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By Emily Stone
When we think of breaking trust in a couple relationship we often think of infidelity. The truth is that trust can be built…and broken…in a variety of ways. Trust is built slowly over time. It is also broken with seemingly small actions and inactions that erode at the sense of safety in a relationship. The tiny chippings away at trust are as lethal to a relationship as sexual infidelity.
Most of us know that we build trust when we do what we say we are going to do. We also build trust when we are willing to say things like:
“I’m sorry. I was wrong. You were right.”
“I had not thought of it that way before. Thank you for sharing your perspective with me. I respect what you have to say.”
“I am not afraid of your emotions. It is ok to cry with me. It is okay to express hurt to me.”
We reinforce trust every time we stay close when things feel hard. We create safety when we put our phone down and really listen. We build trust when we remember things that are important to our partner. We build a world for our relationship that feels secure when we do anything that communicates: “I see you. I hear you. You are safe with me.”
When trust is broken in a relationship it is as though our nervous systems become like a frayed rope. The edges are wiry and exposed. The rug gets ripped out from under us. We lose that sense of safety that allows us to breathe easily in a relationship. We become hypervigilant and constantly on guard, waiting for the next experience of pain. Often, losing trust in our partner is so unbelievably painful that our minds, bodies, and emotions work together to do anything to keep from hurting again. We literally are on the defensive… that makes all the sense in the world because our partner suddenly is simultaneously our source of comfort and pain. That feeling is terrifying. Mixed into the experience is our filter of how we see and hear our partner based on past relational experiences with early caregivers and previous partners. Often a rupture in trust reinforces and confirms old painful scripts we have learned from very early in our lives.
Children in homes where their parents are emotionally, physically and/or sexually abusive experience a similar terror. Again, their parent is both their source of comfort and pain. This experience is incredibly disorienting for children. Kids in these situations often behave erratically and may act out in school or at home. They don’t know how to make sense of their world.
The same is true for us when we experience a painful break in trust with our partner. It is disorienting. We might behave erratically or act out. This disorientation is normal. The acting out makes sense. We feel threatened and scared. We are doing the best we can to figure out how to be safe even if those strategies aren’t working effectively.
Relationships are between human beings, and because human beings are not perfect, there will be moments when trust is violated. Relationships will experience ruptures. Big and small ruptures happen on a regular basis in relationships. The hope is found in the repair. Relationships can rebuild trust when there is relational attunement and work towards rebuilding safety and understanding. The roadmap to this space is deceptively simple. Again, it is anything that communicates. “I see you…your pain, your hurt, your fear. I hear you…your grief, your anger, your disappointment. You…and all of these things…are safe with me.”
Repair also works best when remembering that it is us against this thing that happened to us and not you against me.
Repair through safety, attunement, and understanding can sound like a tall order when this kind of pain is involved. Both partners are hurt and feel scared, threatened and are on the defensive. A person who has been violated will not readily settle into this space. That is why therapy with a skilled couples’ therapist can be a valuable investment into your relationship. A couples’ therapist who is trained to hold space for the incredible hurt that can be experienced when trust has been broken in a relationship can lead a couple to soothe the frayed nervous system that is the result of the violation. Individual partners and the couple as a system tends to be hypervigilant and reactive after a rupture. The couples’ therapist is an instrument to help both partners and the system recover from inevitable hurt between two humans. The greatest hope is that sometimes the safety and security built after a rupture and repair can be even stronger and more resilient than before the painful event.
This kind of repair work is not safe nor is it intended for situations where there is active abuse in a relationship. In fact, it can be dangerous to practice some of these efforts in an abusive relationship. A therapist can help you determine the best route for care and healing in these situations.
Although rebuilding trust can be difficult, counseling can facilitate the process. Many of our therapists are able to assist in this particular area. You can read more about couples counseling or dating and relationships counseling or our dedicated pages. If you feel you are ready to see someone immediately, you can contact us to make a counseling appointment.