How to Rebuild Trust in a Relationship, According to a Marriage Counselor

couple having a serious conversation

When you’ve been burned by someone you love, it’s hard to know where to begin. You’re torn between tending to your own wounds, surveying the full scope of the damage and rebuilding your relationship when the foundation looks like...rubble. Plus, no matter the size or specifics of the scandal, you weren’t the only one taken down by it—that person you love lost a lot of credibility and you might both be wishing you could go back to a time when your trust was intact.

Cheating, lying, financial infidelity—whatever the circumstances, there’s no denying that it sucks. And suddenly you’re left wondering what, if anything, can be salvaged.

The good news is that it is possible to rebuild trust in a relationship and if you can pull it off, there’s a sizable reward for your resilience on the other end. So how might it work for you? Is it wise? When it comes to negotiating the nuances of broken trust, you’re going to want some impartial, professional advice. (Thanks but no thanks, Aunt Sadie.) We checked in with two esteemed experts, Lauren Cook, marriage counselor and author of Name Your Story: How to Talk Openly About Mental Health and family therapist Dr. Kathryn Smerling, Ph.D. Here, their top tips for assessing the wreckage, rebuilding trust and knowing when it’s time to call it quits.

1. Take some space

We asked Dr. Smerling what, if any, prep work must be done before you can get into the business of bringing back trust, and she summed it up succinctly: “You need to take time and lick your wounds…you have to definitely take time and do a bit of self-care before you go [to] work on the relationship.”

The caveat? “Not too much time.” In short, the amount of time will vary from couple to couple, and based on the severity of the offense, but anywhere from a day to a couple weeks feels reasonable to most people.

And keep in mind, if you’re finding it hard to follow this advice while living with the guy who just slept with his ex girlfriend, it’s OK to ask for physical space. “Each partner needs a place to process” Cook explains. So go ahead and move in with your best friend for a few days, or ask your spouse to stay with his brother. You can also remind him that the space you’re asking for—be it physical, emotional, or both—is not intended to be permanent or punitive. Remember (and remind) that this is a means to an end, a prerequisite for answering the question on both of your minds: Is there a future together?

Both parties can and should use this time productively. For instance, you might encourage your partner to focus on self-reflection and accountability (but you’re asking for space, so definitely don’t micromanage). As for your own time, think of it as an opportunity to grieve and go forward. It might look something like this...

2. Feel all the feelings

Betrayal can inspire a host of not-so-fun emotions—hurt, humiliation, sadness, anger, ambivalence—and that kind of fragility could make anyone want to start fumbling around for a quick fix. Sadly, you can’t just slap a Band-Aid on things and call it a day. The reality is that trust is the foundation of a relationship, and the loss of it must be meaningfully mourned.

Cook maintains that it’s beneficial for the aggrieved party to “experience the anger” and “let the emotions breathe.” (Breathing fire is normal, right?) She recommends activities like journaling and talking with friends. You also have our permission to put your earbuds in and ugly cry to Courtney Love (Someday you will ache like I ache!), do a session of rage yoga, or cry your heart out into a bucket of jelly beans. (Just us?) Just remember, this is step 1, so don’t approach that abyss of angst with complete abandon.

3. Evaluate the situation

The dust has settled, you let yourself grieve, but you’re still reeling from your partner’s crummy act. Now’s the time to press pause on that playlist and put yourself in problem-solving mode.

First and foremost, aim to be fair and thorough. Try to place the rough patch in context and examine the relationship as a whole, remembering that a single transgression can shatter trust but it doesn’t have to redefine everything.

For instance, does the abuse of trust fit a larger pattern of mistreatment? (Has your spouse cheated in the past, did you catch your boyfriend using a substance he told you he’d never touch?) Or is this a first-time offense or something really out of character? (A mistaken kiss at an office Christmas party, a white lie she stupidly told because she thought it would make you less angry?)

If you’ve taken time to process your shock and the breach still feels less like a slip-up and more like the straw that broke the camel’s back, this is an indication that there might be something else going on. Or, as Dr. Smerling puts it, “a symptom of something not going right.”

Here are some instances where rebuilding trust is particularly difficult:

- Whenever there is physical, verbal, sexual, financial and/or emotional abuse. “These are red flags to pay attention to,” cautions Cook. Note that abuse can be quite subtle and you are the best judge of what you have experienced in your relationship. It might sound trite, but go with your gut here.

- When you suspect you no longer share the same values. For example, maybe your husband’s infidelity opens to the door to the fact that monogamy isn’t actually all that important to him. Is that something your marriage can come back from? “When a person loses trust in their spouse, they should reassess their values and if these values are being met in the relationship. If those values are not being met, and haven’t been met for quite some time, it may be worth reconsidering the status of the partnership,” says Cook.

- When you’re stuck in the Groundhog Day scenario: “If you keep getting caught in repeating the same dynamic, then it’s either time to get professional help or time to move on,” says Dr. Smerling. “If you keep getting deadlocked, and no changes are going into effect, you really need to reevaluate.”

4. Make a decision

Everyone makes mistakes and no single screw-up spells doom for a union. In fact, the broken trust can be a teachable moment for both you and your other half, “an opportunity to create a new relationship,” says Dr. Smerling. So, if you are able to overcome obstacles within your partnership, you might even see your bond significantly strengthened and intimacy improved in the end.

Once you’ve gone through the evaluation stage (which can also happen with the help of a therapist or friend), it’s time to make the call: Will you stay or will you go? If you do decide to make it work, your next step involves coming together for open communication.

Step 4: The Trust Talk

This step is no small undertaking and will likely set in motion a long-term project that requires patience, a confident commitment to your significant other and a solid framework for forgiveness. First things first: Set a time and place that feels good for both parties. For instance, if you’ve been living apart for a couple days, a neutral ground at a time when you won’t have any distractions is best.

Next, per Cook, “approach the conversation from a place of love, not anger” and make sure that the dialogue is constructive on both sides. In other words, check your defensiveness at the door and aim for open-mindedness. You came to the table to rebuild, not rebuke, so do your best to use “I feel” statements rather than “you are” statements.

Dr. Smerling also emphasizes the importance of sincerity in a trust talk: “Have the intention to make it work,” she says, as opposed to pretending you’re open to reconciliation when, in your heart, you’re still holding onto so much anger. You’re not going to forget, but if you genuinely want to rebuild trust, you need to be in a place where you can focus on forgiveness.

It’s also useful to give some thought to your specific talking (and listening) points in order to stay on message. Here are some things you might want to cover during your sit-down:

  • Ask questions: Why did your partner transgress? How can you address the underlying issues and help improve the relationship?
  • Give your partner a chance to air grievances, even if you disagree or feel his or her complaints pale in comparison to yours.
  • Share your concerns and make (reasonable) recommendations as to how your partner can address them.
  • You might need to suggest some new rules to help you feel more secure going forward. This isn’t about laying down the law, rather about the areas where transparency is most important to you (phone use, spending, ETAs and check-ins). But make sure your partner is on board, since, per Dr. Smerling: “nobody likes to be controlled.”

Use the trust talk as an opportunity to iron out your expectations, and be receptive to your spouse’s feedback and respectful of their veto power.

5. Moving Forward

The trust talk can feel like a huge emotional hurdle, and now that it’s in your rearview, you should give yourself a chance to celebrate however you see fit. Release a dramatic sigh of relief, pour yourself a Tony Soprano-style glass of wine, have makeup sex—or don’t, and just get snuggly with your favorite flannel pj's.

Both our experts agree: If you and your partner were able to see eye to eye on the offense, the desired outcome and the parameters for making it work, there’s a good chance you can bounce back as a couple.

That said, you still aren’t totally out of the woods, and you should both be prepared for some residual hurt. The solution? Be patient and take it in stride. That doesn’t mean you get a free pass to punish—communicate in a calm and respectful way when those feelings crop up so you can work through them together.

Recovering from a breach of trust is a gradual process and there will be ups and downs, but remember that it doesn’t need to be all-consuming. After all, the last thing either of you wants is for your “new” relationship to feel like the longest team-building retreat of your life, or an interminable therapy session. (All work, no play…)

Bottom line: You made it this far, so you’ve definitely earned a huge vote of confidence. And, we think, a vacation for two. (Just do it!)

What Is Emotional Cheating?

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Emma Singer

Freelance PureWow Editor

Emma Singer is a freelance contributing editor and writer at PureWow who has over 7 years of professional proofreading, copyediting and writing experience. At PureWow, she covers...
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