How to rebuild trust in a relationship

How to rebuild trust in a relationship

By Rachael DeKoning LCMFT, LAC

The large majority of couples I see in my office have trust issues of some sort stemming from the actions or in-actions of one or both partners. They are largely coming to see me to learn how to rebuild trust in a relationship. Susan Johnson, the creator of Emotion Focused Therapy has a word for this and she calls it an attachment injury. An attachment injury is anything you do that violates your partner’s spoken or unspoken expectations of comfort or caring in a critical time of need. This often results in feelings of abandonment, insecurity, and chronic mistrust if not handled properly. Some common examples include, but are not limited to; infidelity, discovery of hidden addictive or problem behaviors, and significant emotional neglect in the context of a partners personal distress. There is an abundance of material available for specific couple trust issues like infidelity, but not nearly as much available for general breaches of trust. I am hoping this culmination of research based information can reach a wider variety of couples and teach the “offending spouse” how to repair the damage of an attachment injury. The main points are as follows:

  • Successful repair partners disclose all necessary information to their spouse. This means complete transparency rather than waiting to be “discovered”. Come clean with any and all secret behavior as well as patiently answering any of your partners questions to the best of your ability in a calm, non-defensive manner. Any lies at this point, even if unrelated, are detrimental to the marriage.
  • If there is no information to be discovered or all pertinent information has been discovered, successful repair partners show immediate shame and remorse for how they negatively affected their partners rather than defending their position.
  • Successful repair partners seek help and make all attempts to change the undesired behavior. This may mean attending a treatment program, seeking individual or couples therapy, reading books, or attending support groups.
  • Successful repair partners accept full responsibility for their actions. No breach in trust should be rationalized, excused, or blamed on another. Although any breach in trust exists in a context of factors, it is not your role to point those out and certainly not at this time. Couples counseling is a good opportunity to explore any contextual factors in a safe environment.
  • Successful repair partners are patient with their partner’s hurt emotions and the time they need to heal. It’s hard to say how long it takes for partners to recover from attachment injuries, but one thing I am sure of is that rushing a partner to feel better will prolong recovery time.
  • Successful repair partners know that reality is subjective and even if they do not agree with the level of mistrust a partner may have, they know that their partner has still been emotionally injured in their mind. Successful repair partners need to seek to understand and acknowledge their partner’s hurt with curiosity and validation.
  • Successful repair partners show sincere empathy and offer heartfelt apologies. Some examples of sincere validation and apologies include:
    • I feel terrible for how badly I’ve hurt you
    • That must feel awful
    • You have every right to feel that way
    • I will do whatever it takes to make it up to you
    • I was so wrong
    • You didn’t deserve that
    • I am so sorry for what I did to you

NOT: I am sorry if I hurt you/ I am sorry for whatever I did

  • Successful repair partners are willing to do whatever it takes to reassure partners. Reassurance can take all different forms, but often times, it is something to remind partners that you care about them deeply and are not partaking in trust-breaking behavior any longer.
  • Successful repair partners respect the sensitivity and triggers of the hurt spouse. This means getting rid of/avoiding any triggers that your partner deems necessary and providing reassurance when a partner is triggered. For example, I saw a couple where the husband used to take his affair partners to see their favorite band in concert. This was his way of “seducing them”, according to her. Once the spouse found out, she requested that they no longer listen to or go see this band because of the negative emotions it triggered. This was hard for the unfaithful spouse, but he agreed and respected her wishes because learning how to rebuild trust in the relationship and applying that was far more important than the music they used to enjoy.
  • Successful repair partners regularly check in on their partner’s emotional status, specifically involving the attachment injury. This helps the partner feel like they have permission to feel whatever it is they are feeling as well as starts a consistent pattern of communication and care. The more proactive you are, the sooner your spouse will heal.

Genuine, lasting recovery is not for the faint of heart and to learn how to rebuild trust in a relationship takes dedication. Obviously these ten steps take great patience, determination, and empathy, but the benefits of this type of ownership and relational wholeness will last for generations.

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