A wise person once told me: “the only way you can know if you can trust someone, is to trust them.” Trust is the glue that creates bonds between people, communities, and humanity at large. Engaging with others is risky. And when it comes to falling in love? It’s exhilarating and occasionally terrifying to be in an intimate relationship because, all of a sudden the actions of someone else have the potential to cause pain.
To build a healthy relationship, trust is a must. Still, trust remains somewhat of a leap of faith. It takes time to build, and for some, it comes easier than others. But what happens when you’ve taken the leap, and that person breaks your trust? What happens when you feel betrayed, rejected, or abandoned? How do you heal? How long does the healing process take?
Rebuilding trust is a noble challenge. It takes character and courage to acknowledge you’ve trusted someone, you’ve been hurt, and you’re willing to give a second (or third, or fourth…) chance. How does this rebuilding process begin? How do you heal? And can relationships thrive after broken trust?
This article will dive deep into all of these questions and all the feelings associated with relationship work, before offering solutions to get your healing journey underway and your relationship moving forward.
Trust and betrayal — two sides of the same coin
Trust is a fundamental quality in healthy relationships.
The American Psychological Association defines trust as “reliance on or confidence in the dependability of someone or something” and “the degree to which each party feels that they can depend on the other party to do what they say they will do.” Broken trust, then, is any behavior that goes against what has been agreed upon in terms of acceptable.
Psychologist Erik Erikson, a pioneer in human development, identified that basic trust is the first stage of development, occurring around the age of two. Infants have to put trust in caregivers in order to survive. For Erikson, this stage was one of trust vs. mistrust. If the child’s needs are met, they’re more likely to develop stability into adulthood, while the opposite can lead to anxiety and insecurity.
Building trust is important and applies to all relationships. It’s crucial in parent child dynamics, in romantic relationships, in friendships, and in professional settings. Ideally, trust would exist between people and institutions, from governments to those in positions of power.
Erikson’s work models other theories around attachment styles. Someone who has had a healthy upbringing at this age develops hope that, when faced with crises, people will support them. Those who haven’t had their needs met might feel alone or hopeless when facing situations that require support. All these feelings are normal.
The relevance of Erikson’s model is the adaptability of people to trust others. In order to be betrayed, you have to trust. The more mistrusting someone is, the more sensitive they’ll become to signs of betrayal — often, this can be a sign of trauma, rather than genuine betrayal. For example, someone who feels betrayed that their partner is in contact with an ex might overreact if they lack the basic level of security.
Betrayal only comes after trust. Without trust, there’s no betrayal. You can see the catch: if you never trust anyone, never put faith in others, you’ll never run the risk of betrayal.
But the question then is: is it better to trust, and run the risk? Or never to trust at all?
Why does betrayal hurt so much?
Even the word itself, betrayal, seems to evoke something primal in the gut.
It’s a theme played out in poetry, art, and storytelling throughout history. Putting trust in someone or something, and feeling that trust is broken, is as heartbreaking as it gets. Putting faith in others is an act of surrender, because, ultimately, you can never control someone else’s actions. You put your own feelings in their hands, and you hope they will treat those feelings with care.
Like all of us, I’ve had my fair share of betrayal in life. I’ve had partners cheat on me. One of my exes was using Tinder while visiting me on our anniversary weekend. I’ve made plans only for them to be discarded at the last moment.
My heart’s been broken many times, but deep down, like the hopeless romantic I am, I’ve always felt that love is worth it. Betrayed partners tune into the possibility of someone letting them down more easily perhaps, but it doesn’t mean that they aren’t willing to risk hurt feelings to try again in the future.
Better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all?
Being willing to try again doesn’t make experiencing the hurt any easier.
Betrayal hurts because opening your heart to another leads to a strong sense of vulnerability. The more you choose to open your heart to someone, the more painful it can feel when that person does something that feels like it breaks that trust. In the wise words of Brené Brown:
“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.
“Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.
“Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.”
Notice that Brown doesn’t say damage to the roots of love is a deal-breaker. We live in an increasingly throwaway society, where the temptation is to avoid pain altogether, to run at the first sign of betrayal in intimate relationships.
But what if these injuries are acknowledged, and healed? What if growing close to someone includes the desire to fully investigate the fear of betrayal? Is it impossible to repair broken trust? Can we make our partner aware of how important our feelings are?
How to rebuild trust
I want to take a moment to acknowledge the courage it takes to even consider rebuilding trust – with or without professional help. There’s a balance to be found between forgiving, and trusting again, and knowing when to call an end to a relationship.
My hope is that, in exploring the following steps, you’ll get a clearer idea of how to rebuild trust in a healthy way, while taking responsibility for your personal growth through the process.
These steps are broken down into four stages:
- Dissecting the betrayal
- Finding your inner compass
- Putting yourself in their shoes
- The rebuilding process
1. Dissecting the betrayal
As Brene Brown says, injuries can be recovered from if they’re acknowledged, healed, and rare. The first thing to do is to dissect the betrayal with as much clarity as you can find.
This can be difficult in the beginning — allow yourself a period of time to feel the impact, and for the emotional waves to start to settle, before finding your center and engaging the rational mind.
When it comes to the betrayal itself, consider your negotiables and non-negotiables. These are the behaviors in relationships that are negotiable, or recoverable, or those that are deal breakers.
No matter how much you love someone, how forgiving or spiritually evolved you are, there has to be a line in the sand, a stage of enough is enough. You can’t forgive the same person over and over again forever and expect them to change, after all.
At the core of your negotiables lie your inherent values. You might be someone that values honesty and integrity above all else. This is noble because it doesn’t always avoid hurtful feelings.
For example, would you rather your partner be fully open and honest about wanting to prioritize other relationships from time to time? If you’re a couple that values having full social relations outside of the relationship, that will be more a negotiable, not a dealbreaker. Knowing more about your relationship goals is important.
Then consider, is the betrayal a broken agreement? If so, is this agreement forgivable? For example, you might feel that being cheated on by a romantic partner marks the end of the relationship, no questions asked. Or you might feel that a friend breaking their word, and letting you down in a significant way, is hurtful, and not acceptable, but something that can be worked through.
Keep in mind the frequency of behavior. If you’ve been with someone for a few years, and things happen very rarely, there’s more chance of them being worked through. But if you’re finding yourself in this situation over and over again, even if the other person acts without malice, it could be a sign that there’s a lack of fundamental compatibility.
As much as it can be tempting to place all the blame on the other person, there’s always some responsibility you can take. For example, was this person’s behavior a breach of trust in a way that you didn’t communicate? In my current relationship, I’ve experienced a lot of “betrayals” that, when looked at closer, were down to unexpressed expectations I had.
The real gut-wrenching work here is to have enough self-honesty to see where you can grow. My partner is still on very good terms with her ex, for example. And I’ve had numerous occasions where I’ve decided to get over my pride and stretch myself, even though my ego wanted to flee and point blame.
To recap, the steps at the first stage of rebuilding trust are:
- Waiting for emotional waves to calm, and viewing the betrayal as clearly and calmly as possible
- Consider if the other person’s behavior is negotiable or non-negotiable
- Explore the agreements and values that have been broken
- Take responsibility for your role
Finding your inner-compass
The understanding that you don’t have to be with someone for life if things aren’t working out is, at times, easier said than done. Love, or even familiarity or fear of change, can keep unhealthy relationships in place.
If you find that you’re constantly grappling with feelings of betrayal, it’s time to relinquish your focus on the relationship and put your needs center stage.
This is the stage of finding your inner compass. As clinical as it can sound, really consider what you want from a relationship, what your relationship is offering (or not offering), and whether on balance it’s the best thing for you, long-term. This is difficult because it requires taking a wide perspective. But it’s essential to avoid falling into traps where unacceptable behavior or standards are perpetuated, and resentment builds.
Reconnect deeply to your values, goals, and purpose outside of the relationship. Consider how you invest your energy, time, and emotions. Find the bigger picture of the relationship. For example, if someone lets you down, the response will be different if that person does this regularly, or if they show up consistently and sometimes don’t communicate with you clearly.
Part of this process is to take an honest look at your expectations. Sky-high standards can be a sign of unconscious mistrust. If you set the bar incredibly high, you always avoid actually opening yourself to someone else, because no one will meet the required expectations that’ll encourage you to become vulnerable.
Picture someone who is excessively jealous, who feels betrayed by their partner just talking to someone of the opposite sex. Clearly, these expectations are unfair, and the onus is on the person to work on their issues with jealousy. In other words, this stage requires self-reflection and shadow work.
Equally, many people with low self-worth accept behaviors that others wouldn’t, through fear around expressing needs or feeling deserving.
Put yourself in their shoes
In the paper Building and rebuilding trust, Michele Williams notes the importance of perspective-taking on rebuilding trust. “Perspective taking refers to the process of ‘imagining another person’s thoughts or feeling from that person’s point of view,’” she writes. “Perspective-taking not only fosters understanding and caring actions that build social bonds, but also is likely to play a central role in active trust-building and trust repair.”
She notes that rebuilding trust is more difficult than trusting initially, due to fear of more harm. Interestingly, by putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, you can consider the additional context. This aligns with the fundamental attribution error, a cognitive bias where we tend to judge others on personality, not context or life factors.
Can you put yourself aside, let go of the pain and the reactivity, and truly connect to the other person’s intentions. Is there room for forgiveness? Are there questions you can ask that might give more context, and more understanding? You don’t want to fall into the trap of rationalizing unfair or hurtful behavior, but instead, try to create as much understanding as you can.
The rebuilding process
After taking time to reflect and gain inner clarity, the final stage is to bring in your newfound insight and to start a dialogue with the other person.
It goes without saying that if you feel betrayed, and there’s no willingness in the other person to discuss or to work through the issue, it’s likely the damage is too much, and the relationship can’t recover (or continue with unhealthy or toxic dynamics).
If the person is willing to acknowledge their behavior, make amends, explain, answer questions, and consider solutions, there’s every chance the relationship can grow and even deeper levels of intimacy can be found. This is true for someone in a romantic relationship, or even those experiencing platonic love.
A great starting point is to gain clarity around whether the other person also acknowledges their behavior as a betrayal. If they do, the next step is to consider how to avoid a future event, and what steps will have to be taken to rebuild and heal. If they don’t, do your best to remain centered and understand how they’ve arrived at that conclusion.
Were agreements and expectations communicated? Has this betrayal led to a conversation around the importance of having a clear mutual understanding of what behaviors are or aren’t acceptable? For example, some couples view non-monogamy as acceptable, but within those parameters, there are still behaviors that could breach trust.
Communication and clarity are essential at this stage, as well as patience. It might be worth considering whether one or both people need to seek individual therapy to deeper uncover the motivations that led to the hurtful behavior, or the inability to communicate clearly and honestly.
There’s no guidebook around trust. Guidance can be useful, but ultimately, it’s a matter of trial and error. How do you find the sweet spot? Trust requires an element of risk, that’s unavoidable. The greater the love, the greater the depth, the more the likelihood of some level of pain. But isn’t that what makes life worth living? Isn’t the juice of finding your twin flame worth the squeeze?
I want to be clear that there’s no need for masochism. You don’t want to excuse unhealthy behavior or constant betrayal in the name of love. But finding the balance means acknowledging your wounds, and being willing to stretch yourself outside of your comfort zone. Forgive yourself for having trusted and been hurt.
We’re human, we’re flawed. Perhaps part of the journey of deep intimacy is occasion mishaps, where trust is damaged, only to be rebuilt stronger.
Above all else remain connected to your heart, be true to yourself, and respect your values, without being overly protective or guarded.
After all, the only way you can know if you can trust someone after they’ve betrayed your trust, is to trust them again.