(This article is Part Three of a 3-part Trust Trilogy.)

Trusting makes the world a more open, inviting, and friendly place. In fact, studies show that to be completely happy, we need it. Trust is the one thing that changes everything. Risking to trust, in return for the adventure of being in love, opens the heart to growing and expanding—the loss or lack of trust can also close it.

Those same studies revealed that those who are trusting are not just happier, they are more accepted by others, and they tend to be more honest. The degree to which we can trust others correlates to the level of contentment we can experience.

As we pointed out in Part Two of this Trust Trilogy, Trust and White Lies: Defining “A Couple’s Code of Honor,” the code of honor is the foundation we can use to manage and maintain trust levels. If you began uncovering the unique moral code that you share with your partner, you may have noticed—the higher the code, the safer and more secure you feel in your relationship. Nobody wants to wonder where they stand, and we would prefer to never have cause to second guess our choice to trust the one we love. What happens, though, when our beloved breaks that trust?

Betrayals

Betrayals, big and small, can take a toll on our ability to trust our partner, making us shut down and close our hearts. The greatest betrayal expressed in my interviews was infidelity—there are others, but that was the biggest. Here, we’ll explore how three couples worked through the ultimate betrayal:

Adrienne spent 18 years with her significant other, only to find he was having an ongoing affair. She was heartbroken and angry, feeling betrayed and embarrassed. Of course, she needed time to grieve. Then, she became more willing to look closely at herself. It took some time, but she took a deep dive into her participation in the relationship. What she found, amazed hershe realized that she was always looking for the “next one.” This had never occurred to her before. Her betrayal was that she was not 100-percent invested in the relationship. This was an eye-opener for her, so much so that she was able to apologize to her spouse and let him go. They remain friends.

Robert came home unexpectedly. He found his spouse of 15 years, along with his business partner, wet and wrapped in towels. They had obviously just stepped out of the shower together. He was dumbfounded, hurt, and confused. Trust disintegrated, Robert had to confront that things had gone wrong and that it had happened right under his nose. Every moment in the relationship rose to be questionedevery trip away, every instance where the business partner had been around seeming innocentthe burden was unbearable for Robert. He said that he had been clueless and never saw it coming. He thought everything was great. Weighing the situation, they decided to get to the source of what led to this outcome. They took the time to discuss it as a couple. The spouse said that he had never felt “first” in Robert’s world: career and other hobbies took precedence for Robert. He said that getting Robert’s attention was invariably an effort. He wanted him, but he did not sign up to play second. Robert took responsibility for putting his career first. He also acknowledged that he would likely never changethat is how he is wired. They decided to transition the relationship to a logical conclusion, one where their appreciation and love could exist, just no longer as a couple.

Daniel was met at the door by his spouse Angela, in tears. She told him she had been having an affair for two years, and it was just broken off. Angela wanted to come clean, because the strain was unbearable for her, while also admitting that she was suffering the loss of the affair. She was disoriented, but still loved Daniel, and wanted to work it out. Angela was willing to work on the marriage and take responsibility for the betrayal. It was not easy for either of them, but after a series of coaching sessions, they restored trust, putting the relationship firstand not long after, they celebrated 25 years of being together.

Some of the common thoughts that people reported after finding out their partners had been unfaithful are: 

  • “What an idiot I am, what an idiot! And then every red flag started to flash across my mind.”
  • “Oh my gosh, what is wrong with me? How did I miss this? ARGH!!!” 
  • “My whole life feels like it is caved in.”
  • “I can barely stand, my stomach is tightened, and I am literally screaming out into the open air.”
  •  “I can no longer trustthe gamble is too great, and the pain of defeat too intense. I am jaded.”

The big betrayals, like infidelity, seem to get the most attention, but the majority of betrayals are more subtle than that. They’re those simple day-to-day interactions Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute calls Sliding Door Moments. These moments are small and they are brief, but they are important to address. 

My spouse and I were at a dinner party (before COVID-19), and he had been a bit grumpy before we left home. During the evening when I looked up, I noticed he smiled at me from across the room. It was gentle and beckoning. Without a word, he wanted to make up. I smiled back and winked. Case closed. A positive response to that moment strengthened his trust and our bond. 

In another instance we were out on a lakeside hike. He had gotten cross with me in front of our friends for taking the wrong path. I did not appreciate it. Later he sat next to me and lovingly touched my leg, offering me water. I moved away. Needless to say what could have been handled immediately now took another couple of days to get over. Choosing the negative route, in any case, results in any big future betrayals having a more destructive impact on the relationship. It pays to step in quickly and positively when you can.

Whether the transgression is big or small, it helps to have a proven strategy for making up when you are in love. None of us are perfect and many of us are slower than others (just saying), so direction is helpful. Here are four suggestions to help you in getting trust restored. 

Restoring Trust

1. Get transparent

The one who broke the trust will want to develop ways of interacting that are transparent—nothing hidden, showing full commitment to the restoration by taking responsibility for breaking the bond. The other can use transparency to see where he/she may have participated in the break. 

2. Open your heart
Closing our heart is easy, it is the automatic go-to whenever a human being feels hurt, defensive, or helpless. Being open-hearted lets us feel everything, the good and the bad, and what we feel gets funneled toward a solution. In this step of restoration, one might consider building trust in themselves, their choices, and attitudes.

3. Attack the problem, not the person
For certain, there is an underlying issue that led down the betrayal path. But the one betrayed may see themselves as not having played any role at all—that may make them lash out, feeling victimized. At the very least, they did choose the person they’re with. Focusing on attacking the problem, not the person, will lead to a faster and more amicable solution.

4. Determine the desired outcome
What will happen now? For some, they are willing to do counseling or coaching sessions; others see it as the end and have no interest in salvaging the relationship. For the latter, to transition powerfully from couple to single is now what is important. If there are children involved, that of course adds another level of complexity and requires the selflessness to keep their needs front and center.

We do not need blatant betrayal to start improving trust. Practicing and fostering trust in the small moments can improve relationships, making them more rewarding and satisfying today.

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