Rebuilding Trust in Relationships: You have the power
Updated: May 28
I’ve been thinking about trust this week. Like most people, I’ve had relationships where I have lost trust (in a big way), so I pre-empt this blog by saying I am speaking from experience. I get it. Why do I need to do that? Because what I have to say may not be taken well by those in the throes of distrust, because it's focused on you - "the hurt one" - and what you must do in order to move forward.
In a fragile state, I certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed it.
The first thing we need to consider is whether or not trust is spontaneous. Does it ‘just happen’?
I don’t think so.
I think trust is one of those things we think ‘just happens’, but the reality is that it is chosen, or cultivated. We make a choice to trust (or not trust) people. We trust the strangers around us not to attack us, we trust Uber drivers to drive safely, we trust our friends to be kind, we trust our partners to be faithful… we may not be consciously aware of these choices, but every time we step out into the world among other people, we trust them.
Unless we have been raised or taught not to.
Not everyone in the world can trust the strangers around them not to attack. Not everyone can trust their friends’ kindness. Not everyone trusts their partners loyalty. Some people have learned not to give their trust to others because their experiences have taught them that the world is not always a benevolent place. In these cases, they have come to believe that it is safer not to trust because not trusting could ensure one’s survival.
Onto an example…
Let’s say you are a trusting person. You’ve been raised by parents you can depend on, your physical and emotional needs have been met, and you’ve had good friends. You’re with a partner who you’ve also trusted from the beginning because you intrinsically believe in the world's benevolence and people's kindness. You’ve chosen to trust them and take their word at face value.
Then they do something that breaches your trust. It doesn’t really matter what, or whether it was a big or small violation. The trust has been broken and you feel like you cannot depend on this person to keep you safe (physically, emotionally, etc.).
What happens then?
People often say that, given time and work, you can rebuild trust. I asked my friends what this means to them and the answers centred around repentance and continued evidence/reassurance that the trust-breaking-action wouldn’t happen again. I agree with this. For trust to be rebuilt, we need to know that the other is regretful, has apologised for their actions, has demonstrated 'repentive' behaviours, and is committed to behaving ‘better’ in the future.
Is this enough?
When I experienced broken trust, this was what I wanted to happen. Apologies (plural!) and reassurance. In my consciousness I knew I could trust this person because I understood the reasons behind the action, the context, my value to them, and how sorry they were. Despite knowing all this and being shown consistently (and in varied ways) that the betrayal would never happen again, my trust was not rebuilt. I spent months agonising and blaming my partner. That’s time I will never get back.
Let’s return to the example, or think of this with regard to something that’s happened to you. It doesn’t really matter; what matters is seeing the process in action at a level thats uncomfortable enough for you to deal with.
So, you’ve been betrayed; the betrayer has apologised, offered reassurance, and is evidencing ‘good’ behaviour. You are still agonising and you don’t trust them. Their repentance doesn’t feel like it’s ‘enough’. Why?
We are missing a crucial element: YOU. Remember this from earlier? “trust is one of those things we think ‘just happens’, but the reality is that it is chosen, or cultivated”.
(Yes, I just quoted myself, in the same blog the quote comes from)
YOU must CHOOSE to trust again in order for trust to be rebuilt.
Relationships do not work when one person puts in effort, and the other doesn’t. Relationships work when both parties do their best. By expecting the betrayer to win back your trust without holding yourself accountable for giving that trust (i.e. expecting it to spontaneously happen after the betrayer has done ‘enough’ to bring it back) will lead to an endless cycle of repentance and reassurance (betrayer), agony and frustration (you), resentment for feeling like the only one ‘making an effort’ (betrayer), resentment for feeling like you are paying for someone else mistake (you)… and so on.
It absolutely sucks when you have to put in effort after someone else has betrayed you. It is unfair. But what did my dad always say? Oh yeah, “Sophie, LIFE is unfair!”. When you are responsible for something that is not your fault, it hurts and it is very annoying - you are allowed to feel that way, but it doesn't change the facts: you are (at least partly) responsible for the repair.
For trust to ‘come back’, you have to cultivate it. You have to choose to put yourself at the mercy of the other person. You have to choose to be vulnerable; to open yourself up to the possibility that they may hurt you again.
(And, if they do hurt you again, you have to be willing to shoulder some of the responsibility for choosing to trust)
(Also, if you don’t want to choose to trust again, that is entirely your prerogative. I’m not saying you have to!)
(Also, did anyone else know that "prerogative" has an extra "r" in it?! Mind BLOWN)
Remember, when we first meet someone, many of us do this naturally. We choose to open ourselves up and be vulnerable by trusting the person we are dating or starting a friendship with. We don’t, however, do it all at once. We work in stages; this is how trust is rebuilt. Stages of choosing to trust, one step at a time.
I don’t think any of us can claim to have never been hurt or betrayed in relationships, but only some of us can claim that they have rebuilt trust. Those who truly rebuild their trust work together - one party repents, the other chooses to trust.
Trust is not spontaneous and it is not entirely the betrayers responsibility to ensure that the relationship becomes a happy one again.