1) Define trust. Let's start with the basics. What does trust mean to you personally? What does it mean in a relationship? Trust is one of those words, like love, that is easier to identify than conceptualize. If you don't know what something is, how can you fix it?
2) Own your role. When trust is broken, both individuals bear some responsibility. What was yours? Each person is responsible for their own behavior, but behavior does not exist in a vacuum. Try to understand each other's behavior from both your perspective and theirs.
3) Radical honesty. Lies, dishonesty, and deception have jeopardized your relationship. Your relationship is surrounded with pain, hurt, anger, confusion, and loss. To rebuild your relationship, this is the time to be completely honest and open. Allow each other access to phones, accounts, or whichever platform was used in the trust-breaking behaviors. If you're going to be late, let your partner know ahead of time.
Hiding the truth or sharing partial truths is attractive, especially when you are trying to spare the other person's feelings or not make things worse. However, this choice makes the situation worse over time. Put everything on the table. In my couples work, both individuals are usually relieved when the complete truth is revealed. Yes, it is painful but it's more painful to think someone is being honest and finding out that they are not.
4) Empathize. This is a tough one, especially when you are feeling (and rightfully so) hurt and angry. Empathy (lack of) probably played a role in the breaking of trust, so it has to be a part of the healing process. Learn about what role empathy has played in your relationship and your daily life. Confide in each other what empathy looks and feels like to you.
5) Contextualize the origin. Breaks in trust don't just happen. When you find out about the distrust and deception it can feel like a surprise, but usually there is a trail that's much easier to see after the fact. Spend time reflecting on where things went wrong, how they went wrong, and what was your role in the process. What was happening in your relationship during this time? Were there historical signs that were ignored or downplayed?
6) Co-create a plan. Building trust is a two-way street. The relationship can't survive if it's based on one person's beliefs, rules, and demands. Sit down together and prepare for a long, honest conversation. When trust is broken, usually one person feels they have made most or all of the bad decisions. In therapy, I've seen that person surrender their rights and voice out of shame, guilt, and desperation. What I find is that seemingly selfless gesture can quickly turn into resentment and anger.
Sitting down and co-creating a plan accomplishes a few things. First, it provides balance to the plan. Each person has input and a voice. Second, it's a good step in regaining trust in that you're both working together on a plan for your relationship. Lastly, you are building confidence in yourself, the other, and the relationship as you work together.
It's not easy, and there will be bumps in the road. But a plan with both people participating will have a better chance of success than a plan where one person makes all the decisions.
7) Separate the past from the present. Focus on the present. That doesn't mean forget what has happened and all is forgiven. Certainly reflect on the past (as stated above) but don't relive the past in the present. This is very easy to say and much more difficult to live. After all, you are a human being with feelings and thoughts.
Part of your plan should include what to do when you are having a difficult time of letting go of the past. The plan might involve participating in your own therapy so you have a place to learn and process past events and feelings in a healthy way.
8) Hold each other accountable. Check in with each other regularly, and not only about the negative. If you've followed the earlier steps, then you should have a sense of what you need to hold each other accountable. Accountability doesn't mean being the relationship police and pointing out violations or the breaking of rules, it means reminding one another of promises and supporting and praising one another for progress.
9) Actions speak louder than words. Usually when trust is broken, actions carry much more weight than words. It's only natural to want to see change and progress, not just hear about it. That's the reality of the situation. The rebuilding of the relationship has to be visual.
It's important to know that even with actions, there will be mistakes and setbacks. It may feel hopeless when the relationship takes one (or two or three) steps back but look at the intent of the behavior. Even if the result was a negative, was the intent a positive?
10) It's okay to seek support. I hope these suggestions seem straightforward and maybe even simple. Usually what happens is the steps become more complex and challenging as you attempt each. If that's the case, then seek professional services if you feel it would be helpful. Whether a psychologist, trusted community member, or family member, sometimes the experience and perspective of another can help a relationship get back on its feet.
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Salmaan Toor is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Knoxville, TN. If you are interested in being notified of future posts, you can “like” The Family Center of Knoxville on facebook here or can follow me on Twitter here. Thanks for your support!