Trusting Again after Affair – Two-Person Job
Updated: Feb 20, 2019
Q: “She cheated on me! She lied to me! How can I ever trust her again?”
A: Though it is possible, it is by no means an easy task and certainly not an endeavor that can be undertaken single handedly. William Yeats wrote in “A Prayer for My Daughter”: “Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned.” By the same token, trust in a relationship is not to be given, it is to be earned.
Infidelity causes a profound hurt, violation and betrayal of trust. At times, because it shakes the foundations of the hurt partner’s basic relationship assumptions and belief system about themselves, their partner, and their relationship, an affair may generate a level of distress comparable to a trauma response. Justifiably then, restoring trust and security in a relationship after affair is difficult and can take years, occasionally even a lifetime.
Both partners need to take part in the process of rebuilding trust. The hurt partner needs to give the unfaithful partner clear indication of what the latter can do, what specific behaviors and changes will contribute to rekindling trust. They also must reinforce the unfaithful one’s efforts to reestablish their confidence. The unfaithful partner, on their part, must exhibit consistent reliability in doing what they say they will do – in following through on their promises, agreements, and commitments. This is certainly a situation where actions speak louder than words; it is not solely about apologizing and promising fidelity.
In this process, the injured partner will need to take a risk, place themselves in a vulnerable position of uncertainty and seeing what will happen. Such exposure can be understandably extremely anxiety provoking. Therefore, it is advisable to begin with taking small steps in “limited-risk” areas so that if the interaction is not successful, the impact is not too overwhelming (e.g., trusting that the unfaithful partner will pick up a take-away for dinner on their way from work is less dangerous than trusting that that partner will follow through on the agreement stop all contact with the affair person).
Moreover, when facing the monumental task of rebuilding trust after an affair, it is not helpful to approach it at a global level. Rather, trust is more likely to develop gradually based on many “limited-in-scope,” specific experiences of honesty, consistency, and dependability. From trusting a partner to remember to stop at the dry-cleaner’s on the way home to trusting them with most vulnerable feelings and thoughts… daily interactions and positive experiences in various domains afford opportunities to restore a more general sense of trust.
After an affair the need for trust is obviously the single most frequently addressed issue. Hurt partners want to be able to trust themselves again, honor their inner voice that tells them to relax and know that they will be okay. Unfaithful partners want to trust that things will change for the better, that their needs will be heard. Examining the individual, relationship and contextual factors that contributed to the affair is a prerequisite for establishing emotional safety in a relationship. Identifying both the implicit (i.e., assumed) and explicit (i.e., clearly stated) expectations, and agreeing to live by them, will support the process of rebuilding trust. And although there is obviously only one partner who strayed, both partners allowed created a space for the affair in their relationship. Thus, both will need to take an honest look and accept an appropriate share of responsibility for the affair.