Relationship repair happens through self-reflection, a commitment to transparency, and working to grow as a human being.
Couples and individuals that come to me for relationship help almost always include the words “trust,” “closeness,” “intimacy,” and “communication” when describing what they hope couples counseling will do for them, or the changes they want to experience.
Trust can be violated in an instant when a partner discovers infidelity or another betrayal in the relationship. But trust can also be eroded gradually through small behaviors and interactions.
The Oxford dictionary defines trust this way: “the firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.” Regardless of how it’s damaged or lost, trust is a vital condition in any healthy relationship. The good news is that couples can restore trust — even after a significant betrayal. And intimacy and closeness often go right along with the level of trust in a relationship.
In my work as a therapist, there are five practices that I’ve seen present when couples successfully restore trust through their work with me. These are primarily written for the partner whose actions directly contributed to the loss of trust. But they are helpful practices for both people in a relationship.
1: Regularly acknowledge and actively work toward making amends for any harm you’ve done
In most situations, trust is undermined in a relationship through how we treat our partner. It’s no surprise that trust is damaged through a major betrayal like an affair, or through chronic patterns of abuse, neglect, or other hurtful ways of relating.
But trust exists on a continuum and a major rupture isn’t needed to lose trust. Whatever the harmful behavior, the first step to restoring trust is fully acknowledging and actively working to make amends.
Apologizing is important and essential, but it is in no way sufficient. We can try to convince our partner why they should trust us, but trust is established through experience. As your partner experiences you acting in a loving, respectful way toward them over time, trust gets strengthened.
If you’re not familiar with the 12 steps of recovery, most of the steps involve making amends for harmful behavior. It’s not just people in recovery from alcohol abuse that need to be reminded of this principle regularly. Most people grew up in homes where relational harms were, in some way or another, ignored or swept under the rug.
An often underemphasized way of making amends involves practicing self-reflection and other self-awareness and self-care activities, which leads me to the next practice.
2: Educate yourself about how your past (upbringing and past romantic relationships) affected you
We are social creatures, and the two most significant ways we learn how to relate to others are how we’re treated and what we see modeled.
The actions you took that undermined trust in your relationship were learned. If you’re sincere about wanting to change the way you relate to your partner, it’s vital to look at your own history in relationships.
It can be very helpful to ask yourself questions like:
- How did people treat each other in the home where I grew up?
- Were people respectful of others’ feelings, or were feelings ignored or dismissed?
- How was I treated at various stages in my upbringing, particularly when I was most vulnerable or when I was going through something challenging?
- How was I treated in past romantic relationships? How did I treat my previous partner and what feedback did I get from them?
The progressive exploration of these questions can give you profound insight into how you learned to respond to mistakes you make. Most people tend to minimize the impact of their childhood and previous romantic relationship on their present lives.
Misunderstandings and hurt feelings are to some degree inevitable in a relationship. How we respond to the hurt feelings in our partner is crucial, and we unconsciously learned in childhood very powerful habits of how to handle feelings, both our own and those of others.
Our history doesn’t have to be our destiny. The more we can be conscious and informed about what we learned about relationships when we were younger, the more we can make conscious choices about how to learn more healthy ways of relating now and in the future.
3: Learn how to feel softer, vulnerable emotions
Often the result of the exploration mentioned above can lead to discoveries about how you learned to tune out or numb out feelings. Many people who didn’t experience severe abuse, neglect or trauma in their upbringing conclude that it was “good enough.” But even if those specific negative experiences weren’t there, most people didn’t grow up in homes where there was safety to feel and express vulnerable emotions like fear, sadness, grief, etc.
Yet being able to feel and express these feelings is essential for authentic trust and closeness in a relationship. Your partner seeing and experiencing you feeling regret and sadness about how you may have betrayed their trust can go a long way toward rebuilding trust.
Research into long-term relationships has consistently shown that emotional accessibility is essential in order to sustain a mutually fulfilling intimate relationship.
If your behavior has led to a loss of trust in your relationship, you’ll likely need another relationship outside of your partner to help you get in touch with these emotions. This is where a professional therapy relationship can be so helpful.
When someone is progressively in touch with their emotions and can express them in responsible ways (without blaming, shaming or otherwise dumping our emotions on another), it progressively creates a safe climate in the relationship. And safety and trust go hand-in-hand.
4: Cut down on alcohol (and other brain-altering substances), or better yet eliminate it
I wrote an entire blog post on the case for rethinking your relationship with alcohol. But it’s worth mentioning again how alcohol so often works against trust in a relationship.
I wish you as the reader could sit with me in counseling sessions hearing people bravely recount painful moments in their childhood or hurtful interactions in their marriages. I wish you could hear how alcohol is so frequently intertwined with those stories.
Sometimes I hear about how alcohol use directly made things worse. But most of the time it’s the generational family patterns shaped by alcohol – great grandparents that drank to cope with their trauma or losses, and how that unprocessed grief secretly got passed down the family tree – regardless if people coped with that pain by drinking.
Alcohol and other substances don’t help people access and process emotion authentically – it blocks it and numbs it out. When couples reduce their alcohol use, they generally find it easier to rebuild trust.
5: Regularly talk about and enforce boundaries on unhealthy behavior
There’s nothing more frustrating than for a wounded partner to open back up to their partner and have the harmful behavior repeated. This can take the form of additional contact with an affair partner, or just a repeat of the hurtful behavior (drinking too much when there was a promise to stop, being verbally abusive after there were assurances of “never again,” etc.).
Partners rebuild trust when they have a plan and take concrete steps to eliminate hurtful behavior. This is not about perfection, but it is about intentional, proactive action aimed at stopping the patterns and triggers of hurtful behavior.
Step 10 in the 12 Steps says: “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.” Applied to relationships, this involves the ongoing repair work and maintenance of the relationship by acknowledging harms, taking ownership of them, and working not just to repair them but to prevent future harm.
When infidelity was the main source of loss of trust, this could involve proactively sharing with your partner if you had any unavoidable contact with the affair partner. This also could involve regularly talking to your partner about things you’re doing to grow as a person. Doing your own therapy, joining a support group, reading personal growth resources, avoiding unnecessary social time with an attractive coworker, and installing filters on devices that could prevent consuming content that’s been hurtful to your partner, are some examples.
When the harm to the relationship is less clear, such as ongoing dysfunctional or even abusive patterns, there’s a special vigilance that’s required. Offering an apology in response to years of hurtful behavior can feel like a bandaid on a bullet hole. Consistent actions that are in stark contrast to the past hurtful behaviors, practiced over time, slowly rebuild trust in the relationship. There are no shortcuts.
The benefits of ongoing efforts to restore trust
Whatever the reason that trust has been undermined in the relationship, change is possible. In therapy, I’ve seen people unlearn hurtful relationship patterns they absorbed in their childhood or previous relationships. I’ve seen relationships heal through the practices referenced above.
It’s difficult to repair ruptured trust on your own. A psychotherapy relationship with someone trained in how to work with emotion and de-escalate relational conflict is key. Couples counseling, affair recovery counseling, or individual counseling can help restore trust in your relationship. If you would like to explore ways to rebuild trust in your relationship or marriage and you live in Cumming, Johns Creek or Alpharetta, Georgia, I would love to talk to you. Feel free to reach out to me for a confidential phone consultation.