It can happen in an instant. Everything seems to be going great in your relationship or friendship, and one day, you stumble upon that text message they were hiding from you. Or your boss accidentally copies you on an email that wasn’t meant for you. It feels like your world is set on fire.
It can also happen gradually. They show up late to your event. They forget to run that important errand you asked them to do. Money disappears from your account or a stranger knocks on your door. The person you thought you knew is nothing but a shadow. Your world ends up in ashes.
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, and 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, if the relationship is going to survive, you have to choose to trust again.
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Make no mistake: You can do this. I’ve seen it done many times. Relationships can come back stronger than ever. But this isn’t some warm and fuzzy emotional nonsense. If you wait until you feel like it, you’ll never get around to it.
However, if you’re willing to put in the work to revive your relationship, let’s begin.
Signs of a Lack of Trust in the Relationship
If you’re experiencing these signs in your relationship, then it’s time to get serious about rebuilding trust:
Secrets destroy relationships. Now listen: When I say secrets, I don’t mean telling everyone everything. A secret is purposefully hiding something from someone with an intent to deceive them. This is not about secretly preparing a birthday party or being wise and discerning about personal histories, especially early in a relationship. This is about loading up credit card debt that your partner doesn’t even know about or ending every browsing session on your computer by clearing your search history because you feel you need to hide your web traffic.
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 when you’re not around. 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—all in an effort to protect yourself. It makes more sense to shoot first than to get close and risk being hurt again.
Anxiety is an alarm that alerts you when you’re feeling disconnected, unsafe or out of control. Mistrust is a toxic cocktail of all three 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.
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-scenario stories about who they’re with and what they’re doing.
How to Rebuild Trust in 8 Steps
Here’s an important analogy I want you to keep in mind: Picture the remains of the twin towers after the horrific 9/11 attacks. The once-beautiful buildings were reduced to dust—ashes, shattered glass, bent and twisted steel, charred and unrecognizable bits of buildings.
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, right?
"You can’t drag the past into the present and pretend things can ever be the same. The future can be worse, or it can be extraordinary. The choice is yours."
-Dr. John Delony
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. You can’t drag the past into the present and pretend things can ever be the same. The future can be worse, or it can be extraordinary. The choice is yours.
1. Take responsibility for the role you played.
Own up to what you did, whatever part you played, even if it was small. If you were the person who committed the betrayal, be honest and acknowledge the damage and hurt you caused. And even if you were the one hurt, you might have played a significant role in the break in the relationship. Bring your hurts to the table, listen well, and take ownership for your mistakes.
Remember: This is not about winning or losing. It’s about putting all the cards on the table, faceup. No more secrets, no more shadows. If someone “wins” and the other person “loses,” you both lose.
2. Practice forgiveness.
Choosing not to forgive inevitably leads to bitterness. Bitterness is drinking poison hoping someone else will die. More than likely, you’ll have to decide to forgive yourself and/or your partner. 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, and it isn’t contingent on someone else’s behavior. Forgiveness is a choice you make to lighten your own load.
3. Leave the past in the past.
If you say you’re all in on the relationship moving forward, choose to let the past remain in the past. It’s over. Now, this doesn’t mean you don’t learn lessons that will go with you for the rest of your life. It means the past is no longer a weapon for making you feel more important or for winning an argument.
You cannot edit the past. When you agree to start over, you put a period at the end of the old sentence and ask yourself, What sentence do I want to write next? Yes, the hurt will resurface from time to time—often when you least expect it. You’ll be tempted to fall back into old patterns of mistrust. Choose to intentionally shift your mindset to the next chapter of the story you’re writing.
4. Allow time and space for grief.
Give yourself (and the other person) plenty of time to move through grief. Don’t stuff or ignore your feelings or emotions, but also don’t let them dictate how you behave. Be patient and understanding with each other since everyone grieves differently. Don’t judge your partner if they’re not healing as quickly (or in the same way) as you. Never, ever compare grief with anyone. Don’t.
5. Follow through on the small things.
Work to establish trust in the mundane matters of life. It’s hard to trust someone with the big things when they can’t even come through on the small 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 man or a woman of your word.
6. Choose to practice vulnerability.
Trust is built through open, honest exchange of thoughts, feelings and experiences. Put another way: You’ve got to decide if you’re going to be vulnerable again. And yes, this means you might get hurt again. In fact, you can probably count on it. But vulnerability is the only soil that allows relationships to grow. It opens up new levels of love and connection that you never thought possible.
7. Attend to the deeper issues.
The broken trust might not have been intentional, but in most cases, it 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 inform your current relationships? Are you remaining in dysfunctional relationships because you’re afraid to be honest with yourself?
If you want to truly heal and move forward, you’ve got to do some “soul-spelunking.” What resentment or wounds or fears are buried deep? What beliefs and habits paved the way for you to make those hurtful decisions? How do you and your partner need to change the way you relate to and communicate with each other?
This is important work to do as individuals and as a couple. If necessary, work with a professional therapist who can guide you through this process.
8. Co-create a new future.
Let’s come full circle to our analogy about the twin towers. Right now, you’re staring at the heaps of ashes and broken glass. If you and your partner are all in on moving forward, you’ve got to sweep the foundation clean, gather some building materials, and get to work.
Spend lots of unrushed time together to simply connect and be in each other’s presence. Get to know each other again. Have fun and be silly. Create time for serious conversations. Dream about the future. Paint a picture—be very specific—of the kind of relationship you want and the kind of life you want to build together from here on out.
How Long Does It Take to Rebuild Trust?
Each relationship has a unique timeline for rebuilding trust. It depends on your ability to communicate, the depth of the hurt, and the commitment to grow that each of you brings to the table. Sometimes, rebuilding trust takes weeks. Other times, it takes years. It’s rarely clean or simple. But it’s often transformational and worth it.
The key is to be patient with yourself and your partner. Each day, you must choose to do the hard and beautiful work of establishing—and choosing—trust.
You Don’t Have to Feel Anxious About Your Relationship
Like we talked about before, anxiety is one of the natural consequences of a relationship that’s lost trust. When you feel disconnected, unsafe and out of control, your body and your brain will sound every anxiety alarm that it’s got.
When you’ve lost trust in someone else and your relationship, anxiety can become a very real challenge. I’d love for you to check out my Quick Read, Redefining Anxiety, as you work through this together. You’ll learn how to listen to what the anxiety alarms are telling you and create a plan to move forward.