Trust is easy to break, hard to rebuild. By request from listener Kate, this week Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 5 steps to put the pieces together again.
Trust is so frequently lost and broken that you’d think some insurance company would have made billions off it by now. But trust can’t be guaranteed. And once it’s gone, especially in a relationship, it takes lots of time and effort to rebuild.
Listener Kate wrote in and asked how to rebuild trust in a relationship, but specified that broken trust goes beyond cheating. She’s right: there are many ways partners betray our trust besides an affair. It may be relapsing on drugs or alcohol after a promise to stay sober. It may be letting us down at a time when we were seriously ill, grieving, postpartum, or otherwise vulnerable. It may be lying about where they’re going or who they’re with. Or it may be hurting us when they were supposed to protect us.
No matter the specifics, betrayals of trust shift your world. As your relationship has grown, the two of you have gotten good at predicting each other’s behavior, you’ve made mutual plans and goals—like saving for the future or starting a family—that depend on each other. And of course, you simply like each other. But a breach of trust can disrupt all those things.
After a transgression, you start to wonder if you’re crazy or if you can trust your own senses and experience. It gets to the point where you can’t even trust chocolate chip cookies because they might turn out to be raisin.
If it’s been a long time since you felt able to trust, here’s a reminder of what it feels like: According to trust researchers, trust is comfort in your partner’s presence, while distrust is unease, anxiety, and discontent. Trust means that depending on your partner gets you more, while distrust means that depending on your partner makes you lose out. Trust means not having to protect yourself around your partner, while distrust means feeling secretive, suspicious, protective, and even making efforts to avoid your partner. Overall, trust is the willingness to be vulnerable because you know you’ll be cared for, while distrust is an unwillingness to be vulnerable because you’re afraid you’ll get hurt.
Is Your Relationship Worth Rebuilding?
Only you can decide if your relationship is worth rebuilding. To do that, take an honest look at your reasons for wanting to trust again. Ask yourself: what do you get out of the relationship?
If your answer is extrinsic factors—that is, benefits like money, social connections, status, or access to things you might not otherwise have--this might not work. Why? Trust needs to come from the essential nature of the relationship, not from transactional benefits. Now, it’s important to note that many partners really are financially dependent. But ideally, financial security should be a bonus, not the central reason for wanting to rebuild trust.
On the other hand, if what you get out of the relationship is intrinsic—that is, the satisfaction of being a team, making each other laugh, mutual respect, or being each other’s biggest fans—you have a shot.
In other words, what you fundamentally get out of the relationship should be something intangible rather than something transactional. If you can truly say that, and you want to rebuild trust, you’re on your way.