Trust is easily broken and very hard to rebuild. It can be shattered by the smallest white lie or by something big, but as Nietzsche said, its not so much that you have been betrayed, it is that after a betrayal it is so hard to believe anything that person says. Or, as Lady Gaga put it, “Trust is like a mirror, you can fix it if it’s broken, but you can still see the crack in that mother f****r’s reflection.”
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Like respect, trust has to be earned, although in new relationships there is often an implicit level of trust, depending on the past experiences of each party. If one of a new couple has been betrayed perviously, obviously they are not going to find it as easy to trust again. Unlike respect, which is to do with the way a couple feels towards the other and how well differentiated they are, trust is about how safe each feels in the relationship. At its centre, trust is the feeling that ‘I am safe, you are safe, we are safe together.’ If a lie is revealed or a relationship develops with someone else, that sense of safety is lost.
In Imago therapy we talk a lot about safety. We understand that we are, underneath our clothing, just animals who have some basic needs and security as safety is usually top of the list. Security can come in many areas of our lives, such as home, work, money, but the top of that list is in our relationships. We need to feel that we can rely on those closest to us to watch our back, to care for us when things are bleak or we are at our most unlovable, and we will not be judged when we make ourselves vulnerable or make mistakes.
If you are the one who has done something to break your partner’s trust, your first step is to really, really understand how they must be feeling. You need to be able to cross over the bridge into their world and truly empathise with their hurt. It helps to use a structured dialogue like we have in Imago work, when the therapist guides each partner into a process which ensures that the betrayed one really feels heard, and also that the betrayer has a chance to make amends and seek forgiveness. So many couples find it impossible to find the words to express the regret they feel, or their pain, without hurting the other more than they wanted.
If you are the one who has been betrayed and have discovered that your partner has lied to you, your first step is be open about your feelings. These are likely to include anger or worse, and are best expressed than withheld where they can fester and gain power. Say what you’re feeling. The next step is to tell your partner what you need them to do. If there is another person involved this is likely to include a promise not to have any contact with them again, and this is fair. Its not fair, however, to ask them to go over and over the details of the betrayal. You both need to move on, but not too fast. Healing takes time.
You also both need to take responsibility for whats happened. Some lies happen because the betrayer feels they are under pressure, and say anything to keep their partner happy. They will promise anything to keep the peace. If there has been an affair, the sense of guilt can be enough to keep the lying going far more and longer than they have to. And it’s a fact that infidelity doesn’t happen in a happy marriage, so if there has been an affair, at some level the relationship was not happy. I have known couples who have had to dig deep to be able to confess that in their heart of hearts, they knew that things were not as perfect as they were pretending on the surface. But once they are able to do that, repair can begin.
Rebuilding trust is not easy, and you both have to accept that it can be a long time and is very fragile for quite a while. There is a natural and healthy grieving process for the lost connection, and there is no way to fast-track the healing.
Its no good either, resorting to cheap and easy gestures or words. Just saying you’re sorry won’t cut it – you have to demonstrate through your actions that your regret is sincere and your promise to never do it again is genuine. Understandable, the hurt partner will need time to see that it is really true.
I usually recommend that couples go back to doing those behaviours that originally attracted each to the other – notes, flowers, gifts, compliments: whatever worked when you were first courting. I also ask that the offender writes out a detailed, specific letter to prove they understand the sorrow they’ve caused. And if the recipient can also write to say in which ways they understand how it might have happened, healing can come faster.
So, for the betrayer:
1. Give your partner time and space to express their hurt and vent their feelings. Really listen to them, and mirror back to them what you have heard.
2. Be humble and express your sadness and hopes for forgiveness.
3. Be reliable and constant, and go back to the behaviours that won your partner’s heart in the first place.
4. Accept that its going to be a long process, and sometimes will feel like three steps forward and two back.
5. Be sure to keep all the promises you make. One slip and you will find yourself back at the beginning, or worse.
For the betrayed:
1. Accept responsibility for your part in the lies. In a truly happy, connected and conscious relationship, there is no cheating or lying and trust levels remain high.
2. Take the opportunity to really say everything you feel and think. When the healing starts to happen you want to be able to move forward, not to continue to dwell on the past mistakes indefinitely.
3. Be authentic in any acceptance of the betrayer’s apologies. If you don’t feel ready to forgive, its wrong to fake it.
4. Once the initial hurt is acknowledged and you’ve expressed yourself fully, keep things in the present and future – don’t keep harping back to the past or keep throwing up past mistakes.
5. Remember that we are all human and its not helpful to take a righteous or pious role. We all make mistakes, and forgiveness is a powerful gesture which will help you as much as your partner.
Both of you:
Lean in, look your partner in the eye, take a deep, long breath and say to each other in turn:…. “I love you. You are the one I want. I care about us. We matter. I am so sorry for the pain I caused you and us. It feels scary right now, but we’ll get through this.”
Repeat as necessary.
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