A long-haul truck driver called our radio program. He worried about his wife every time he left home. It wasn’t that she couldn’t take care of herself, but that she might be taking care of herself too well. He wasn’t certain she was cheating on him, but it concerned him. He didn’t trust her.
Seven years into their marriage Jasmine’s heart nearly stopped when Clint said one night, “I need to talk to you.” Visions of terrible things went through her mind. The truth wasn’t as bad as she at first feared, but it was bad enough to shatter her illusion of a perfect marriage. Clint had been gambling away their bank account over the last six months and they were now broke. How could she ever trust him again?
Trust is the lubricant that makes a marriage run smoothly. It’s precious, relatively fragile, and it can be broken in a moment. The most vulnerable areas where trust can be broken are money, addiction, and sex. The hiding becomes as bad or worse than the actual acts. Feelings of shame on one side and betrayal on the other signal perhaps the biggest challenges any married couple can face.
I’m not here to draw a line on what constitutes a big enough breach of trust to end a marriage over. That’s another topic. Here I want to outline the necessary ingredients that might allow a marriage to recover once trust has been broken regardless of how small or large the specific act(s) was that broke that trust. (I’m assuming you are both people of good will.)
Whether or not you love or forgive someone has nothing to do with trust. Love is freely given. Love cannot be earned, and neither can forgiveness. God loves and forgives us without reservation, and that’s the same kind of love and forgiveness He asks us to offer to and receive from our spouses.
Trust, on the other hand, must be earned. Trust is an intangible but vital ingredient in any safe relationship. Trust is based on experience over time. Through multiple and varied experiences with you, I learn that you do what you say, say what you do, keep your promises, and truly have my best interest at heart. You don’t have to be perfect, but you must be reliable. I don’t have to worry that you will surprise me or hurt me without warning.
It may only take one break in that reliability to break my trust in you. Perhaps that’s not fair, but it’s the way things are. And the only way to regain trust is to rebuild that reliable experience over time.
Rebuilding that trust takes at least these ingredients:
- Honesty. Complete honesty with oneself, one’s spouse, and with God. No excuses whatsoever.
- If you’re the one who did wrong, be honest about what you did and why you did it. Acknowledge what feelings this brings up in you, such as embarrassment, shame, guilt, fear, anger.
- If you’re the one who was wronged, be honest about anything in your behavior that might have helped your spouse remain in hiding. Be honest about your response now, and what feelings it brings up in you, such as betrayal, fear, anger.
- Acknowledgment. Owning the problem. There are three parts to this:
- What you did wrong. Your spouse’s lack of interest in sex did not cause you to have an affair. Your spouse’s fear about money did not cause you to spend unwisely. You did this. It’s your bucket to carry.
- What your part is. You did not cause your spouse’s problem, but you are not without fault. Your bucket to carry is whatever you have done or not done that you should have, even if it’s only 5% of the problem.
- The relationship issue. Learn to identify the issue as separate from either yourself or your spouse. Your spouse is not the enemy. THAT THING is the enemy: broken trust, gambling, intimacy, etc. Fight THAT THING side by side with your spouse.
- Commitment. To each other, to your marriage, to growth, and to God. Trust is not rebuilt quickly, and it will take commitment for any healing to take place. A few places where this will be important:
- Verbalizing love. You may need to ask your spouse repeatedly for reassurance of their love, and your spouse may need to do the same with you.
- Forgiveness. Forgiveness is a process. You will need to verbally say, perhaps many times, “Please forgive me for . . . “ And you will need to verbally say, “I forgive you for . . . “
- Transparency. Commit to sharing everything with your spouse now, even if you think it’s unimportant. Commit to asking each other any question you worry about, and answering honestly.
- Growth. You don’t know everything you need to know, and your character is not all it needs to be. It will take time to learn what you need to know, and to practice new behaviors – for both of you.
- Safety. Your heart needs to be a safe place for your spouse to be themselves. Like a wounded animal, it will take time for them to feel safe again. Give them the gift of that time.
- If you’re the one who did wrong, this means being willing to hear how your wrong affected your spouse, regardless of how painful it may be to hear. Listen, perhaps repeatedly, without being defensive.
- If you’re the one who was wronged, this means accepting your spouse for who they are now and loving them anyway. You can still protect yourself if you still feel in danger. But this does mean you don’t unnecessarily add to their wounds.
- Accountability. You can’t regain trust without this. It involves increased transparency, sometimes to the ridiculous degree. It may take a wise, safe third party for this to be effective. If you’re the one who did wrong, it means removing temptation and going overboard to show your spouse you’ve changed. If you’re the one who was wronged, it means keeping your heart open to being won over again. Some ways this might work:
- Internet tracking software, sharing every password, allowing access to social media accounts, etc.
- Regular check-in times, answering every random phone call from your spouse, letting them know every tiny detail about your activities.
- Giving your debit/credit cards to your spouse if you’re the one struggling with money, reviewing every statement or insurance benefits report, etc.
- Going together to your doctor, pastor, counselor, or other professional so both of you know that someone else knows, and taking their advice seriously.
- Allowing an outside but trusted friend the ability ask any question at any time for accountability.
- Growth. Nothing changes until you do something different. Whichever spouse you are, your character needs nourishment, maturity, and growth. Without such growth there is no reason for trust to ever rebuild. You can do this by:
- Learning everything you can about the issue. Read. Reflect.
- Getting together with other people who are growing. Support groups, church, marriage seminars, something! People rarely grow well by themselves.
- Prayer. Serious, ongoing, honest prayer. Both alone, and with your spouse.
- Time. It takes as long as it takes. If trust is offered again too soon, it’s not real trust. It’s normal to want to put this in the past quickly. The only way you can hope to rebuild trust is through giving your spouse the gift of time – either to grow and demonstrate that growth to you, or to watch you long enough that you become trustworthy again to them.
In the end, rebuilding trust between you and your spouse takes a miracle. It takes God’s work in both of your hearts. You can’t choose for your spouse; you can only choose for yourself whether to allow Him to do this work in you, and observe to see whether your spouse will allow Him to do the same. Once broken, there’s no guarantee trust can be rebuilt. But if it is, going through such an experience together can become a strong bond between you. You’ve seen the worst in each other, gone through the fire together, and come out the other end hand in hand.
I encourage you to give the process a chance. It’s not a road for the faint of heart, but for those who succeed the rewards are priceless.
Your Turn: To what lengths would you go to maintain or build trust between you and your spouse? Leave a comment below.
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