Learn to Trust Again
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
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.
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.
The turning point: As serious as Vivian's drug use was, it was only a symptom of more deeply rooted issues, as she learned during the counseling process. "I was really addicted to being perceived as perfect and maintaining the approval--from John and everyone else--hat comes with it," she explains. John's baggage had also played a part in the couple's drama. "I hadn't owned up to the pressure I put on Vivian by treating her like she was my spiritual guru instead of my girl," he says. "I didn't even want to know that she might struggle with some fears or weaknesses just like anybody else. Who wants to admit that their guru has clay feet, too?"
The road to recovery: For Vivian and John, moving forward meant starting over. They put their wedding plans on hold and, with counseling, worked to build a new, mutually honest relationship. Vivian committed to being more open about her moments of self-doubt and her struggles with perfectionism. John said he would strive to be more attentive to Vivian, even when she revealed things about herself that he didn't want to hear. He also resolved to be more assertive about holding Vivian--and himself--accountable as they worked to rebuild their relationship.
Dina and Lee: Serial Infidelity
The situation: Dina had a gut feeling something was wrong. It was similar to the one she had had when her husband, Lee, stepped out on her for the first time. There had been too many last-minute business trips and too many nights without a call to say he'd made it safely to his destination or simply to see how things were holding up on the home front. And that's not all that was unusual: "I had noticed that we hardly ever argued anymore and that we weren't having sex quite as much as before," she says.
Dina finally followed her hunch and hired a private investigator to check up on her husband's suspicious behavior. Two weeks later he confirmed her fears: Lee, Dina's husband of 17 years and father to their four children, wasn't leaving town as much as he said; he was checking into local motels--and not alone. Dina actually knew Lee's new mistress. It was Celeste, the marketing specialist Lee had hired away from another software firm to help turn his company around. After she came on board, business was booming and Celeste made partner.
The aftermath: When Dina confronted him, Lee was contrite and immediately ended the affair. He agreed to go to couples counseling for as long as she thought necessary. But he refused to fire Celeste. Getting rid of her at that point, he insisted, would leave a gaping hole in the company. To Lee, firing Celeste would be financial suicide.
Dina made vague threats of divorce but never acted on them. Instead she insisted that her husband recount the minute details of the sordid affair. On more than one occasion she became physically violent toward him. He called her hysterical and tried to stay out of her way.
The turning point: Their tug of war went on for nearly a year until the day Dina realized she was as angry with herself for her passivity as she had been with Lee for his infidelity. She wasn't sure she could rally herself to take necessary action on her own, so she rejoined the women's prayer group that she had abandoned after Lee's affair had become known. "I started feeling my confidence come back after one of the sisters in the group who'd been through this herself looked me in the eye and said, 'If you don't expect your husband to treat you with respect, then why should he?' "Dina summoned her courage and calmly but firmly issued an ultimatum: Either Lee would send Celeste packing, or he'd have to pack his own things and find a new place to call home.
The road to recovery: Lee wanted a business that included Celeste, but he decided that if he had to make a choice, his marriage and family came first. He negotiated a buyout settlement with Celeste and helped her find a position out of state. For a time the business faltered, but it didn't collapse. Within a year Lee's company--and marriage were afloat again.
Whenever Dina began to obsess about Lee's transgression, she reminded herself that most of their time together had been good. I value my marriage, she told herself. Then Lee jump-started his recovery by participating in an intensive therapy group for men with a history of sexual infidelity. "I discovered that my struggle was about selfishness, thinking I had worked so hard that I deserved to have whatever I wanted," he says. And day after day, month after month, Lee did everything Dina asked and more in order to prove to her that having her in his life meant more to him than anything else.
Making Up and Moving On
At first, getting beyond a loss of trust, to have a relationship that feels normal again, may seem impossible. But with time, relationships can and do recover. After Melvin's late-night confession that his gambling had gotten out of control, he and his wife separated briefly, but eventually chose to reconcile. "We had had ten great years together," Carol says. "We know we can't ignore what happened, but we just couldn't go out like that." Melvin adds, "I did have to work a lot of overtime to put back what I took, but I did what I had to do." He was probably talking about the balance of their bank account, but he could just as well have meant the level of trust in their marriage. In the end, it's important to take your mate's entire history into account, not merely one dark chapter. Consider that if the situation were reversed, you'd hope he or she would do the same. Rather than wallow in the past, resolve to envision an intimate, trusting future together--and to rise each day focused on your pursuit of it.
* All names and identifying information have been changed.
STEPS TO RESTORE TRUST
How do you begin again after the confidence you've placed in a relationship has been betrayed? These guidelines can help you regain your faith and get your relationship back on track
1. Expect an apology. You deserve it. It can be difficult for someone to own up to what they've done. But in order to move on, the offending party has to admit guilt and sincerely apologize for the harm they've caused. I'm sorry I squandered our money and deceived you about it. I regret I was unfaithful and put our relationship at risk. An apology won't dissolve the hurt or guarantee a breach of faith won't happen again. But it is a critical first step.
2. Try to understand why it happened. If you focus only on the "dirty deed," you'll find yourself caught up in a whirlpool of debilitating emotions: anger, guilt, withdrawal, depression. Both you and your partner must try to figure out what led to the transgression. Character flaws and bad conduct may not tell the entire story. Inattentiveness, poor communication and misplaced priorities can also lead to behaviors that trigger a breakdown in trust.
3. Get some help. The more devastating the incident, the less likely you'll be able to handle the fallout on your own. Seek the support of professional counselors, a spiritual adviser or a few trusted friends who can help you sort things out in a way that's productive, not punitive.
4. Spell out your expectations. For example, ask that he cease all visits to X-rated Web sites, or that she make no credit-card purchases over $50 without mutual agreement. It may seem as if you're keeping your mate on a short leash, but in fact his freedom and credibility will grow as he consistently proves by his actions that he can be trusted.
5. Make your commitment clear. Show your mate that you, too, are willing to make some concessions as you work together to reconcile the relationship. Your mutual accountability reinforces your commitment to developing a long, stable future together in spite of what has happened in the past.
Ronn Elmore, Psy.D., is a relationship therapist, ordained minister and author. His latest relationship book is An Outrageous Commitment: The 48 Vows of an Indestructible Marriage (HarperResource).