You’ve probably heard it time and time again, but the old adage actually rings true: Trust is the foundation of a relationship.
“If you don’t have trust, you don’t have anything. There’s nothing to build on. It’s just sand that washes away,” says psychologist Dr Les Parrott.
So when trust is broken in a relationship, that’s definitely not an easy pill to swallow. In fact, it’ll probably make you question whether your relationship will actually survive. “If there isn’t trust in a relationship, I guess you have to question, is there a relationship?” says relationship therapist Deb Laino.
There are tonnes of ways a partner can break trust, but each falls under being either an implicit or an explicit cause, says Laino. “Under explicit would be the big ones, like affairs,” she says. “And affairs can take so many different directions these days because of technology.”
“If you don’t have trust, you don’t have anything. There’s nothing to build on.”
Then there are implicit ways to break trust, which are more subtle. “That can come up with telling a little white lie or always being late,” she says. Other common factors that can break a partner’s trust include talking behind their back about things you don’t want them to know, or breaking their trust financially by not being transparent about your spending habits or debts, says Parrott.
“Ultimately, trust is broken when your actions aren’t consistent with your words,” says couples counselor Samantha Burns.
But the important thing to remember is that even if you or your partner has broken the trust in your relationship, that doesn’t necessarily mean that trust can’t be rebuilt and that the relationship can’t be saved. In fact, for a lot of couples who take the right action after breaking trust, their relationships actually improve after the fall. “Those couples that can flog through that can come back stronger than they ever were before,” Parrott says.
So if you’ve experienced a break in trust in your relationship, follow these steps to try to rebuild it - and maybe even make your relationship better than before the misstep.
Step 1: Put everything out in the open
The very first thing you need to do is put all the information surrounding the broken trust out there on the table. “The only way to overcome a breakdown in trust is to just be completely honest and put it out there, whatever the issue is, so you both know what you’re dealing with,” says Parrott.
A lot of people who’ve betrayed their partners might be tempted to hold back some of the details, but Parrott says this will only do further damage. “That will eventually come back to bite you,” he says.
During this step, both partners need to commit to talking through the problem in order to start working toward rebuilding that trust. “It’s going to be a process of communication and a discussion of how certain behaviors make the other person feel,” says Laino. “If there’s an issue with trust, it’s not one person’s issue. It becomes a relationship issue. So both of them now have to be invested into it.”
Step 2: Whoever broke the trust must apologize
And do so genuinely. “The one who was untrustworthy must obviously have sincere remorse,” says psychologist Dr Paul Coleman.
The apology needs to include accountability and ownership over the actions that broke the trust. “Accountability and apologies only have the power to help repair trust if they are truthful, so being conscious of sincerity is essential, even if it requires admitting things that might be hurtful,” says psychologist Dr Joseph Cilona. “Although feigning accountability and remorse might be effective in the short-term, if there are truths being hidden that relate to the damage to trust, it’s not likely to last.”
Approach the apology with an openness to having your partner ask any questions they have about the situation. “So the person on the other side of the table is free to get the information they need to know, and you need to shoot straight with them,” says Parrott.
If you’re the one whose trust has been betrayed, however, remember that your partner may not have all the answers. “Try to understand why it happened but keep in mind all answers may not be knowable,” says Coleman.
Step 3: Make sure your partner feels understood
Apologies, accountability, and a commitment to rebuilding trust are the first stepping stones toward arguably the toughest part of rebuilding trust: both partners needing to understand the feelings of the other partner. “It’ll be tempting to defend,” says Parrott. “Rather than being defensive, they need to set all that defensiveness aside and truly work at understanding the other person’s perspective. And that comes down to empathy.”
Depending on the gravity of the situation, this could be a conversation that happens over the dinner table, or one that takes place over the course of a few weeks - or even months - in the therapist’s office. But the key is making sure both sides leave the conversation with an understanding of where the other person is coming from and, in the case of the person who’s been betrayed, why the person did what they did.
“There are often many elements to feeling betrayed, and your partner may not feel and think the same way you would in a given situation,” says Cilona. “Engaging in this kind of dialogue not only provides an initial roadmap of what specifically needs to be addressed to begin to try to rebuild trust, but it can also provide important validation of the hurt and damage the violation of trust caused.”
For those whose trust has been betrayed, it’s important to realize that you need to empathize with your partner as well. “People who’ve broken trust are almost always operating out of some kind of pain, some kind of brokenness,” says Parrott. “It’ll help you if you try to understand where they’re coming from and look at them as a broken person, not as somebody who’s trying to harm you.” Although that will be incredibly difficult to do in the moment, it’s necessary for allowing those building blocks of trust to start being re-stacked.
Step 4: Change the behaviours that led to the break in trust
These will be different depending on the situation in which trust was broken. If you broke trust due to not showing up when you said you would, for example, it could mean setting alarms for half and hour before you need to be somewhere, says Laino. Or, if you had an affair, this might mean leaving your phone on the table while at home or giving your partner access to your social media, she adds.
It could also mean restricting activities you would normally do if they initiate feelings of betrayal in your partner, or not going on trips away from home, adds Coleman. “This is important because when trust is seriously betrayed, the hurt person needs evidence of honesty in order to feel more reassured,” he says.
However, the partner who’s been betrayed will have to ease up on excessive scrutiny over time, says Coleman. “Trust involves ‘not knowing for sure’ and being able to give the benefit of the doubt,” he says. “So the hurt person has to learn to tolerate the anxiety of ‘not knowing for sure’ without constantly seeking reassurance or demanding proof.”
Rebuilding trust simply takes time. In fact, you can only rebuild trust when the positive actions of your partner become consistencies. “It’s not until your actions support your claims that you begin to shift the dynamic and rebuild trust,” says Burns. “This doesn’t happen when you do something once, but rather through repeated, consistent behavior over time.”
Step 5: Explore other areas of the relationship for weakness
In order for a relationship to truly work in the long-run, the entire relationship needs to be evaluated - not just the situation that caused a break in trust. “A relationship can only be as healthy as the two people in the relationship,” says Parrott.
Coleman says to consider the following: Do you have regular quality time together? Does anything feel unfair in the relationship and needs to be corrected? Do you tend to argue over the same problems? “This is important because if you can see evidence that the relationship as a whole is getting stronger, you will have more faith in the other to be reliable, honest, and faithful,” he says. “When a relationship is not working as well overall, trust in it is reduced.”
What happens if these steps don’t work?
The harsh truth is this: not all trust can be repaired. “In some cases, trust is completely destroyed and can never be rebuilt,” says Cilona. “Sometimes the time required to repair damaged trust is too much for some people to sustain.”
Although the time it will take to rebuild trust varies based on the situation and the personalities involved, it could take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years for a couple to regain trust, says Laino. However, if you’ve been working at it for several years and there’s been no progress toward trust, it may be time to move on-especially if the same betrayal of trust is committed again.
There’s also no shame in getting outside help for your relationship from someone like a relationship therapist or coach, says Laino. In fact, it can only benefit you as a couple. “Oftentimes people need a guide as how to move forward,” she says. “Trust issues can be resolved. It just takes a little bit of work.”