One of the realities of relationships is the fact that one partner may betray another. Betrayal can happen many ways beyond the obvious sexual or emotional infidelity. It can happen in any area where there is an understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable in the relationship such as decisions around money, parenting, or any other major areas of life. It can be a heart wrenching experience that leads to the question of, “should I stay in this relationship? Can I trust this person again?”
It does come down to a question of trust. It makes no sense to continue in a relationship where you don’t feel safe. By safe I mean that the other person will choose to act in ways that respect the agreements of the relationship. If someone steals from you would you trust them with your belongings again if you didn’t have reason to believe it would be different? I think you’d be silly if you did.
The good news is that trust can be rebuilt. It isn’t necessarily easy but with the right effort it can, and often does, happen. One of the challenges for the person trying to earn back trust is that they don’t get to decide when the other person should trust again. They can choose to say I’m done trying but they don’t get to tell the other person that they “should just trust me now.” It takes time. Trust isn’t rebuilt quickly.
I get why the betrayer might want it to go quickly. They have to live with the discomfort that they betrayed someone they love and care about. That feeling sucks and they want it to go away as quickly as possible. The longer they have to work to rebuild trust the longer they have to feel that discomfort. The desire for that discomfort to go away leads to one of the most common ways I see clients sabotage their attempts to earn back trust.
It happens during a small but incredibly important moment. I should say moments because the same situation will come up multiple times in the process. And each time is equally important. It may be that the betrayer is working very hard to earn back trust. There may have been multiple discussions about what happened. Questions have been asked and answered. But the process takes time. Just because an emotion gets dealt with once doesn’t mean it might not arise again. When the partner wants to talk about things again, to ask questions (old or new) . The partner will turn to the betrayer to voice a fear, or ask a question, or looking for steps that will be taken to assure it doesn’t happen again.
It is in that moment that I see a response that can undermine everything else. The betrayer, because they feel the discomfort of thinking about what they’ve done, will often act exasperated, irritated, or angry. They may roll their eyes. They may ask why they have to talk about it again when they’ve already talked about it. They may ask why the other person isn’t over it yet.
What that reaction says is, “my desire to not feel uncomfortable is more important than your desires.” Your desire to feel sure I’m taking this seriously. Your desire to understand how my actions impacted you. Your desire to feel you have reason to trust me. In other words, it says, “I don’t want to have to do the hard work it takes to rebuild trust. I want you to just automatically trust me again.”
I’ve heard clients say, “I haven’t done it again. My word should be good enough.” The trouble is, it was their word that they violated the first time. Thinking that somehow their word still carries the same weight just doesn’t make sense. Their word has to be rebuilt and they aren’t willing to do it. It was their willingness to put their comfort and desires ahead of the commitments they made to their partner that caused this in the first place. Suggesting you magically won’t do it again is not evidence that someone should trust you.
If you truly want to rebuild trust, you have to do the work. It may be uncomfortable. It may be hard. But putting your comfort ahead of your partners isn’t going to convince them they should trust you. Don’t miss that moment.
By Alex E. Proimos (https://www.flickr.com/photos/proimos/4199675334/) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons