Betrayal destroys safety and trust in relationships instantaneously. Drawing on her many years of experience, EMCC Head of Counselling Ng Ai Ling, provides insights and advice on the challenges and the long road to rebuilding trust after betrayal.
Why is trust important in relationships and how does betrayal impact relationships?
People need to feel psychologically safe to make positive emotional connections in a relationship. This applies to all relationships whether it be between mother and daughter, or boyfriend and girlfriend, between spouses, colleagues or friends.
Honesty and consistency provide the basis for psychological and emotional safety, making it possible for someone to trust the other person in the relationship.
Betrayal undermines the value of honesty and destroys safety.
Mixed messages – when words and actions do not match – create room for confusion between people. They do not know whether to trust based on what they hear or what they see.
What are some of the things that can cause a loss of trust in relationships?
Betrayal, regardless of whether it is psychological, emotional and/or physical, destroys trust in relationships instantaneously.
Trust can be destroyed through dishonesty, secrecy, lies, contempt and rejecting behaviours, both overt and covert. For example, lies about money, family background, addiction, or other hidden motives can diminish faith in a partner’s reliability for a long-term commitment.
Is it possible to repair a relationship after one party has betrayed the trust of the other?
That depends on a number of factors such as the depth of the relationship and the nature and seriousness of the treacherous act.
It is not always possible to repair a relationship after one party has betrayed the trust of the other. For example, there are marriages that have ended in divorces due to affairs. However, there are also marriages that have survived and grown stronger after an affair.
One critical factor is the willingness of both parties, not just one party, to work on the repair of their relationship. Both parties must be willing to reflect on what they had done to contribute to the breakdown of trust, acknowledge their mistakes and be responsible to make changes in themselves and their actions.
For some people, it is more difficult to rebuild their trust in you once you have let them down. There are different reasons for this.
For instance, it could be someone with “attachment anxiety”: a person who experienced parental neglect and was repeatedly let down by the adults around him/her throughout childhood. Without positive assurance and reinforcement while growing up, they become doubtful about themselves. When betrayed, they see themselves as being rejected and will struggle to trust again.
What are some of the things one can do to rebuild the trust?
Before you start, ask yourself honestly if you truly want to rebuild trust with the person(s). It is an uphill task that will require much effort over a period of time.
Both parties must be 100% committed to mutually rebuild the trust. It is not possible to rebuild trust in a relationship if only one party is committed to doing so.
- Take personal responsibility, whether it is to say an apology, seek pardon or extend forgiveness, or to work on earning back trust with one another.
- Accept repair attempts. According to Dr John Gottman, a repair attempt is “any statement or action – verbal, physical, or otherwise – meant to diffuse negativity and keep a conflict from escalating out of control”. Accepting repair attempts helps to mitigate negativity from the loss of trust.
- Redefine the rules for openness and honesty. Set boundaries to prevent secrecy and deception.
- Be proactive to offer information to earn trust than to be probed in order not to lose trust.
- Give concrete feedback to help one another to evaluate what and how trust is being rebuilt.
How long will do this process of rebuilding trust take?
It depends on the nature of the relationship. For example, it will take a longer time to rebuild trust for a marital relationship than a casual friendship.
It will probably also depend on how trust was broken. It will take longer for a spouse to forgive and trust a straying partner than one who hides savings.
How can we tell when the efforts to rebuild trust are/ are not working?
Try reflecting on these questions to assess if the efforts are working:
• Are you and your partner more honest and transparent in your interactions with each other?
• Are you less defensive when communicating with your partner, that is, are you more open to hearing feedback and have a realistic view about yourself and your partner?
• Are you and your partner more empathetic and appreciative towards each other?
• Do you and your partner feel safe to be vulnerable and straightforward with each other?
Trust is rebuilding as long as you and your partner are saying “yes” to the above questions.