Restoring Trust in a Relationship
John R. Ballew, M.S., L.P.C.
If human beings were always flawlessly reliable, coupling would be easy. Too bad relationships so often seem to bring out the worst in us. Someone who is with us over the years is likely to see us at our worst as well as our best. We screw up – sometimes badly. And some of us enter into a relationship with a personal history that makes it difficult to accept anyone else as truly trustworthy.
We secretly believe that it’s only a matter of time until we will be betrayed. Giving your heart to someone requires trust. We need to know we can count on the other person to be there for us in a way that is stable, predictable and reflects loyalty to us. If the relationship feels like a passing fancy, we won’t be able do the hard work required to maintain real intimacy. The relationship withers because we constantly keep up our guard.
How do we sort out the inevitable disappointments of life from the devastating things that really wreck our trust?
Trust develops over time as we learn to experience the other person as, well, trustworthy. Part of the work of dating is having the opportunity to see if the way your partner acts is consistent with the way he talks. Does he tell the truth, even when it’s inconvenient, or does he hold back? It’s emotionally healthy to expect others to be worthy of your trust. It’s also healthy to let this trust deepen slowly over time, helping us really believe we can trust this person with our heart.
Trust is damaged when one partner behaves in a way that leads the other to the conclusion he isn’t loyal and can’t be counted on. Deceit or abuse may permanently scar a relationship unless two things happen: the person who has committed the betrayal can demonstrate that he recognizes his error and wants to restore trust, and the person who has been betrayed must be capable of forgiving. Really restoring trust isn’t easy. It can take months, even years, if the betrayal has been sufficiently severe.
If we grew up in chaotic families, our ability to trust others may be severely compromised. It is a devastating thing to be let down by your parents. We’re not talking about little disappointments. Think instead of the kid who grew up with alcoholic parents who couldn’t shelter their sons or daughters from danger, or parents who were actively abusive, or who repeatedly violated the boundaries of their adult commitments by having affairs. Kids who grow up in those environments are likely to find it difficult to trust others when they grow up. They expect to be betrayed. In relationships, this often helps create exactly what we most fear will happen.
How to build or restore trust?
Create trust by choosing honesty, moment by moment, rather than lying to protect yourself or your partner’s feelings. Only by behaving in an honest manner can real trust be re-established in a relationship. At the same time, realize that confession may be good for the soul, but its death for most relationships. Don’t unburden yourself by passing the baggage on to your lover. If you need to confess, see a priest.
Talk things through, and the sooner the better. Talk about what happened that created the violation of trust. Talking about motivations may be helpful. If you’re the person who screwed up, letting yourself be truly open and vulnerable is important. Trying to cover up means you’re wasting your time. Openness creates greater intimacy in healthy relationships. If that’s not happening for you, see a therapist.
Practice forgiveness. That’s easier said than done, but forgiveness is critical in relationships that endure. Give yourself time; rushing the process may be just a form of denial. See a mental health professional or spiritual advisor if you need help letting go.