Rebuilding Trust after betrayal, couples counseling for gay men San Francisco, CA 94012

Healing betrayal and rebuilding trust in your relationship

When there has been a betrayal in your relationship, it can take hard work and time to rebuild trust.  You may even be questioning if you want to rebuild trust and forgive. Let’s slow it down and explore this topic in more detail.

What is a betrayal?

Simply put, betrayal is the breaking of trust. Trust can be broken sexually, financially, emotionally or otherwise.   Trust runs deep and is a large component of what makes relationships with our partners feel safe and secure.

Before we go further, let me talk more about the different types of betrayal.

Sexual betrayal

This is probably the most common form of relationship betrayal and it’s usually the type depicted in movies and novels. Often times this is referred to as cheating or infidelity and it can look different depending on what your relationship is like. For example, having sex with someone else may not be a betrayal in a non-monogamous relationship. However, the exact same scenario may be a betrayal for a monogamous couple.

Financial betrayal

Finances are often difficult for couples to navigate together. A financial betrayal is a breach of trust around money. This could look like lending money to your family without talking about it with your partner first.  Or making a big purchase with joint funds that wasn’t agreed upon. If money is already a difficult topic, a breach in trust will make things even more challenging to discuss.

Emotional betrayal

Emotional betrayal can look like going on dates, texting or creating an emotionally intimate relationship with someone outside your primary relationship. This can happen with friends, co-workers or anyone else you connect with outside your relationship.  Again, this can feel very threatening and scary for your partner.

What to expect after a betrayal?

Healing a breach of trust in your relationship will not happen overnight. And don’t expect that it will. It takes time to rebuild safety and security. The first step is often having the courage to be fully honest about what has happened. It will take effort and time to repair. It is also important to understand the factors that led up to the betrayal in the first place. Has there been a breakdown in intimacy, communication or trust that led up to the problem?

How long will it take to rebuild trust after betrayal?

There is no set time limit on how long the process will take. For some couples, it will be easier to move through the hurt but for others it will take more time to reestablish trust and security. If you’re the partner that broke the trust, you have to make space for the hurt feelings and repair. Don’t rush it. The healing process has the potential to bring you closer than you ever were before.

What led to the betrayal in the first place?

This is an important question.  There are likely many factors that contributed to this breakdown in trust.  By slowing things down and removing the blame, you can begin to understand what happened.  It will be important to explore this in more detail to prevent it from happening again in the future.

Do you want to move past it?  

Sometimes there are things that happen that are too big to recover from.  When thinking about a betrayal, it’s important to ask yourself if you want to recover and try to rebuild trust.  This will be different for everyone. If the betrayal is too big or goes against your core values, it may be time to leave the relationship.  

Forgiveness

Forgiveness can be really hard.  If you decide that you want to work through things and move toward forgiveness, be kind to yourself.  It’s going to take strength and courage. According to Mahatma Gandhi, “the weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Fred Luskin, PhD, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, has written a seminal text about the science behind forgiveness, Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. Luskin based the book on the findings from six research studies he has conducted and various workshops he’s run on forgiveness over the past 20 years.

Forgive, Not Forget

By forgiveness, Luskin is not referring to forgetting. There are things that happen to each of us in relationships that are unforgettable, they’re deal breakers. If something happens and it’s a deal breaker for you, it’s time to end the relationship and look for other alternatives. But that doesn’t mean your life must be ruled by the power of resentment.

Luskin provides a simple 9 step plan for forgiveness backed with science that aims to improve your mental and physical health.  I’d recommend checking out his book to learn more about that plan if you’re interested.

Vulnerability

When we’re in an intimate relationship with someone we’re opening ourselves up to suffering and pain. When you let down your armor and get close to someone else, they will inevitably hurt you. If they’ve hurt you in a way that’s a deal breaker, it’s time to move on. If not, think about what you need to heal and ask for it.

Unenforceable Rules

Luskin uses a phrase he calls the unenforceable rule, which refers to the concept that sometimes we hold onto resentment because we want something or someone to be fundamentally different than they are. If your partner cheated, or chews with their mouth open or won’t put the toilet seat down, you can’t force them to be different than they are.  You can request change, but ultimately you can’t control someone’s behavior or actions.

As frustrating and vulnerable as this concept may be, it’s also empowering. You do have a choice when someone hurts you. You have a choice to end the relationship or learn how to grieve the loss, tolerate the uncertainty and remember the good in the other person.

Action steps

If you’ve decided to want to forgive and you’d like to work through the betrayal, here are some steps to consider.  

  • Keep calm. If you become activated or triggered, your frontal cortex goes offline and it will be next to impossible to stay emotionally engaged and make progress. If you notice that you’ve become activated, take a break. Go for a walk. Try some deep breathing. Calm yourself down and then reengage in the conversation.
  • Stop the blame. When you’ve been hurt, it can feel good for a moment to assign blame on someone else. I promise it will only feel good for a moment and then it will fuel the cycle of anger and rejection. This will be a difficult cycle to break but it’s crucial in order to make progress on forgiveness and healing.
  • Listen. We learn as kids to take turns and that is still a crucial skill to remember in relationship with others as adults. Listen to your partner. Let them speak without interrupting. This is very easy to say, but much harder in practice. However, it’s a crucial skill to enable more intimate and connected conversations.
Tom Bruett

Tom Bruett

Tom Bruett, LMFT is a licensed psychotherapist with an office in San Francisco, CA. Tom feels passionately about helping people have better relationships. The purpose of this blog is not to provide advice or to take the place of working with a mental health professional. For more information please visit the homepage.