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Learn to Trust Again

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Trust takes years to develop and only a moment to destroy. Ronn Elmore, Psy.D., explains how trust works and how to rebuild trust in your relationship

Carol had always known Melvin was passionate about cards. The two first met at a bid-whist party, where the host teamed them up. But she had no idea how obsessed Melvin was with gaming until the night she woke up from a sound sleep to find her husband of ten years slumped over the edge of their bed. When she asked what was wrong, he confessed that he'd messed up--really bad. In a series of lunch-hour visits to a nearby casino, Melvin had blown nearly $8,000 of the college fund they'd set up for their three children.

In that moment Carol * felt as if her world had caved in. Losing the money was bad enough. But what stopped her cold was the realization that if the man she thought she knew inside out could do something like this, then who was he? Carol wasn't sure she could ever trust him again.

The Nature of Trust

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Over the years, many women and men have sat on my counseling couch and shared their stories of violated trust. Their reactions seldom vary: "It felt as if he ran me over with a truck--I never saw it coming 'til it was too late." "Now I wonder if loving somebody is too dangerous to let happen again." "I've pretty much gotten over the hurt feelings, but I honestly don't know if I'll ever be able to trust my own judgment."

For trust to flourish, you have to believe that you know your partner's character and conduct intimately. The two should match and be consistent over a significant period of time. Trust isn't an investment blindly made but, rather, is a natural response to another's trustworthiness. Trust follows trustworthiness--not the other way around.

Doling out your trust before it's earned is often a recipe for disaster. Take the story of my client Nicole, a successful 38-year-old graphic designer who used her good credit standing and the equity in her home to launch a consulting business with her new boyfriend Jared. Though she'd only known Jared for a few months, she'd fallen for him in a big way. Nicole couldn't imagine that such a sweet-natured and hardworking man could deceive her, so she gave him full access to everything--including her home.

Trust takes years to develop and only a moment to destroy. Find out how trust works and how to rebuild it in your relationship.It proved to be a tragic mistake. Jared was a scam artist with a string of criminal convictions. Nicole lost both her impeccable credit and her house. Five years after incurring huge financial losses, Nicole says, "1 prided myself on being able to read a person's character instantly. Now I know that judging someone based on an instant read is just plain dumb."

On the other hand, it's unhealthy to approach every relationship with your guard up. Far too many of us have been raised to believe that we shouldn't trust anyone, even if that person has proven himself to be trustworthy. When every move your partner makes is filtered through a lens of suspicion, the relationship never really has a chance to grow.

So much in life is unpredictable. That's why we all need to know with some degree of certainty that we can count on the people we keep close to us. When your partner repeatedly makes choices that are consistent with his promises--keeping appointments with you, showing up on time, handling his share of the financial responsibilities--your confidence in the relationship grows. Conversely, when a mate's behavior is marred by selfishness, broken promises, chronic irresponsibility, infidelity or, as in Melvin's case, financial deception, trust is eroded. Can a relationship rebound from such a breach? The answer is a resounding yes, but only with a sincere commitment from both parties to rebuild what has been damaged.

When Trust Is Lost

No two stories of shattered trust are alike. But as these examples (based on real couples I've counseled) illustrate, one principle is universal: It takes time--and lots of hard work--to learn to trust again.

John and Vivian: Undercover Addiction

The situation: John and Vivian met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. She had been clean and sober for more than nine years, he for just more than a year. Vivian first caught John's eye when she stood at the podium to share the gritty story of her troubled life and past addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs. "She was so gorgeous, I couldn't take my eyes off her," he recalls. "But what hooked me was her incredible honesty and the commitment she had to her sobriety." They soon became best friends, and after Vivian supported John through a bout with clinical depression--and the serious threat of a relapse into drinking--romance bloomed. "I thought of her as my perfect angel," he says.

Two days after the couple announced their engagement, John's neighbor, who had just gotten a job at a drugstore on the other side of town, called him and dropped a bombshell: On her first day on the job, she had spotted a poorly disguised Vivian trying to fill a prescription for codeine by using a fake name and ID. With a little more investigation, he learned that his "perfect angel" had been getting drugs there for months. Vivian was using again.

The aftermath: When John confronted Vivian she denied everything. She eventually came clean, tearfully vowing that it would never happen again. John asked her to publicly confess her relapse to their AA group and go to counseling. Vivian agreed to the counseling but persuaded John that the public confession was a bad idea "that would discourage others who looked to her as a role model." John didn't push her. "As usual, when it came to AA stuff, I always went along with what Vivian said," he says.