“How Can We Rebuild Our Trust?”

The treasure of trust—it’s in your hands. It is yours to develop and yours to destroy. It is yours to respect and yours to betray. Your usage of trust will determine the length and depth of your relationship. Your stewardship of trust will measure the health and happiness of your relationship.

Indeed, trust is a foundation rock upon which a healthy relationship can be built. Without trust the relationship house has no solid foundation and will most likely crumble and tumble when the winds of life howl with fury and the stress of life hurls its force. As a foundation for relationship success trust is a treasure to be sought and safeguarded. 

Because of its importance trust is a topic that merits our full attention as we strive to travel safely and successfully along the Relationship Highway. How is trust developed and maintained? What leads to the loss of trust? How is trust regained following offenses and betrayals? These questions are relevant to any two people who hope for a healthy relationship.


Refining Trust . . .

The term “trust” is probably interpreted in various ways by different individuals and couples. However, the core idea is “to believe in, have confidence in, to be able to rely upon.” The person who is trusted is deemed to possess “trustworthiness” and is perceived to be reliable, dependable, and faithful. The trustworthy person practices a lifestyle of truth-telling with congruent behavior. His truthfulness invites other people to trust in him.

The development of trust is an interesting and important issue. Some people seem to be quite willing and able to trust other people in an appropriate manner. In contrast, however, other people really struggle with the whole trust process. In their travels down the Trust Highway these strugglers encounter roadblocks and collisions because of two basic trust errors. Some of the travelers commit the error of “under-trusting” other people. They start off a new relationship with a minus-level of trust; they actively distrust a new person until actual trust is somehow cultivated. The extreme of this error is paranoia, an overly-suspicious state of mind that tends to block the development of any real trust. For the “under-trusting” people the development of trust is probably “too little too late.” The second problem is the error of “over-trusting” other people. These individuals often get hurt in relationships because they trust too quickly and thereby take unnecessary risks through excessive self-disclosure and inappropriate behavior. Their naïve, gullible approach invites abuse and manipulation from self-serving people. For the “over-trusting” people the development of trust is “too much too soon.” The use of wisdom in our relationship development will lead us to avoid both of these trust errors as much as possible. 

Without doubt our ability to trust people in adulthood is highly correlated to our experience and training during our childhood. Children tend to imitate and replicate the trust style they see in their parents and other significant adults. Furthermore, the betrayal of trust through childhood abuse or abandonment usually leads to trust problems in adulthood. The development of healthy trust may seem impossible for these wounded individuals, and the inability to trust will prevent depth and intimacy in any relationship attempted. These individuals usually need to consult a well-trained professional counselor to resolve these “trust roadblocks.”

A typical relationship begins with a neutral or low trust level. For the relationship to grow into a significant, healthy relationship the two people must work very hard to mature their trust in each other. I think of this maturing process as trust refinement. We have to refine our trust until it reaches a high level that is essential to healthy, long-term relationships. This refining of trust is a critically important area of relationship work. 

We are mistaken to believe that a high level of trust is achieved magically and automatically just because we begin a new relationship. Just as years are required to refine the skills necessary to excel at a musical instrument, a long period of time, probably years, is also required before sufficient mutual trust can be refined for relationship health. This refining process involves at least two vital components: truthful communication and trustworthy behavior.

Truthful communication . . .

First, because I want you to trust me at a moderate or high level I will communicate with you in a truthful manner. I will prove to you over time that what I tell you is true, that is, I have no desire to mislead, deceive, or manipulate you in any way. I will strive to be open and honest with you, especially in regard to what I expect of you in our relationship.  Due to the human element I might at times be inaccurate or make mistakes in relating specific information to you, but they will be honest mistakes with no ill intentions at all. The content of my communications with you will invite you to trust me.

Trustworthy behavior . . .

Secondly, I will behave toward you consistently in a trustworthy manner. That is, I will always try to build you up and never tear you down. My intention is to help you and not hurt you. Any harm caused will be unintentional and regrettable. You will not be abused, misused, or manipulated by me. My actions will demonstrate that I am a trustworthy person and they will invite you to trust me.
When truthful communication and trustworthy behavior are combined and practiced consistently, mutual trust is refined and becomes stronger and healthier. However, the practice of these components may be difficult at times, especially when we’ve messed up somehow and don’t want to face the consequences, or when we prefer not to confront the other person’s mess-up. Difficult or not, we will strive to be truthful and trustworthy at all times because we understand that both components are essential to relationship trust.  
Since trust is so vital to a healthy relationship, the two people would be wise to explore their trust patterns. I encourage folks to ask and discuss several key questions.
            “In what areas of our relationship do you trust me the most? The least?”
            “What are the things we’re currently doing that maintain or increase our mutual trust?”
           “What are the things we’re currently doing that undermine and decrease our mutual trust?”
           “What specific actions could help us strengthen our trust in each other?”
           “What negative actions on my part would destroy your trust in me?”
           “In the past what one thing did I do that damaged our trust the most?”
           “In the past what one thing did I do that strengthened our trust the most?”
           “Of all the things that could build trust what one action would you most like for me to do?”

Thankfully, many beneficial resources are available to us as we strive to refine trust.  We can increase our understanding of the process by reading helpful articles or books that deal with trust development. We could identify a couple who has a very good marriage and interview them about the tools they used in their trust refinement. Many couples decide to work with a Marriage and Family Therapist for a few sessions specifically for the purpose of exploring and improving their relationship trust.

Rejecting Trust . . . 
Tragically, many individuals choose to reject the trust that exists within their relationship. This rejection results from selfish desires to get something or to do something that inherently violates the “code of trust” in the marriage or relationship. To fulfill their self-serving desires they choose to be untruthful (that is, to lie) and untrustworthy (that is, to misbehave). The extent of rejection is usually assessed subjectively, based upon what a certain lie or misbehavior means to each partner. Most people think of some trust infractions as “minor” whereas other violations are definitely “major” offenses. Clearly, the major violations do the most damage in a short period of time, but minor mistakes accumulate over time and trust erosion results. Both types of “trustbusters” are serious threats to the health and well-being of any relationship and therefore need to be avoided by both partners.

During my tenure as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist I’ve witnessed countless tragedies involving relationship trust. At times the marital house was threatened by frequent “rainstorms” that slowly eroded the foundation of trust. At other times the house was devastated by an unexpected “EF5 tornado” that in a short period of time obliterated the trust, causing the house to collapse or disintegrate. Two of the most frequent major violations are sexual unfaithfulness and addictive behavior. Sexual misconduct in the form of affairs, sex abuse, or pornography is often a “deal-breaker” that leads to marital breakdowns and painful divorces. By definition an addiction is a pattern of obsessive, negative behavior that is inherently harmful to the addicted person and to the relationship as a whole. Sexual unfaithfulness and addictive patterns violate the “truthful and trustworthy” code of conduct agreed to by the two people when they got married. Other trust violations occur when confidentiality is betrayed, money is misused, or a person fails to fulfill important responsibilities. Although the size and nature of the storm may vary, the final result is clear: relationship trust is rejected.

When truth is betrayed, the trust in the relationship takes a hit. When truth is trampled, the trust is defiled and defeated. Trust cannot be refined or reclaimed as long as truth is being violated. The bottom line is clear:  “Truth betrayed is trust delayed!” Most people who choose to lie underestimate the damage done to trust by their untruthful behavior. Sometimes these individuals who lie are the very ones who expect their spouses to trust them without reservation! Their message seems to be “Trust me even though I lie to you.” Such a demand or expectation is unrealistic in nature and is unlikely to be fulfilled.

My ponderings about this issue of trust betrayal prompted the writing of a short poem which I entitled “Trust Betrayed!”

                   “Trust Betrayed!”
      Version #1:
          She married a man whom she trusted,
          With most of his faults she adjusted;
                But she found with surprise   
                He was skillful with lies
           And now she’s completely disgusted!

        Version #2:
           They agreed to be “Faithful and True”
           But the lies began to accrue;
               With the truth so decayed
               And the trust all betrayed
           Now divorce is the goal they pursue!
                                 --Dr. Bill Baker (2011)

Reclaiming Trust . . .

What do you do when the trust has been rejected? Does trust betrayal automatically mean the end of the relationship? Can the betrayal be forgiven? Is the relationship able to survive the offense? These questions are understandable following a major violation of trust. They all point to a critically important issue:  reclaiming trust after betrayal. The core question is simply this: “How can we rebuild our trust?”

The reclaiming or rebuilding of trust following an affair, an addiction, or any significant misbehavior is not a simple matter. However, some people apparently think that it is—or that it should be. For example, one husband* got “busted” by his wife in regard to his lengthy extra-marital affair. He ended his contact with the woman involved and then expected his wife to “forget it and move on” with him. He equated forgiveness with trust restoration, and he did not understand why his wife could not trust him completely as soon as she extended forgiveness. To make matters worse, this man refused to do the things that are common-sense in nature and are necessary to the rebuilding of trust. According to him, his part was to stop the affair; his wife’s part was to trust him again. As you would predict, this particular couple was heading down the Divorce Highway at a dangerously high speed!

In the assessment of the damage done by his affair the husband assumed that his spouse’s trust level was down to zero. He further assumed that moving upwards on the trust scale was no big deal since zero is only one step away from the +1 level. The error he made was the assumption that the wife’s current level of trust was actually zero. The truth was that she was in the minus area; in fact, she described her trust in him as a minus-9 on a “+10/-10” scale. In other words, she had a long way to go just to dig out of her hole of distrust to even reach the zero level! Obviously, the husband was unrealistic in his assessments and expectations. Unfortunately, his inadequate interpretation of the whole trust process is not uncommon in contemporary culture.

Let’s return to the question raised earlier:  “How can we rebuild our trust?” For this discussion let’s assume that trust has been rejected through some type of serious betrayal, for example, an extramarital affair or addictive behavior. Let’s further assume that both people in the relationship agree to the restoration of mutual trust and they are both willing to work hard to achieve that goal. In my work with couples who are struggling with trust issues, I like to use a simple five-step process that is practical and workable. The steps are built around an acrostic, the word T.R.U.S.T.
Five-step Process for Rebuilding Trust . . .

T = Truth!

The five-step process for rebuilding trust begins with Truth--the foundation for trust recovery. There is no substitution or shortcut. Without truth the reclaiming of trust will be an unachieved dream. Following a major betrayal the offender must be totally truthful if he hopes to grow in his credibility or trustworthiness. Every additional lie sabotages the rebuilding process and worsens an already bad situation. I’m reminded of a statement a fellow once made that he described as “Texas wisdom”:  “If you ever find yourself in a hole, stop digging!” In other words, if lying has created a major hole for you and you want out of the hole, then stop the lies. Don’t make your hole deeper through additional dishonesty and deceit.

An attempt to reclaim trust while continuing to lie is like reconstructing the relationship house on the sands of dishonesty and deceit. This “house of cards” has no foundation and will certainly collapse under the next crisis. In contrast, the house reconstructed on the rock of truth has a solid foundation and, therefore, will be more likely to survive the present crisis as well as future problems along the Relationship Highway. Anunwillingness to commit to a lifestyle of truthfulness usually means that the offender will never reclaim his partner’s trust. The offender has to learn that respecting truth is essential to restoring trust. He will learn to hate lying and to love truth-telling. When truth is respected and adored, progress is made. Truth adored is trust restored!
R = Realization!

The second step in the rebuilding process is Realization—the awareness of the mistake made and the harm that resulted. This step involves admission and acknowledgment as the offender takes full responsibility for the action and its consequences. The offender determines to stop the betrayal behavior and to do better in the future. He apologizes specifically and sincerely for his actions. His message is clear: “I did it. I have no excuse. I’m sincerely sorry. I have stopped the hurtful behavior. I know that I’ve hurt you deeply. I will do my best to overcome this problem and to earn your trust again.” The extent to which specific information is provided can be a tough issue. For example, telling one’s spouse about the intimate details of an affair can create mental images that will hinder the healing process over the years to come. In such situations the offending spouse tells too much and the other spouse is unable to manage the mental videos and pictures that were generated. A good guideline to follow is that enough information needs to be shared to demonstrate openness and honesty but not so much that additional and unnecessary damage will be done.
U = Understanding!

The realization step is followed closely by the third step which is Understanding—the insight into why the betrayal occurred. It is important to wrestle with several relevant questions. “Why did I choose to reject our trust by engaging in this activity?” “What was my motive, my goal?” “How did I become so vulnerable to this threat?” “Why didn’t I resist the temptation?” Hopefully, this wrestling effort will generate helpful information that will be useful in the next rebuilding step. The answers to “Why?” are important also to the other spouse who is struggling with issues of forgiveness, trust, and survival. The offended spouse will usually ask, “If you can’t figure out why you did what you did, how can I trust you that you will not repeat the same behavior in the future?” The concern is certainly legitimate and relevant in view of future possibilities. Anyone would question an offender’s sincerity and commitment if he refuses to explore and try to understand the cause of his misbehavior.  

S= Strategy!

The insights gained in the prior step are critically important to the fourth step, Strategy—the development and usage of an effective plan of action. The offender has the primary responsibility for developing a strategy to insure that the misbehavior does not occur again and, furthermore, that positive growth will take place within himself as an individual and within the relationship as a whole. Basically, this plan is a “Relapse Prevention Plan” and, as such, needs to be thought out carefully and constructed wisely to maximize the potential for healing and growth.
The offender’s “Relapse Prevention Plan” needs to include several key components each of which contains solutions and structures for recovery. The plan begins with a specific goal statement:  “Through this plan I will achieve the following goal (and the goal is specified).” A second component is a listing of things to be avoided in terms of specific people, places, or activities. The third component is a compilation of things to be done, that is, positive actions that will be done designed to promote positive change. The fourth component is a statement that shows acceptance of the plan and a commitment to working the plan with consistency and diligence.  The final component is the signing of the plan with the current date. Once completed and signed, the written plan needs to be shared openly and honestly with the offended partner. Furthermore, the development of the plan needs to be initiated by the offender and not by the other spouse. A Relapse Prevention Plan loses much of its positive effect if the other spouse has to beg or threaten the offender into putting it together. If the betrayed spouse is working harder at the offender’s recovery program than the offender is, something is very wrong with the picture! The Strategy step is completed as the finalized plan is implemented by the offending partner. 
T = Tracking!

The fifth step in the rebuilding process is Tracking—the monitoring of the action plan. The daily implementation of the Relapse Prevention Plan is the force that generates more trust. The offender needs to track his effort and progress carefully to be sure that he is “working the program.” The other spouse needs to track the process so that the evidence for trust restoration will be seen and acknowledged. Hypothetically, an offender might do a great job at working a program but see minimal trust development simply because the other person has not seen the evidence. Therefore, openness and self-disclosure are vital to this tracking step of the total process. The offender would do well to request that specific “checkpoints” be placed on the couple’s calendar at which time the progress will be reviewed and assessed together. It goes without saying that the offender should be monitoring his own effort on a daily basis. 
In summary, every person who has betrayed relationship trust needs a process for reclaiming the lost trust. The five-step process illustrated by the acrostic one approach that couples can use for trust restoration.

Following a major betrayal one important issue needs to be considered by both relationship partners in relation to forgiveness and trust. Many people seem to expect an offended spouse to restore trust at the moment forgiveness has been extended. Such a person might say, “Okay, I’ve apologized to you and I’ve promised not to do this thing again. You said you forgave me. So you should trust me again.” Forgiveness is a critical part of the healing process, but the act of forgiving an offender is very different from the ability to trust the person again. A husband might say to the offender wife, “I have forgiven you for what you did, but that does not mean that I can automatically trust you again. The restoration of trust will take a long time with a lot of hard work. I’ll do my best to try to trust you as I see evidence that you are becoming more and more trustworthy.” Clearly, the full reclaiming of trust takes time, much more time than most people anticipate.

Another issue relates to the erection of “protective walls” by the offended partner. It is very understandable that a spouse will put up thick walls to protect the heart from further injury. It is hoped that these walls will slowly be lowered as the offender’s behavior generates additional trustworthiness. The offended spouse may have to take some risks and work hard to lower the walls in order for trust to grow. The process requires patience as the walls come down “brick by brick.” As long as the walls remain up, the restoration of trust is unlikely. The challenge for the offended partner is to remain cautious and protective while at the same time to actively look for evidence of change and growth and to be willing to trust again. If the offended partner is determined “never to trust again,” the rebuilding process is likely to become stuck and stagnant with little or no progress being accomplished.

The reclaiming of trust following betrayal is a process in which both relationship partners must participate. The offender has the bulk of the work to do, including the development and usage of an effective Relapse Prevention Plan. The offended partner has to wrestle with issues of a choice to forgive and a willingness to trust. If both people do their work effectively, the trust can usually be reclaimed sufficiently to allow the relationship to survive.

Concluding thoughts . . .

Travels along the Trust Highway can become difficult and depressing at times, particularly when the trust is betrayed and rejected. The good news is that lost trust can usually be reclaimed through extended efforts to rebuild trustworthiness. Travels on physical highways are safer and better when we can trust that other drivers will respect and follow the rules of the road. Likewise, our travels along the Relationship Highway are safer and better when both partners respect and follow the “rules of the road” regarding trust development and maintenance.

The presence of strong mutual trust is indeed a treasure to be valued highly and safeguarded wisely. This treasure of trust is in your hands to do with it what you will. The choices you make will determine whether or not your relationship survives the journey. One truth is clear: traveling with truth and trust is obviously much better than traveling with lies and betrayals.

I wish you the very best in your efforts to refine the trust within your relationships and, if necessary, to reclaim any trust that may be lost through the mistakes you make.

As always, I wish you well in all of your relationship journeys.
*The couple described in this example is not a specific couple with whom I’ve worked. The husband and wife is a composite couple who represents and illustrates a typical betrayal pattern.

Resource:  To view Dr. Baker's worksheets on "Trust Development" that you can print and use for your personal use, please click on the title below. (The material is in PDF format.)
"Trust Development In Relationships" 


“Rebuilding Trust after Betrayals"

Rebuilding trust in any human relationship following a major betrayal is usually extremely difficult. In this television interview Dr. Bill Baker discusses how trust can be rejected and then provides a five-step roadmap for reclaiming trust. He also shares four specific actions that the offended partner can take to promote the trust-rebuilding process.

To view this video please click on the image to the right, or just  click here





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                        (Blog #109)


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