5 Ways to Rebuild Broken Trust

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.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #155

How to Rebuilt Trust

Now, these five steps aren’t a one-size-fits-all template, but they do speak to five essential components of rebuilding. The wrecking ball has already had its turn; now it’s time to set up the construction zone.

Step #1: Know this will take time.

Depending on the severity of the transgression and how hurt you felt by it, regaining trust takes time—months, a year, or even more.

Depending on the severity of the transgression and how hurt you felt by it, regaining trust takes time—months, a year, or even more.

If your partner guilts you with “you should be over this by now” statements, it’s a red flag that they don’t understand the impact of what happened or aren’t prioritizing your well-being.

That said, it’s equally important to refrain from dredging up the transgression to punish your partner whenever you’re less than happy.

The upshot: like grieving or other emotional healing, take all the time you need, but with a goal to get to the end. If you look at your partner’s transgression as your ace-in-the-hole, you’re not playing fairly.

Step #2: Look for a real apology.

If your partner has transgressed, he or she owes you an apology. A real apology starts with “I’m sorry I,” not I’m sorry you, such as “I’m sorry you’re mad,” nor I’m sorry but as in “I’m sorry but it was only that once.”

If you hear an apology that tries to justify or otherwise excuse what happened, blames you, or minimizes your feelings—“Come on, it’s not that bad!”—you didn’t get a real apology, you got the beach umbrella of apologies--shady and easily collapsible.

In short, a true apology takes responsibility, expresses true remorse, understands why you were hurt, and promises to make amends.

Step #3: Gather evidence of predictability and dependability.

A classic study from 1985 found that there are three dimensions of relationship trust: predictability, dependability, and faith.

We’ll talk more about faith in Step #5—not the religious kind, but the confidence-in-your-partner kind. But before we do that, we have to establish predictability and dependability. This is necessary to help the wronged partner regain a sense of control.

Evidence of predictability and dependability are established by going through situation after situation in which the partner could potentially be secretive and selfish, but instead chose to be open and kind.

Some of these examples should be directly related to the transgression, like coming home at the time they say they’ll be home, doing 30 AA meetings in 30 days, or going to couple therapist with you (and doing more than just stay awake during session).

No matter the specifics, it’s essential that expectations are communicated, not set up as secret tests of your partner. Talk about your expectations and decide on goals together. You may have some non-negotiables, like getting sober or breaking off an affair, but whether they’re negotiable or not, expectations and metrics of success need to be discussed.

Of course, the process of rebuilding trust will go faster and be more genuine if some evidence of trustworthiness is also initiated by the partner—she finally gets help for her depression, he takes a greater interest in the kids by coaching their Little League team, she decides to see her friends two nights a week instead of five.

When to stop? Essentially, accumulations of trustworthy behavior need to continue to the point where a subsequent mistake that breaches trust will be seen as the exception that proves the rule.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.