How to Rebuild Trust in a Relationship
If you’re struggling to move on from a betrayal, this eight-step plan might help.
You Have to Really Want to Rebuild Trust
One of the biggest barriers to moving past a betrayal is a lack of genuine desire to do so. “People need to have a willingness to even try to rebuild trust,” says Kathy Offet-Gartner, a psychologist at Mount Royal University in Calgary. That goes for both parties.
Open the Door to Dialogue
“Some believe that we motivate others by offering incentives, making threats or giving ultimatums,” Offet-Gartner explains, but any promises a person agrees to under duress are unlikely to stick. Instead, those seeking to rebuild trust should focus on maintaining an open dialogue. “Words matter, and the intent behind the words matter,” she says. Because trust is defined differently by different people, we need to be able to answer the question, “What does trust mean to me?” If we can’t, it will likely be difficult to convey to others how we want them to demonstrate their trustworthiness.
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Effective communication also includes sincere gestures—whether big or small—that can demonstrate our dependability, like keeping our promises or making a loved one’s life simpler by volunteering to help with tasks. To re-establish yourself as a trustworthy presence, think ahead about what you can do to help the other “feel safe, heard, loved and respected,” Offet-Gartner says.
Say Goodbye to Past Mistakes
When possible, letting go of mistakes is also important, says Vicki-Anne Rodrigue, the Ontario francophone director for the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association. If two people have decided to move past a betrayal, and one of them says something like, “I’ll give you a second chance, but if you mess up, it’s over,” that can hinder progress—it doesn’t instill confidence in the offending party.
The inverse is also true. If the offended party is told, “You’re so sensitive; why can’t you just control your emotions?” it shows the willingness to rebuild with respect isn’t there. Anger in itself is a healthy emotion, Rodrigue explains. “It signals to a person that something is not right in their environment.” But constant frustration can be toxic.
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Know That Betrayal Can Be Complex
It’s tempting to frame breaches of trust in an oversimplified manner: an offending party harming an offended party. Sometimes, that clear placement of blame is warranted—for instance, in the case of sexual assault or violent attack. In situations such as these, interacting with your perpetrator isn’t always required—nor is it guaranteed to be healing.
In less traumatic instances, however, fault lines aren’t necessarily 100 per cent clear. Listen to your inner barometer. “Learn from the experience, and ask yourself, ‘What could I do differently if something like this happens again?’” says Rodrigue.
You might not come to the conclusion that you’ve done anything wrong, or you may be able to pinpoint how some of your behaviours contributed to the erosion of trust. Familiarizing ourselves with our own impressions is also what helps us decide whom to have confidence in down the road. Offet-Gartner suggests an analogy: When you turn on the stove and put your hand near it, you feel the heat and instinctively pull away. “Internally, you get messages about people. Start practising. Start paying attention.”
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Don’t Forget to Take Care of You
Self-care is also crucial, particularly for individuals whose trust has been breached. Exercise can foster good mental health—mood-boosting endorphins are released into the brain, which create a sense of calm, while stress hormones such as cortisol diminish. This allows you to “reflect on betrayal with clarity,” says Rodrigue.
Finally, joining a support group or faith-based practice can help those feeling wary of others. Look for folks who share your experience, such as a group for people whose spouses have also cheated. “If there’s a takeaway when a betrayal has happened,” says Rodrigue, “it’s, ‘Don’t isolate yourself. You need community.’”
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It’s important to keep in mind that reconciliation won’t happen immediately. “Don’t feel pressured or worried if you’re not healing ‘fast enough,’” says Rodrigue. When we feel betrayed, our brains move into fight-or-flight mode, and it becomes difficult to examine our circumstances rationally. Taking time to calm ourselves—and move away from feeling defensive—can allow us to arrive in a space of collaboration.
If you’re the one who has broken trust, consider approaching the betrayed party, but remain patient and aware of their boundaries. Assure them that you can see you’ve caused pain and deliver a sincere apology. Make it clear that you hope to reconnect, but are willing to give space.
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Know When to Move On
Despite our best efforts, trust can’t always be rebuilt. If all attempts fail, says Rodrigue, it may be time to move on—even temporarily. She points out that healing can take decades, and that sometimes people find their way back to each other over time. “So there is reason to hope.”
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