Let me begin to explain with an email I received from Marcy, who didn’t trust her husband.
John cheated on me last fall. The affair went on for a few months. The whole thing broke my heart. I don’t know how I can ever trust him again. I really want our marriage to work, and John has ended the affair and says he wants it to work too, but I can’t get over what he did. I’m still suspicious, even though deep down I know his affair is over. John does all he can to assure me that it’ll never happen again, but here we are 3 months later and I still can’t believe a word he says. How do we get through this? How can I ever believe him again?
Los Angeles, CA
If a marriage has problems, the chances are good that trust has been broken somehow. And yet, trust is a central component for a successful marriage. So how do you restore broken trust with your wife ? How can Marcy get through this?
Trust can be broken between people in so many ways. The most common culprits are an affair, hidden addictions (porn sites are the newest problem), lying, and financial secrecy.
But if you look deep into the heart of a distrusting spouse, it goes beyond the usual trust busters. Trust is weakened in a relationship when a spouse is frequently late, unreliable, or insensitive. Hiding a few empty beer cans can damage trust between a husband and wife. It doesn’t take much to shake trust.
We live in a microwave world of fast food, express delivery, and speedy-print. And so we figure, if we lost trust in an instant, there must be a way to rebuild it in an instant too. NOT!
Trust is built one small step at a time. There’s no other way. There’s no Herculean event that can deliver instant-trust. In fact, by definition, trust is about CONSISTENCY. That’s what it means to trust someone; to be able to PREDICT their behavior. Predictability is a function of repetition. Repetition comes with TIME.
So there you have it. CONSISTENT, PREDICTABLE behavior over TIME breads trust. So the first thing for Marcy to realize is that 3 months is nothing when it comes to rebuilding trust.
When you trust someone, it means you can RELY on them. But before you can rely on someone, you must depend on them time and again and NOT be disappointed. If you’re disappointed, even once, the trust is broken.
I sometimes compare the building of a relationship to the building of a house; both happen one brick at a time. And every brick is significant because it strengthens the foundation. The stronger the foundation, the more room you have for error. For example, how damaging is it to ruin one brick when you’re working on the 3rd floor of a house? It’s no big deal, right? You have a strong foundation, the house is intact, you clean up the mess, and you build on.
It’s like that in a relationship. If you have a strong foundation, you can make a mistake without ruining everything. It’s no big deal. You can move on.
But trust is DIFFERENT. One mistake kills you. Because trust is about CONSISTENCY.
John may have been faithful to Marcy for years. But all it takes is one affair and all the trust built over the years comes crashing down.
Building trust is NOT analogous to building a house; it’s more like climbing a ladder. You don’t have a foundation to support you. If you slip, you fall all the way to the bottom.
(That doesn’t mean that people are unforgiving. People can forgive instantly. That’s another topic. But even if they forgive instantly, it will take time before they can trust again. Forgiving and trust are related, but they do NOT go hand-in-hand. Forgiveness comes first. Trust lags far behind.)
So if you’re trying to restore trust in your marriage, and you’re expected home by 6:15PM, don’t walk through the door at 6:19PM. For you, 6:19PM might be a matter of 4 minutes and no big deal. But to your spouse it might be about reliability, and you may have just slipped all the way to the bottom. You just broke whatever pattern of consistency you built prior to arriving home late. And now you have to start all over again.
How do you rebuild trust? You make and keep promises. Make and keep. Make and keep. Make and keep. Over and over again. AND DON’T MISS! Nothing destroys trust faster than making and BREAKING a promise.
To be consistent (to build trust), you need lots of opportunities to come-through. So create them for yourself.
“Honey, I’ll pick up some milk before I come home.” And then do it!
“Honey, I’ll be home at 7:15PM.” And then do it!
“I’m going to get you some research on that stock.” And then do it!
“I’ll meet you there at 9AM.” And then do it!
“I’ll read it by tomorrow.” And then do it!
“I’ll clean it up before I go to bed.” And then do it!
“I’ll say it differently next time.” And then do it!
“I’ll remember that when your birthday comes around.” And then do it!
“I’ll spend some time with the kids tomorrow.” And then do it!
“I’ll give you a break from your chores next Wednesday when I’m on vacation.” And then do it!
That’s your opportunity to build trust. Like a ladder; climb one rung at a time. It takes time. There’s no short-cut. And you can’t slip. You have to stay focused.
And just to be clear, the little things count big. If trust is about consistency, then it doesn’t matter what you promise. Just promise and come through.
Don’t think that just because trust came crashing down in one dramatic event (an affair or whatever) that you have to reestablish it with one dramatic event too. You can rebuild trust by making and keeping SMALL promises over an extended period of time. This is how John can rebuild the trust he broke. And Marcy can help by asking John to make commitments that he can keep.
That’s how to rebuild trust.
First, read another part of Marcy’s letter I omitted from above.
“Mort, the counselor we used to see before we met you suggested ‘full disclosure.’ That means that John has to check-in with me upon my request and I’m allowed to check his emails, cell phone messages, and credit card bills whenever I want. Our counselor said that that would give me peace of mind and she made John agree to give me all his access codes and passwords. What do you think about this approach? Will it help me get to trust?”
This is a terrible idea! And it won’t work. In fact, it’ll be COUNTERproductive.
“Full disclosure” gives you information. But information is unrelated to trust. You could be sitting right next to someone in complete awareness of their whereabouts, but still not trust them. You might not be curious about their whereabouts, but it does not mean you trust them.
The irony of the advice Marcy received from her counselor is that trust is not about finding comfort through information; it’s about being comfortable when you DON’T have information. That’s what trust is…”I don’t know where you are or what you’re doing, but I know I’m safe.”
Since the absence of information is necessary for trust to blossom, the acquisition of information actually inhibits the process. In other words, the advice from Marcy’s counselor interferes with the goal she’s trying to achieve.
It’s also ridiculous advice from a practical perspective. No matter how hard one tries to know what’s going on in their spouse’s life, there will always be unknowns. Unless you’re going to attach yourself at the hip, you can’t know everything. So from a practical perspective, you’ll never achieve comfort by acquiring information because there’ll always be unknowns that will leave you feeling uncertain.
Acquiring information in an effort to build trust is like trying to make more money in order to be happy. It’s not getting more of it that’s the key; it’s learning to be at peace with LESS.
One final word about how to rebuild trust in your marriage. This is particularly relevant if you’re NOT the one who breached the trust between you. In other words, if you’re Marcy in the story above, listen carefully.
I remember when my son was learning to swim. He would push off from the side of the pool and swim to me. Each time I would back up further to help him develop more strength and confidence.
One day I thought he was doing great, so I moved back from the side of the pool much further than I had ever before. He said, “Daddy, I can’t swim that far. Come closer.”
I responded, “You’ve been swimming beautifully. I think you’re ready to do it. You can do it. Go ahead.”
“You really think so?” he asked.
“I believe with all my heart that you can make it. Go ahead,” I said.
He was a little concerned about the length of the swim, but the more I affirmed my belief in him the more he started to believe in himself. Eventually, he pushed off from the side of the pool and swam all the way to where I was standing.
We all have the ability to be trustworthy. In the depths of our heart, we want to be a person of integrity. We want to be trusted. But sometimes we have to be given trust first. Sometimes we need for someone to believe in us.
Look into the soul of your spouse. Try to see the seeds of greatness within them.
Give your spouse trust. Even if they don’t deserve it; trust them anyway. Believe in them. Your faith in them will affirm their sense of worth and inspire them to meet your expectations. Believe in your spouse, not in what you see, but in what you don’t see but you know is there.
The great poet Goethe said, “Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is; treat a man as he can and should be and he will become as he can and should be.”
This is another reason why the “full disclosure” approach is disastrous. You end up treating someone like they can’t be trusted, essentially affirming for them that they are untrustworthy. And you’ll get just what you expect.
But if you treat your spouse as a person of the highest moral standards, they will be inspired to realize the greatness that you see in them.
Our marriage was on its last breath. We had tried everything. I lost hope & contemplated if life was worth living. I signed up. In a short period of time we saw results. I needed the step by step instruction Mort provided.
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