Trust is one of the fundamental building blocks of a healthy relationship, one that unfortunately can be broken. So how do you rebuild trust in a relationship?
Trust means you can count on your partner to be safe and comfortable and to be there for you when you need them the most. It means you have each other’s — and the relationship’s — best interest at heart.
Research shows that trusting your romantic partner is directly linked to positive feelings of love and happiness in a relationship. Meanwhile, other studies found that lack of trust was a significant predictor of relationship problems. So, we asked an expert how to rebuild trust in a relationship.
“Living life with someone else means sharing responsibilities, negotiating needs, showing up even when it's inconvenient, and bouncing new ideas and ways of being off of each other — you can't do any of this successfully without trust,” says Angela Caldwell, a licensed marriage and family therapist and director of the Caldwell Family Institute in Los Angeles.
“Trusting that your partner will do their share of the labor frees up valuable time and mental real estate that you can use for other important pursuits,” she adds.
“Trusting that your partner will fill in for you when you're sick, depressed, overwhelmed, or otherwise needy creates the conditions for smooth sailing inside the household and out.”
When you can't trust your partner to show up in these ways, says Caldwell, your relationship risks becoming a breeding ground for the ultimate relationship killer: resentment.
“Infidelity is what most people think of when they think of broken trust in a relationship, but sadly, there are lots of ways to break trust,” says Caldwell.
Secrets, lies, broken promises, or not meeting expectations can also break your partner’s trust. More often than not, it’s the small things that build up over time and can be just as harmful as infidelity.
“Most of us have strong feelings around money, for example, whether it's about spending versus saving, anxiety over not having enough, past negative experiences, or even financial trauma. Usually, partners have some kind of agreement about how money will be handled (verbalized or not), and when one partner breaks that agreement, trust can be absolutely decimated.”
Sharing private information with friends or family members also causes a lot of broken trust in a relationship, says Caldwell.
“And parenting brings its own pile of betrayal opportunities. One parent undermining another, one parent confiding in a child rather than their partner, or one parent sharing personal material with a child without the other parent knowing are other ways that trust can be destroyed in a relationship.”
Can broken trust ever be restored? “Of course, but not without a lot of mental and emotional effort,” says Caldwell.
Building trust with your partner is a skill that requires time, patience, and constant effort. A practical way to rebuild trust is by doing trust-building exercises together. As the saying goes, “practice makes perfect”.
Rebuilding trust in a relationship is not a one-sided process. Regardless of who broke the trust, both partners will have to put some effort in — it will require open communication, empathy, and vulnerability from both parties.
“The person responsible for breaking the trust has to accept how much damage has been done, and therefore how long this process will be,” explains Caldwell.
“They will have to be patient and diligent, and sometimes outwardly demonstrative of the efforts they are making to rebuild trust before they can expect any bending from their partners.”
The person whose trust has been broken also has some work to do. “At some point — and no, not when you're ‘ready’ because no one is ever ‘ready’ — they'll need to take some risks,” says Caldwell. “They'll need to face their own doubt and betrayal and choose to trust anyway, no matter how much they don't want to.”
Caldwell explains that in many ways, this is the partner who has the harder work to do. “They're the ones who have to go out on a limb again — the very same limb that broke last time — and give their partner another chance.”
The first step to rebuilding trust is to have a frank conversation about whether you’re both willing to commit to the journey, together.
This will seem like a no-brainer, but aside from a willingness to work together to rebuild trust, it's important that the partner who broke it in the first palace expresses remorse and apologizes for doing so.
“First, and most importantly, own the wrongdoing,” says Caldwell. “Don't justify, don't excuse, and don't blame the other person for leading you to the action in the first place. Take responsibility, no matter how painful or embarrassing it may be. Keep in mind that your pain and embarrassment are no match for your partner's broken heart.”
Your partner won’t be able to fully move on and start trusting you again unless you genuinely validate their feelings. Show them you understand what they’re experiencing without trying to rationalize or justify your behavior.
If you’re the one whose trust has been broken, learn to forgive your partner. This is easier said than done, we know, but holding grudges helps no one so try to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Your partner may have broken your trust unintentionally, so try to believe that they have your best interest in mind and are fully committed to repairing what they broke.
Communication is important for every aspect of a relationship, but it’s especially crucial when you’re trying to rebuild trust.
Keeping secrets from your partner or withholding your feelings stifles trust, so it’s vital that you can create a space to be transparent with one another and communicate your needs and concerns.
Set time aside to talk about how you’re feeling and what you need from your partner in order to trust them. If you have an issue, don’t let it build up. A key part of healthy communication is listening to one another, so try to listen to your partner without interrupting them or getting defensive.
If your partner is upset, “take your lashings,” adds Caldwell. “Your partner has every right to be angry, depressed, shocked, and utterly disappointed. You don't get to take issue with their tone, body language, or choice of words. You have temporarily lost that right, and accepting this is part of the rebuilding.”
“It’s absolutely crucial for you to do some self-reflection,” says Caldwell. “Go see a therapist, or your rabbi, or a trusted friend, and walk through what led you to the betrayal. Keep talking it through until you have a very clear understanding of the events that led you to this failure.”
Once you’re clear, says Caldwell, “tentatively offer to share it with your partner, accepting that they may not be interested at that moment.”
The next step to rebuilding trust is to reconnect as a couple positively. Create new positive experiences and do something that reminds you that you’re able to share happy moments.
This will help you return to some semblance of normalcy and slowly bring your relationship back to what it was before the trust was broken.
Go for a meal in your favorite restaurant, hang out with friends, or try one of Paired’s date night ideas. Whatever you choose to do, the important thing is that you make time for fun and playfulness.
Every relationship needs boundaries — even the healthiest, happiest ones. Boundaries are part of what makes a relationship healthy. Boundaries communicate what you are and aren’t willing to accept in your relationship.
Having — and communicating — boundaries with your partner is essential to building trust. They allow your partner to know what you expect of them and how you want to be treated, so they know what not to do to break your trust.
Remember that no one is a mind reader, so without knowing what your boundaries are, your partner might do something to cross them without even knowing. Talk with your partner about your needs and expectations, and make sure both of you understand and agree on what would constitute a breach of trust.
Like most aspects of a healthy relationship, rebuilding trust doesn’t just happen overnight. It will take time so be patient with yourself and your partner during the process.
How long it takes to rebuild trust depends on a myriad of factors, says Caldwell.
“Was it the first time? Was it just one area? How old is the relationship? Is the betrayal particularly triggering because of a past experience? Since there is no one answer to this question, the person responsible for breaking trust should abandon it altogether,” she explains.
“As John McPhee once said, it takes as long as it takes. The best thing you can do is keep your head down, do the work, and stop looking at the clock.”
If you’re the one who broke the trust, reassure your partner that they can take as much time as they need until they feel comfortable trusting you again. Resist the temptation to hurry them, or tell them to “get over it.”