What's the best way to rebuild trust in your relationship?
Here's the easy answer: try not to lose it in the first place.
You can do this in all sorts of ways. There's staying in the mindset of radical generosity, revealing your full experience, and getting clear on your values as a couple. All of these 80/80 strategies will help you get more connected and, as a result, strengthen the fabric of trust.
But what do you do when there is a significant loss of trust in your relationship? In our conversations with couples and in the DMs we receive on Instagram, we're often asked this question.
These questions mostly involve intimacy. There’s the classic story of one partner having an affair, either emotional or physical. Or there are the stories of subtler breeches of trust: one partner flirting with someone at a party or surreptitiously reaching out to an ex.
And yet not all trust is sexual. You might lose trust in your partner when they forget to follow through on important logistics, things like picking up your kid at school, paying the credit card bill, or following through on other life commitments.
Trust issues also often arise around money. We’ve heard stories of people using secret credit cards and accounts to hide expensive purchases from their partner. Or, in some cases, people hide their assets or their debt from each other.
When these secrets are exposed, and, at some point, they usually are, the fragile structure of trust quickly falls apart.
When this happens, how can you rebuild trust in your relationship?
Healing begins by acknowledging and confronting what marriage author Sue Johnson calls the “attachment injury." This is the injury to the relationship that has disrupted the structure of trust.
This first step is Partner A's (the injured partner's) opportunity to reveal their full experience of feeling betrayed, abandoned, or disappointed. It's their chance to express things like, "Here's how I felt," "Here's what I thought," "Here's what I did," and "Here's why I never want this to happen again."
In many cases, these conversations can be so difficult and intense that it's essential to bring in the support of a third party, a marriage therapist, a counselor, or a relationship coach.
Once Partner A reveals their experience, it's Partner B's turn to stay present with the pain they have caused and fully acknowledge their part in creating this rupture in trust.
This will often include an apology and an expression of remorse. It’s also a moment when Partner B has the opportunity to mirror back Partner A's experience. “I really hear that you feel disappointed and afraid,” Partner B might say.
The goal here isn't to rationalize what happened, and it certainly isn't to get defensive about it. Instead, Partner B's goal is simply to acknowledge the pain they caused and make sure Partner A feels seen and heard.
How can Partner B make it right? This is the next step in the conversation. It's an opportunity for Partner A to take a step back and reflect on the following question: "What would help me begin to forgive my partner and build more trust in them?"
The answer to this question could involve tangible actions like going to couples therapy or carving out a night each week to connect. Or the answer could involve asking for an emotional shift toward greater candor, vulnerability, or revealing.
These conversations, especially when facilitated by a skilled third-party, can create a powerful shift toward rebuilding trust. But the reality is that trust takes time, often a lot of time, to rebuild.
Marriage scientist John Gottman uses the analogy of a bank account to illustrate this point. Think of each positive interaction, commitment kept, or truth spoken as a small micro-deposit to the relational bank account of trust, a penny here, a dime there, or a few cents here.
Moments of betrayal, on the other hand, work more like massive withdraws from the account. Sometimes, so much trust is lost that it's like bringing the account balance to $0.
So it makes sense that, in order to build trust, Partner B must often spent years making these small micro-deposits to build back the balance of trust.
We realize that all of this may sound somewhat depressing. But for some couples, these are the difficult but essential steps for rebuilding trust.
For other couples, who aren't dealing with a significant loss of trust, it's worth remembering that the best way to avoid having to build back trust is to focus on staying connected and in synch.