Trust in an intimate relationship is rooted in feeling safe with another person. Infidelity, lies, or broken promises can severely damage the trust between a husband and wife. That, however, does not necessarily mean that a marriage can’t be salvaged. Although rebuilding trust can be challenging when there is a significant breach, it is, in fact, possible if both partners are committed to the process.
Picking Up the Pieces
It takes much time and effort to re-establish the sense of safety you need for a marriage to thrive and continue to grow. Recovery from the trauma caused by a break in trust is where many couples who want to get back on track can get stuck.
Research has shown that couples must address the following five sticking points in order to effectively move past a breach of trust:
- Knowing the details
- Releasing the anger
- Showing commitment
- Rebuilding trust
- Rebuilding the relationship
Know the Details
Even in seemingly clear-cut cases of betrayal, there are always two sides. The offending partner should be upfront and honest with information, in addition to giving clear answers to any and all questions from their partner. This will give the betrayed party a broader understanding of the situation. What happened, when, and where? What feelings or problems may have contributed to this situation? What were the mitigating circumstances?
Release the Anger
Even minor breaches of trust can lead to mental, emotional, and physical health problems. Partners may have trouble sleeping or diminished appetite. They may become irritable over small things or be quick to trigger.
While it may be tempting to stuff all of the anger and emotions down, it is imperative that betrayed partners tune in and reflect on all the feelings that they have. Consider the impact of your partner’s betrayal on you and others. Reflect on how life has been disrupted and all the questions and doubts that are now emerging. Make your partner aware of all these feelings.
Even the offending partner is encouraged to express any feelings of resentment and anger they may have been harboring since before the incident.
Both parties, especially the betrayed, may be questioning their commitment to the relationship and wondering if the relationship is still right for them or even salvageable.
Acts of empathy—sharing pain, frustration, and anger; showing remorse and regret; and allowing space for the acknowledgement and validation of hurt feelings—can be healing to both parties.
Building off of this, defining what both sides require from the relationship can help give partners the understanding that proceeding the relationship comes with clear expectations that each person, in moving ahead, has agreed to fulfilling.
Both parties must work to define what is required to stay committed to making the relationship work. In communicating this, avoid using words that can trigger conflict (e.g., always, must, never, should) in describing what you see, expect, or want from your spouse. Instead, choose words that facilitate open conversation and use non-blaming “I” statements.
For example, favor “I need to feel like a priority in your life” over “You never put me first.”
Together, you must set specific goals and realistic timelines for getting your marriage back on track. Recognize that rebuilding trust takes time and requires the following:
- Decide to forgive or to be forgiven. Make a conscious decision to love by trying to let go of the past. While achieving this goal fully may take some time, committing to it is what’s key.
- Be open to self-growth and improvement. You can’t repair broken trust with just promises and statements of forgiveness. The underlying causes for the betrayal need to be identified, examined, and worked on by both spouses for the issues to stay dormant.
- Be aware of your innermost feelings and share your thoughts. Leaving one side to obsess about the situation or action that broke the trust is not going to solve anything. Instead, it is important to openly discuss the details and express all feelings of anger and hurt.
- Want it to work. There is no place in the process for lip service or more lies. Be honest about and true to your wishes.
Once the above points have been taken to heart by both sides, talk openly about your goals and check in regularly to make sure you are on track.
For the Offender
As the person who compromised the relationship, it may be hard or even painful to be reminded of your wrongdoings. Remember, though, that the above steps are essential to the process of repair and recovery. As you work on them:
If you are the one in your marriage who lied, cheated, or broke the trust, your partner needs you to show that the errant behavior is gone by changing your behavior. That means no more secrets, lies, infidelity, or anything else of the sort. Be completely transparent, open, and forthcoming from now on.
Be honest. Work to understand and state why the bad behavior occurred. Statements such as “I don’t know” don’t instill confidence or help you get to the root of the issue.
Take responsibility for your own actions and decisions; defensiveness will only perpetuate the conflict or crisis. Justifying your behavior based on what your spouse is doing or has done in the past is also not productive.
For the Betrayed
While moving forward hinges a lot on what your partner is able to show you, remember that work that you do also has a lot to do with your potential success. As you proceed, day by day:
Actively work on understanding why and what went awry in the relationship before the betrayal actually took place. While this won’t help you forget what happen, it may help you get some answers you need to move on.
As hard as it may be, once you have committed to forgiving your partner, work on providing positive responses and reinforcement to help give your partner consistent feedback to things that please you or make you happy.
Know that it’s also OK if you do not want to continue the relationship after considering the above steps or beginning them. Just be honest with yourself, and your partner and don’t go through the motions just because you feel that is what is expected of you as a devoted partner.
For the Couple
While there’s independent work to do, remember to:
- Listen completely to one another.
- Remind one another that you each deserve open and honest answers to your questions about the betrayal.
Rebuilding the Relationship
Once couples have committed to rebuilding trust, they must work on treating the relationship like it is a completely new one. Both sides must ask for what they really need and not expect their partner to simply know what it is they want.
Do not withhold trust in this new relationship, even though it is with the same person. Withholding trust out of fear or anger will prevent you from emotionally reconnecting with your partner. This keeps your relationship from moving forward in a healthy way.
Instead, work toward rebuilding the relationship by doing the work required in building trust and rebuilding a mutually supportive connection. Come to an agreement about what a healthy relationship looks like to you both. Some examples include establishing date nights, working on a five year, ten-year and even 20-year plan together, finding your love languages, and checking in with your partner about how you feel the relationship is doing or if it is living up to your expectations.
Remember that all relationships require work. Even the closest of couples have to work hard at renewing the spark while working to grow in the same direction together, year after year.
You can work on building a healthier, happier, and more honest relationship if you address the five issues listed above, and hold onto the bigger picture: that getting through this is only possible if you stay strong and commit to working on it together.
There are several forms of treatment for couples that are designed to re-establish trust, communication, and connection that can be especially helpful. Through continued work and therapy, you may even end up with a more solid marriage after going through such a crisis.
By Sheri Stritof, Medically reviewed by a board-certified physician