SOURCE: MARISSA GOLD/Women’s Day
How to Rebuild Broken Trust: Experts Share a Four-Step Plan
We may enter a relationship with high hopes and rose-colored glasses, but nobody’s perfect. Most couples will run into a trust issue of some sort over the course of their relationship. The most common? “Cheating,” says M. Gary Neuman, LMHC, creator of the Neuman Method. But that doesn’t necessarily mean catching your husband in bed with another woman is the only thing that can cause a rift between you and your partner. “Trust is broken whenever there is lying that creates a shift in the couple’s life,” says Neuman. “Gambling, drug use, and even emotional and online infidelity often lead to severe trust issues.”
The fact is, all of the phones, laptops, and social networks we’re glued to 24/7 provide ample opportunity for foul play. “It’s more common now for affairs to be emotional—on social media, reconnecting with a high school sweetheart—or using office chat apps or email accounts to carry on a flirtation,” says Dr. Vagdevi Meunier, PsyD, a Gottman Institute master therapist. “As Shirley Glass, author of Not Just Friends, has said, affairs are about access and opportunity.”
If trust has been broken between you and your partner, whether it was a physical affair, an emotional affair, or a gambling or drug habit, we’ve asked relationship experts to outline the exact steps you need to take if you want to work on rebuilding your relationship.
Step One: Confrontation
First things first (and no, we’re not talking about yelling and screaming): Have the confrontation in person. “Once you’ve discovered the infidelity, you need to evaluate your partner’s response,” says Neuman. “Is he apologetic and remorseful, or confused and ‘in love’ with this other person?” Don’t assume anything, fight via text or email, or make decisions about your future before having a face-to-face conversation.
In addition to talking to your partner, “you’ll feel a need to tell some people what happened because you’ll need to vent,” says Neuman. “But try to limit this sharing to those who will really be there for you and give you a safe space to share—NOT a lot of advice.” The idea is to get support without being swayed one way or another. You also don’t want to be sitting around the Thanksgiving table a year from now knowing that everyone in your family knows your dirty laundry. So be careful about who you tell, and how much you tell them.
Finally, watch out for urges to “even the score” or make some questionable decisions of your own. “Don’t create a toxic relationship by taking revenge, being vindictive, or bringing other people in,” warns Meunier. In other words, reconnecting with your own high school sweetheart for comfort is not the best idea, nor is recruiting your in-laws to chastise your partner about what he did.
Step Two: Atonement
This is a time for full transparency: “The person who made the choice to commit the act of betrayal should take time to understand the impact of his or her actions, tell the full story of the betrayal, and answer any questions their partner has,” says Meunier. “Your spouse has to want to make this relationship work, be apologetic and—in the case of an affair—be willing to completely end it with the other woman,” stresses Neuman.
It’s also a time for emotional support. It’s not uncommon to lose sleep, stop eating, or even have trouble functioning after discovering an infidelity, so Meunier encourages the offending partner to “be available to support and comfort the hurt partner.” Translation: He needs to be patient and kind and cater to you for a bit, not pop off angrily every time you want to talk about the issue.
You also need to give yourself some extra love right now: “Practicing meditation, daily gratitude, reading books on affair recovery (the ones based on scientific research are best) yoga, and journaling are all good techniques,” says Meunier. “I also encourage both partners to engage in light and easy activities that preserves a sense of continuity, fun, and a feeling of family. This can be as simple as having breakfast or dinner, watching a show on the couch together, or going grocery shopping. If there are children present, this is even more important.”
Once you’ve talked through all the details of the betrayal and have decided to recommit to one another, it’s time to start limiting how often you bring up the infidelity. “I encourage couples to only talk about the betrayal in the counselor’s office, or to set a scheduled meeting, like lunch, to do this,” says Meunier. “Avoid talking about it in closed intense environments such as the car or in the bedroom. Instead, go out on the porch—the fear of neighbors hearing will make both of you behave better.”
After you eliminate the constant “threat” environment that comes with discussing the issue, you can begin to learn how to be more connected and emotionally present with each other. How do you do that, exactly? “Once broken, trust has to be earned by small things each person does every day,” says Meunier. It’s about consistency and kindness: Be home when you say you will, avoid that work event where you know the affair partner might be, and give regular, sincere compliments to build back your partner’s self-esteem. It may take time, but if your partner is willing to show you he is committed and consistent in his actions, he’ll slowly earn back your trust. This isn’t always easy—the betraying partner has more of a burden during this time, explains Meunier—but if he sticks it out, you’ll see results. And remember, the effort shouldn’t feel one-sided: “Eventually both people need to be making small gestures of kindness,” adds Meunier.
Step Four: Building a New Relationship
At this point, you’re building a brand new emotional, physical, and social contract for the relationship. You’re connecting in a more honest way, asking for what you really need, and, “Doing whatever is necessary to affair-proof your relationship going forward,” says Meunier.
The key here on out is positive responses: “We use a term developed by Dr. Gottman called turning towards,” says Meunier. “Intimacy is built by repeated experiences of one partner bidding for their partner’s attention or affection and receiving a positive response,” says Meunier. When you receive consistent, positive reactions from one another in everyday life, trust returns. Here’s an example: “If the betraying spouse says ‘Will you watch Real Housewives with me?’ I want the hurt partner to say ‘yes’ not because they suddenly forgive their partner or love the show, but because they recognize that it costs nothing to sit quietly next to someone and watch a television show, and that doing so gives them points in the emotional bank account. Similarly, if the hurt spouse calls while you’re apart and says ‘Can you turn on Facetime and show me who is in the room with you?’ I encourage the betraying partner to do that whenever possible. Not ignoring your partner, not rejecting each other, and being kind are all ways we build a sense of normalcy and safety, which in turn builds trust.”