It can happen in an instant.
It can also happen gradually.
No matter how it happens, broken trust is painful and disorienting. Every relationship, whether it’s with friends, family or a romantic partner, is built on trust. When that foundation is shaken, you are shaken. Whether you’re in the wake of a massive betrayal, or struggling with a string of small broken promises, you must choose to trust again if you want the relationship to survive.
But relationships can come back stronger than ever. I’m not talking about a bunch of warm and fuzzy emotional nonsense, though. If you wait until you feel like it, you’ll never get around to it. It’s time to get serious about rebuilding trust if you’re experiencing the following signs in your relationships:
Anxiety is an alarm that alerts you when you’re feeling disconnected, unsafe or out of control. Mistrust is a toxic cocktail of these ingredients: You’re distant, you’re open to hurt, and it’s impossible to control the other person’s behavior. If you feel anxious about your relationship, you might be lacking trust in them, yourself or both.
Being controlling is one of the telltale signs of a toxic relationship. You’re always monitoring, checking in, reading text and Facebook messages, or feeling fearful of what the other person is doing. You ask them where they’ve been and where they’re going. Every interaction feels like an interrogation, or an opportunity to exert power.
Anger and Blame
When you lack trust with someone, you’re often quick to suspect, blame and become angry with them. You’ve been hurt before, so you’re quick to accuse people in an effort to protect yourself.
A secret is purposefully hiding something from someone with an intent to deceive them. This is not about secretly preparing a birthday party. This is about loading up credit card debt that your partner doesn’t know about, or ending every browsing session on your computer by clearing your search history because you want to hide your web traffic.
Catastrophizing is the nerd word for assuming the worst. It’s when you expect someone to make a bad decision, to cheat, to hurt you, to show up late (again). It’s when your default setting switches from giving the benefit of the doubt to making up worst-case-scenarios.
Rebuilding Trust in 8 Steps
Picture the remains of the twin towers after the 9/11 attacks. The once-beautiful buildings were reduced to ugly piles of rubble. It would’ve been absurd to try to sweep up the broken bits and pieces, glue them back together, and reconstruct the buildings with the same materials.
The same is true of a relationship that has suffered a deep violation of trust. You and your partner, sibling, friend or parent must commit to co-creating something new. Start from ground zero. Excavate everything, and commit to designing, engineering and building something meaningful.
- Take responsibility
Own up to what you did, even if it was small. If you were the person who committed the betrayal, be honest and acknowledge the damage and hurt you caused. Even if you were the one hurt, you might have played a role in the break in the relationship. Bring your hurts to the table, listen well and take ownership.
- Practice forgiveness
Choosing not to forgive leads to bitterness. Forgiveness is both a one-time choice, and an ongoing decision, not to hold the past against someone. Forgiveness isn’t contingent on a feeling or on someone else’s behavior. Forgiveness is a choice you make to lighten your own load.
- Leave the past in the past
This doesn’t mean you don’t learn lifelong lessons. It means the past is no longer a weapon. Yes, the hurt will resurface from time to time. You’ll be tempted to fall back into old patterns of mistrust. But you must choose to intentionally shift your mindset to the next chapter.
- Allow time and space for grief
Give yourself (and the other person) plenty of time to move through things. Don’t ignore your feelings or emotions, but don’t let them dictate how you behave, either. Be patient, understanding and don’t judge the other person if they’re not healing as quickly as you.
- Small things mean a lot
Work to establish trust in simple things. Show up to your kid’s dance recitals. If you say you’ll do the laundry, do it. If you promise to be home for dinner, keep that promise. Be a person who is true to their word.
- Practice vulnerability
Trust is built through open and honest exchanges of thoughts, feelings and experiences. In other words, being vulnerable again. Yes, this means you might get hurt—again. But vulnerability is the only soil that allows relationships to grow.
- Address the deeper issues
Breaking someone’s trust may not have been intentional, but in most cases, it still wasn’t an accident. There’s a reason things deteriorated to this point, both within you and within the relationship. Are you allowing stories and voices from your past to harm your current relationships? Are you remaining in dysfunctional relationships because you’re afraid to be honest with yourself?
This is important work. If necessary, find a good professional therapist to guide you through things.
- Create a new future
Spend lots of time together simply connecting. Get to know each other again. Have fun and be silly. Create time for serious conversations. Be specific about the kind of relationship you want.
Remember, each relationship is different. Each has a unique timeline for rebuilding trust. Sometimes, rebuilding trust takes weeks. Other times, it takes years. It’s rarely clean or simple, but it’s often transformational.