How Do We Come Back From This? Rebuilding Trust in a Broken Relationship

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If you’ve faced betrayal in your marriage or long-term relationship, you know the devastation that broken trust creates.  Trust can be broken through affairs or infidelity, either sexual or emotional.  Sex and love addiction is a major factor that comes up in destroying trust in relationships.  Other addictions, secrecy around financial decisions, or secrecy around work can create similar experiences of broken trust.  But a common factor in all these cases is deception.   

Trust requires safety, and if your perception of reality is influenced by the lies or insincerity of another person, it becomes unsafe.  You might ask yourself questions like, “How will I ever know if my spouse is telling the truth?” or “How could I have fallen for their lies?” 

Shame also comes up for the betrayed partner.  You might be wondering if it’s your fault, blaming yourself for not being able to see the warning signs of the deception.  You might feel embarrassed and like a fool.  You might also be struggling with loneliness, as issues such as sex and love addiction can be difficult to share about with friends, or you can be protecting your spouse’s privacy.  Regardless, this shame is based on a distorted view of reality put forward by the partner who deceived. 

What should I expect in rebuilding trust?

Rebuilding trust is an incredibly slow process, and it requires patience and time to heal.  Usually I notice impatience in couples who come into my office feeling stuck.  The partner who committed the betrayal is recovering more quickly than the betrayed partner.  They might be feeling relief due to the fact that they are no longer carrying the burden of the secret addiction, and they can finally get the help they need.

Meanwhile, the betrayed spouse is wrestling with the new information he or she has received.  They are trying to integrate this new truth into the months or years of deception that have taken place, rewriting the narrative of their lives.  They are trying to re-evaluate and re-integrate their whole world with this information.  At the same time, they are faced with making decisions about the future of the relationship.

How do we rebuild trust?

Have you ever built a sand castle?  Some professional sand castles can be beautiful, with turrets and sculpted carvings.

Think of your marriage like a sand castle.  When the betrayal was discovered, it’s as if a giant tidal wave came and destroyed it.  Rebuilding trust involves moving sand back to rebuild that castle.  Some days it involves moving just one grain at a time, and other days you’ll move shovelfuls.  Sometimes, if the foundation is shaky or the wind from outside blows in a certain way, parts of the castle may crumble or topple and need to be built up again.

You likely won’t be building the same exact castle over again.  You’ll change parts of it to make it new and better.  Having learned from your previous experience, you’ll likely make a stronger foundation and more beautiful or intricate carvings.  You’ll consider how you will approach the marriage after the betrayal, which involves moving into a new phase that will be decidedly different from the pain that now colors the first part of your marriage.  

Rebuilding trust requires that both spouses have an active role in this process.  It is impossible for just one of you to be doing all the work.

The Deceiver’s Role

For the individual who has betrayed their spouse, the simplest way to rebuild trust is to continually match your words up with your actions.  The first step involves honesty.  You will need to be more truthful about your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors than you ever have before.  Allow your spouse access to private accounts and information.  Some spouses need this level of transparency and others don’t, but your willingness to offer it regardless of whether it’s needed or not rebuilds trust. 

Particularly in the case of sex and love addiction, formal disclosure of acting out behaviors is a major step in rebuilding trust.  In order to establish a foundation of trust before you move forward in the relationship, you will need to have a formal disclosure of all your behaviors with your spouse.  This is a major step of honesty that will lay the foundation for the other rebuilding actions to stick.

Each time you are honest about your behaviors in the future, you will move some sand back into that sand castle.  Every time you carry out an action you said you would, you build more trust.  When you are honest about difficult, negative emotions and responses, that builds trust even stronger, as it allows your spouse to see you take ownership of your feelings and actions. 

The Betrayed Partner’s Role

While it may seem that the action of change rests in the hands of the deceiver, the betrayed partner actually has a significant role in the trust-rebuilding process.  In order for trust to be built, the partner be willing to take the risk to trust.  You will (understandably) be self-protective and you won’t be ready to fully trust for quite some time.  In fact, if you were ready to trust immediately after discovering the betrayal, I would caution you against it!  But the long-term goal is to help you find ways of offering trust as the two of you heal.

When you first find out about the deception and broken trust, you ought to spend some time building up your network of support individuals and self-care so you can practice self-care and be kind to yourself as you heal.  Establish safety for yourself that isn’t dependent on your spouse’s behaviors, as they will certainly not be able to meet all your expectations at first.  Create boundaries as a way of seeing if your spouse is willing to change and adapt.

Once you’ve decided to move forward, take small risks to trust.  Acknowledge or praise your spouse when you see their actions and words lining up.  Choose to focus on the progress more frequently than the past betrayal, as it can be easy to lose sight of positive changes.  However, if the deception is still going on or if you haven’t seen actions on the spouse’s part to substantiate their commitment to rebuild trust, tread cautiously.

As mentioned earlier, rebuilding trust requires that both spouses take an active role.  But even if you do, you might feel like you keep hitting roadblocks that set you back.  When you are stuck and need a way to move forward, seek out couples counseling.  In counseling, you’re able to further discuss those areas of conflict in a way that creates change.  You’ll set goals together and consider how you’ll approach this new season of your marriage. 

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Are you still hurting from the betrayal you experienced due to your partner’s actions?  Are you in recovery for sex and love addiction and wondering how your spouse will ever trust you again?  Do you keep running into roadblocks to rebuilding trust that leave you hopeless for change?  At Restored Hope, I help individuals and couples to walk through rebuilding trust after it’s been broken.  Give me a call today at 734.656.8191 or email me to hear more about how I can help.