How to rebuild trust: 5 steps to recover from betrayal

Molly Frances|2021.09.23

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When betrayal impacts your relationship, it can feel like a flock of angry geese made its way into your stomach. Your head spins with what-ifs, and your stomach clenches with every new question. You feel like running, or retching, or raving—or maybe all three. And you may wonder if it's possible to rebuild trust again.

Trust, or the belief that your partner is dependable, is necessary for all social relationships, especially in romantic ones, which is why a breach of trust is so painful.

When trust issues exist in a relationship, jealousy and anxiety can arise and further erode the bond. A lack of trust leads to an inability to be vulnerable and build intimacy with a person and negatively affects all aspects of the relationship, including physical intimacy. If you can't relax and trust that your partner has your best interests in mind, you may find it impossible to let go of inhibitions and enjoy sex.

The good news is that while rebuilding trust in a romantic relationship is difficult, it's certainly not impossible. You may even wind up with a more robust connection once you're able to trust again. These five steps can help you and your partner rebuild trust and create the healthy relationship you both deserve.

Note: If you're recovering from an abusive or otherwise harmful relationship, these tips don't apply. Take care of yourself and seek the help you need to move forward.

5 steps to rebuild trust in your relationship

Betrayal is often the catalyst for broken trust in a relationship. The betrayal could be infidelity, lying about finances, or breaking some other agreed-upon boundary. Sometimes there isn't one thing that results in broken trust in a relationship, but several smaller events, such as your partner not doing the things they say they will.

Whether trust erodes over time or disappears as a result of a specific event, taking the time to do the hard work of rebuilding trust can make your relationship even stronger than it was before. Here are some steps you and your partner can work through as you start your healing process.

1. You may need to learn the truth

When a betrayal is a single event such as lying or infidelity, it may be necessary for the offended partner to know all the details. If lying is the main issue, a deep discussion where the offending partner spills the truth is a starting point to earning their partner's trust back. During this conversation, it's essential, to be honest about your feelings and give your partner validation for any emotions they share.

If your partner tells you they lied about spending money because they worried about your reaction, it's crucial to let you know you hear them. A response like, "I understand that you lied because you were concerned that I'd be mad. Thank you for sharing the truth. I hope you continue to in the future," indicates that you think your partner's feelings are essential. This response also focuses on expected future behavior rather than punishing past mistakes.

When the betrayal is infidelity, some people find it easier to move forward without knowing all the details. Before asking a litany of questions, it may be a good idea to check in with yourself and decide if knowing facts will cause you more or less heartache. Getting professional help from a family therapist or couples counselor may help you make that decision.

2. You have to release the anger

It's normal to feel anger when there is a breach of trust in your relationship. However, anger is often a secondary emotion, which means it's covering up what we're feeling. Emotions such as fear, hurt, sadness, and grief are often difficult for us to sit with and process, so our brains and bodies jump to anger as a way of protecting ourselves.

Those emotional walls don't allow you to rebuild trust in your relationship. If we hold all of those emotions inside, we're likely to burst open like a shaken soda bottle with little notice. You have to release the anger so you can make a fresh start.

Once you know the details of the betrayal, you need to better understand your and your partner’s emotional state. To do this, try sitting quietly and turning inward to ask yourself what you're feeling. You can write any emotions that come to mind or even just write down how your body feels. These clues can help you figure out if your anger is covering up fear or grief.

Once you know your emotional state, it's important to share it with your partner (so you don't explode). In a romantic relationship, all people involved must have an opportunity to share their feelings about a betrayal, even the offending person. Part of building trust in a relationship is opening up about your internal state and having that message received without judgment by a loved one.

If your focus is on building trust and letting go of the anger, you have to be willing to actively listen as your partner shares their feelings, no matter how difficult they are to hear. Share how the betrayal impacted the relationship, any doubts you have now, and how you feel. Then, allow your partner to share and validate their reality.

3. You must commit to rebuilding trust

If you and your partner decide you both want to rebuild trust in the relationship, you must move forward as autonomous individuals and as part of a team. You both have to be willing to fix what's broken, remain empathetic, and be open and vulnerable with each other again.

If you're the one who was hurt, it can be difficult to open yourself up again. You may withhold absolute commitment out of fear that your partner will repeat the offending behavior. Holding back isn't conducive to creating the healthy relationship you both want. For the sake of the relationship, you'll need to work through your anxiety and fear.

You may find it helpful to make a list of what's required to stay in the relationship. These boundaries should relate to the betrayal. For example, if your partner kissed someone else and you had a monogamous agreement, you'll want to work to define what monogamy means to you and share that with your partner. It's best to focus your statements on what you need. For example, "I need a relationship that is monogamous where we only kiss, touch, and have sex with one another."

If you're the offending partner, you must apologize without making excuses or being defensive because that may cause further distrust. You'll have to commit to being honest and transparent going forward. Transparency may feel a bit intrusive, but for at least a while, you'll need to let your partner in on your daily activities. For example, if you lied about spending, it may be necessary for you to share all of your spendings with your partner so that they can see that you are committed to being open and honest.

4. Focus on decisive action

Rebuilding trust will require forgiveness. Forgiveness is a decision to stop focusing on resentment or getting even with someone who has hurt you. Forgiveness is not easy and often requires significant effort, but it’s a gift you give yourself. Once you're able to forgive your partner, it'll help release you from negative emotions.

Often the breach of trust is because of the actions of one person. However, there's usually more to the story. It's important to identify what went wrong in the relationship that led to the breach so you are able to rebuild trust. Even if you aren’t responsible for the betrayal, it’s important to listen and remain empathetic to what your partner has to share.

Working to identify the underlying causes of the betrayal and fixing them so it doesn't happen again is vital to the long-term success of your relationship. At this stage, you both have to want the relationship to work. You’ll also need to share all of your thoughts about the process with your partner, so they aren't left guessing. This work is emotionally challenging, so consider attending couples therapy to help.

5. Work on rebuilding the relationship together

Once you and your partner have decided to rebuild trust, identified what sort of relationship you want to have, and worked to express feelings and find forgiveness, it's time to rebuild your relationship.

When your partner demonstrates they've listened to you and agree on the boundaries that you've set and they adhere to them, you must tell them you notice their effort. For example, if your partner lied about spending habits but is now sharing their spending with you regularly, praising them for it will let them know that you notice and appreciate their effort.

While you rebuild trust, don’t let fear and anger keep you from fully engaging in the relationship. Instead, treat the relationship like a brand new one where you offer trust as a default.

Both partners will need to spend time engaging in personal growth during this period to address the issues that lead to betrayal or any residual emotions. You can accomplish personal growth through individual therapy, guided meditation, reading (and implementing) self-help books, or working on improving your overall wellness. Basically, you need to work on yourself while you're working on the relationship.

The final step to rebuilding trust is to create shared experiences

Rebuilding a relationship after a breach of trust requires both partners to commit to the hard work and be honest about their emotional state. This process involves some individual work as you let go of anger, apologize, and work toward building a healthy relationship with a climate that invites vulnerability.

As you move through this healing process, you'll also need to set aside time to be together and create new shared experiences. This is the fun part. You get to date each other again! Shared experiences help build intimacy which will help you let go of fear and embrace vulnerability. When you spend an enjoyable time with your partner, it can shift the energy in your relationship and make the work of rebuilding trust easier.

If it's difficult for you to open up to your partner, or you aren't sure how to create positive experiences through the hurt, you may find Dipsea's 36 question series helpful. In this three-part series, you play a game with your partner guided by a narrator. The narrator prompts you with questions about everything from what you find attractive to how you would respond to a proposed threesome. You'll even get to hear answers from real couples to help get you started.

Listen, light yourself up.

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