What Do You Do When Trust Is Broken?

How to Rebuild Trust in a Relationship

Betrayal is one of the deepest emotional injuries you can endure because it can only be inflicted by someone you love, or feel connected to. Someone you trust. Someone you’ve shared meaningful personal experiences with. Someone you thought loves you and cares for you suddenly becomes dangerous. They feel like an enemy of the worst kind. Suddenly, you experience an intense negative emotional response at the thought of or sight of a person you were once so deeply connected to. In some moments you experience intense anger. In other moments intense fear. Still other moments may be overwhelmingly painful. How could they…? What did I do to deserve…? You no longer trust them, and you may even be questioning yourself. How do you come back from that?

Forgiveness is necessary to survive any betrayal of trust, whether it’s in a marriage, friendship, or an otherwise personal or professional relationship. Because forgiveness is an absolute prerequisite to rebuilding trust, and because forgiveness takes time, it’s important to state that both processes may be at work at the same time. It’s also worth noting that you may have made the decision to forgive long before you finish the process of forgiving. Conversely, trusting them again is not required to prove that you’ve forgiven. So, yes, you can forgive and still not be able to trust. And there is no guilt in that.

Rebuild Trust in a Relationship

While you have some responsibility in the rebuilding process, much of the work to restore trust is required of the one in breach of your trust to begin with.

Your Work

When your trust has been broken, your biggest responsibility is to express how you feel–not how they made you feel–use “I feel” statements and be sure to follow the word feel, with an actual emotion. For instance, “I feel heartbroken,” or “I feel confused”. Tip: if you say “I feel like”, you’ve just turned the statement into a statement of blame.

Next, ask for what you need. Before you do this, however, take some time to consider the fruitfulness of what you think you need. Consider asking yourself, if any answer to a question will relieve any of my pain and suffering? Will this help me understand? Help me heal?

And release it. Like with forgiveness, you have to decide to let go of your power to hold onto the wrong for future use. You may never forget the incident, but harboring the pain associated with it, and using it to punish the other party is not going to work if trust is to be restored.

While you do your work, the other person has to do their part. The goal is not to make them earn your trust through a series of vigorous tests and investigations. However, the trust you had wasn’t built overnight, and it won’t be rebuilt in that time either.

Their Work

Apologize sincerely for their wrong. Healing and restoration can not begin until the person who’s caused the pain, broken the trust, or betrayed you has owned up to their wrong.  

Acknowledge your pain and their role in it. Similarly, the person must acknowledge that their actions are a direct cause for your emotions and your pain.  They don’t get to tell you how to feel.  They don’t get to judge how you feel.  Your feelings are your own, and their job in restoring trust is to acknowledge their role in your pain.  

Address the root issue. Depending on the nature of the offense, apologizing and changing course may be simple and immediately evident for you to see in their actions, choices, and behaviors.  When the root cause of their behavior is a deep personal issue (like a believe system, mindset, or their own personal pain), they are literally incapable of changing their choices and behaviors until they deal with that issue.  If the person can’t understand why they did what they did to result in your pain, they will likely repeat the offense.  Listen for their understanding of their “why” as you talk through the offense.  

Accept accountability structures. Often when trust is broken, the person hurting may need the person who hurt them to have some type of accountability moving forward.  This may mean therapy, confiding in a respected leader or close friend and giving them the right to ask the difficult questions, or hold the person who broke the trust accountable for their choices and behaviors moving forward (for a period of time).  

Acquire it. Complete transformation may not be immediately evident in the other person, but change should be evident.  An apology made without a change in behavior is meaningless and just leads to empty excuses and unfulfilled promises.  Trust should be regained over time, not with a series of tests, but within small opportunities to show dependability, responsibility, confidentiality, respect, and integrity.  

If Trust Can not be Restored

There are times when the other person does immediately experiences remorse and extends a sincere apology for their wrong.  They say that they understand the pain they’ve caused you, and feel like their understanding should be enough.  They may believe they have the right to determine how much time you should need to get over it and trust them again.  They may even say they are tired of trying to prove themselves or earn your forgiveness.  This is where compassion is either rebuilt or torn down.  One of the elements of trust is the ability to share your feelings (and experience them) without judgment.  If you are doing the honest work of forgiveness and you are earnestly trying to extend them your trust once again, then this judgment may be an indication that the relationship is not fit for the long haul.  

The key is that both of you have to do the work.  

You work to forgive and trust them again.  

Maybe they are doing everything to regain your trust, and as hard as you’ve tried, you just aren’t able to restore trust. That’s okay. Sometimes the people you’ve enlisted to provide you with support or those asked to hold the other person accountable can also help the two of you navigate through the process. They can also help in ultimately making a relationship decision—to end the relationship, or give it more time. Just remember, you can still get to forgiveness without being able to trust them again.

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