‘Trust takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair’. You might have heard this saying before, and there’s definitely a lot of truth to it when it comes to our most important relationships.
Trusting someone is like giving them a part of yourself to carry and hoping that they treat it with care. It takes many couples years to get to that point, and all it takes is one mistake for you both to get seriously hurt. When that happens, it can take a long time before you’re willing to let your partner—or anyone else— hold a part of you again.
Rebuilding trust can be daunting and difficult, but it is possible. Let’s take a closer look at why trust is so important in relationships, and how you can work on developing it with your partner.
What is Trust in a Relationship?
Trust is the foundation of any relationship. It’s more than just knowing your partner won’t do anything to hurt or upset you; it’s being able to rely on them to have your best interests at heart through anything.
Trust is built gradually, through shared experiences and by slowly opening up to your partner and seeing that they accept each new part of you.
We can never know with absolute certainty how another person will respond to us. But if you trust your partner, you’ll feel safe opening up to them and sharing who you are as a person because you know they’ll react with kindness. Without trust, it’s much harder to be vulnerable and reveal intimate parts of yourself.
There are two main types of trust:
- Blind trust: This is where you choose to place your trust in someone without determining if they are worthy of it. It’s like giving a part of yourself to someone without checking whether they are able or willing to take good care of it. Blind trust is often seen in fast, turbulent relationships, and can lead to a lot of pain and betrayal when you realise you placed your trust in the wrong person.
- Mindful trust: Trusting someone mindfully means taking the time to get to know them and having a good idea of who they are as a person before choosing to rely on them. Mindful trust means making an informed decision about someone based on observing their actions and determining their level of honesty and reliability.
Lack of Trust in a Relationship
While a relationship built on mutual mindful trust can flourish for years, a lack of trust can be a sign that a relationship is in real trouble. If you don’t believe that your partner has your best interests at heart, it can be hard to be honest and open with them, and you’ll constantly be worried about the possibility of betrayal.
So what causes a lack of trust in a relationship? Often it comes down to broken expectations. If you expect your partner to act in a certain way, only to discover that they have been acting very differently, your sense of trust in them can shatter.
Discovering an affair is one of the most dramatic and powerful ways this can occur. If you were to find out that your partner has been cheating on you, your sense of who they are as a person would drastically alter, throwing your whole life into chaos.
Trust can be broken in smaller, more everyday ways too. If you repeatedly open yourself up to your partner by sharing your worries and desires with them, only for them to appear uninterested or critical, you will eventually learn it’s better to keep your thoughts to yourself. Likewise, if your partner’s words and actions don’t match up in important areas such as parenting, money, or how they spend their time, this can erode your trust too.
Once trust has been destroyed, rebuilding it can be a long, difficult process. It can be especially hard if you’ve experienced betrayal of some kind before. If you’ve given part of yourself to someone, for example, in a past relationship or in your family when you were young, only for them to treat you poorly, this can have a big impact on your willingness to trust again in the future.
Over time, repeatedly having your trust broken and your expectations violated teaches you that it’s safer not to be vulnerable with others, and you start to close off.
A lack of trust is one of the main reasons couples seek out relationship counselling. Maybe you’ve discovered your partner’s affair and want to know how you’ll ever be able to trust them again. Or perhaps it was you who broke your partner’s trust, and you need to find ways to show them that it won’t happen again.
There’s no shortcut to getting your relationship back after a betrayal, but a qualified relationship therapist can facilitate the difficult conversations and help you both figure out the best path forward.
How exactly does this work? The Gottman Institute, a highly influential school of relationship counselling, sets out the following steps that need to occur for trust to be rebuilt:
- Re-establishing safety: A major betrayal like an affair can be very traumatic to discover and can deeply shake your sense of who you are and what your life looks like. It’s common to experience a huge range of tumultuous emotions in the aftermath of a betrayal, including anger, guilt, anxiety, sadness and hopelessness. The first step to recovery is bringing some sense of normal back into your life. This is all about the little things: taking good care of yourself, making sure you get enough rest and taking all the time you need to process what’s happened.
- Full disclosure: For trust to be re-established, both partners need to be totally open and honest with each other. For the betraying spouse, this means coming clean about what happened and sincerely promising it will never happen again. For the betrayed spouse, it means expressing how the betrayal affected them in a way that’s honest but avoids being too judgmental. Only when all the facts and emotions are out in the open.
- Reconnecting: Couples often drift apart in the aftermath of a betrayal. If the relationship is to survive, you need to find ways to reconnect. This could mean setting aside time each day for joint activities such as going on walks or eating meals together, or it could mean learning to be intimate sexually together again.
Is Relationship Counselling Worth It?
Counselling isn’t a magic cure that will instantly fix every issue you and your partner are experiencing. If it is to be successful, you need to commit to putting in the time and effort to work through your problems and be willing to make real changes to how you interact with your partner.
If you can do that, then rebuilding trust is absolutely possible. Many couples survive infidelity and other betrayals and continue to thrive for many years. Research shows that the more you work on rebuilding trust, the stronger your relationship will be. In fact, high levels of trust lead to:
- Reduced conflict: you’ll have an easier time seeing each other’s perspectives and forgiving each other’s mistakes.
- Easier communication: it’s much easier to be open when you know your partner is making an effort to understand and accept you.
- Increased intimacy: greater trust leads to a deeper connection, both in the bedroom and in daily life.
- Greater levels of positivity: trust leads to you seeing your partner in a better light, making it easier to overlook their shortcomings and focus on what you do like.
- Reduced stress: without the constant worry about the risk of betrayal, you’ll be able to relax and enjoy yourself more easily— both with your partner and when spending time apart.
Ways to Rebuild Trust in a Relationship
So how can you work on rebuilding trust in your relationship after it’s been damaged? Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Own your mistakes: Admit when you’ve done something wrong, apologise, and work on trying to be different.
- Say what you feel: Don’t bottle up your frustrations or worries. Tell your partner how their actions make you feel using simple, clear ‘I’ statements: ‘when you do X, I feel…’
- Show empathy: When your partner shares how they feel, make a real effort to show that you understand through your response and body language. Even if you don’t agree, remember that your partner’s position is just as valid as yours.
- Stay in contact: Suspicions can build up when you aren’t sure what your partner is thinking or doing. You can avoid this by being 100% transparent about how you’re spending your time and what’s on your mind.
- Follow through: When you say you’re doing something, make sure you actually do it to show your partner that your word means something.
- Create new experiences: Work on rebuilding your connection and bring some joy back into your relationship by doing fun things together.
- Personal growth: Aim to get to know yourself better through reflection, journalling or personal counselling. The more you understand yourself, the easier it will be for your partner.
Is My Relationship Worth Saving?
For many people, experiencing a severe betrayal is enough to make them ask, ‘is it even possible to save our relationship? Or should I just start over?’
There is, of course, no easy answer to this. Figuring out whether to stick it out or move on can require you to look past the pain you’re experiencing at the moment and try to look at the relationship objectively. Ask yourself:
- Are we both willing to change or grow in order to make the relationship work?
- Do I ever enjoy spending time with my partner?
- Do we still share enough common values and beliefs to rebuild our life together?
- Do we respect each other enough to be honest in the future?
- Are we capable of forgiving each other and moving on from what’s happened?
- Are we able to effectively resolve conflicts? Or do we end up dragged into the same old unhelpful arguments?
What has changed to make me wonder if the relationship is doomed? Is there any way to undo that change?
You may decide that there’s enough good left in the relationship to keep working on it. Professional help from a relationship therapist is always a good option here. Alternatively, you may feel that your trust has been so thoroughly broken that you’ll never get back to where you were— or perhaps your relationship was built on shaky foundations from the very beginning.
Don’t Give Up
Whether you decide to work on rebuilding trust after a betrayal or whether you think it’s time to move on is completely up to you. It may seem hopeless right now, but it doesn’t have to be.
Research shows that when couples experience betrayal but resolve to stay together, their relationships often end up stronger and more fulfilling as a result. The work they put into building trust means that these couples are able to pick up the pieces and get their relationship back on track despite all the challenges they face.
So if you feel like you can’t trust your partner at the moment, it doesn’t have to spell the end for your relationship. It could be exactly the opportunity for growth that you both need.