise have–this might not work. Why? Trust needs to come from the essential nature of the relationship, not from transactional benefits. Now, it’s important to note that many partners really are financially dependent. But ideally, financial security should be a bonus, not the central reason for wanting to rebuild trust.
On the other hand, if what you get out of the relationship is intrinsic—that is, the satisfaction of being a team, making each other laugh, mutual respect, or being each other’s biggest fans—you have a shot.
In other words, what you fundamentally get out of the relationship should be something intangible rather than something transactional. If you can truly say that, and you want to rebuild trust, you’re on your way
Now, these five steps aren’t a one-size-fits-all template, but they do speak to five essential components of rebuilding. The wrecking ball has already had its turn; now it’s time to set up the construction zone.
Step #1: Know this will take time.
Depending on the severity of the transgression and how hurt you felt by it, regaining trust takes time—months, a year, or even more.
If your partner guilts you with “you should be over this by now” statements, it’s a red flag that they don’t understand the impact of what happened or aren’t prioritizing your well-being.
That said, it’s equally important to refrain from dredging up the transgression to punish your partner whenever you’re less than happy.
The upshot: like grieving or other emotional healing, take all the time you need, but with a goal to get to the end. If you look at your partner’s transgression as your ace-in-the-hole, you’re not playing fairly
Step #2: Look for a real apology.
If your partner has transgressed, he or she owes you an apology. A real apology starts with “I’m sorry I,” not I’m sorry you, such as “I’m sorry you’re mad,” nor I’m sorry but as in “I’m sorry but it was only that once.”
If you hear an apology that tries to justify or otherwise excuse what happened, blames you, or minimizes your feelings—“Come on, it’s not that bad!”—you didn’t get a real apology, you got the beach umbrella of apologies–shady and easily collapsible.
In short, a true apology takes responsibility, expresses true remorse, understands why you were hurt, and promises to make amends.
Step #3: Gather evidence of predictability and dependability.
A classic study from 1985 found that there are three dimensions of relationship trust: predictability, dependability, and faith.
We’ll talk more about faith in Step #5—not the religious kind, but the confidence-in-your-partner kind. But before we do that, we have to establish predictability and dependability. This is necessary to help the wronged partner regain a sense of control.
Evidence of predictability and dependability are established by going through situation after situation in which the partner could potentially be secretive and selfish, but instead chose to be open and kind.
Some of these examples should be directly related to the transgression, like coming home at the time they say they’ll be home, doing 30 AA meetings in 30 days, or going to couple therapist with you (and doing more than just stay awake during session).
No matter the specifics, it’s essential that expectations are communicated, not set up as secret tests of your partner. Talk about your expectations and decide on goals together. You may have some non-negotiables, like getting sober or breaking off an affair, but whether they’re negotiable or not, expectations and metrics of success need to be discussed.
Of course, the process of rebuilding trust will go faster and be more genuine if some evidence of trustworthiness is also initiated by the partner—she finally gets help for her depression, he takes a greater interest in the kids by coaching their Little League team, she decides to see her friends two nights a week instead of five.
When to stop? Essentially, accumulations of trustworthy behavior need to continue to the point where a subsequent mistake that breaches trust will be seen as the exception that proves the rule.
Step #4: Focus on the here and now.
If you were wronged, you may be trying your hardest, but just can’t seem to trust again.
If that’s the case, ask yourself if you’re prone to rumination or worry. Rumination is negative, repetitive thinking about the past, while worry is negative, repetitive thinking about what might happen in the future. It’s playing lowlights of the past or possible future over and over again without coming to a solution.
If that’s the case, when you catch yourself, bring yourself back to here and now. Look at your partner’s current behavior and the current state of your union rather than what happened or what might happen. You can call this mindfulness, or you can simply call it seeing your life as it is.
Step #5: Take a leap of faith.
Having faith in your partner is the hardest but most necessary part of rebuilding trust. The same classic 1985 paper defines faith as the belief that your partner will act in loving and caring ways whatever the future holds.
Letting yourself be vulnerable is the only way to discover if your partner will be responsive and caring, or will let you down again.
By contrast, if you avoid contentious issues or have everything defined by rules, there’s no room to take that necessary leap of faith. To understand that you’re truly safe, you ned to go beyond the evidence of predictability and dependability you accumulated in Step #3.
This means letting your partner out of the holding pattern. It means deciding to trust your partner even though you don’t know what the future holds.
But once you do, it means getting back a trusting relationship. And that is something worth taking a leap of faith.
Other studies that informed this article can be found here and here.