Restoring Trust After a Betrayal

Dear Neil:  When one partner has had an affair and betrayed the trust in a relationship, how can this trust be restored?

Hurting in Wellington, New Zealand


Dear Hurting:  Although people often say “Forgive and forget,” I have found that is impossible to do.  You are not going to forget.

You can forgive another person’s transgressions, but not until the two of you have had an open discussion about what led to the betrayal, what you wish to do about it now and how the two of you are going to prevent its recurrence.  You need to look at what changes need to be made in the relationship, and how the two of you can build deeper warmth, connection, engagement and closeness with each other.

No repair work is going to happen until the affair has completely ended.  Any attempt to repair the marriage before cutting off the affair will further injure the trust between you.  Also, complete and honest disclosure is essential.  The betrayer needs to be willing to reveal everything—about the affair and about the other person—if so requested.  Otherwise, it will appear as if you are still being secretive or deceptive.

So much of our ability to work through emotional pain is about getting our feelings validated.  For many people, the key to forgiveness is hearing the heartfelt apology of the person who wronged you.  For an apology to be meaningful, a betrayer cannot gloss over the incident and merely say “I’m sorry.”  Rather, s/he must accept accountability for his/her actions, and empathize with how the betrayed person feels.  Empathy is vital; it is what allows the betrayer to prove that s/he understands how the other is hurting—and feels remorseful over the pain and suffering that the spouse has gone through.

For an apology to be satisfactory, the betrayer must acknowledge wrongdoing and take responsibility for his/her behavior.  An apology must also speak to the future; it must be seen as a promise that a similar incident won’t happen again, and it must outline the steps the betrayer will take to make sure it doesn’t.

Also, an apology must be followed by some repair work.  That is, a genuine demonstration of desire for the relationship to become warmer, closer, more engaged and more deeply connected.

If you are the betrayed person, examine the role you played in that betrayal, even though it can be difficult to look at.  From now on, express your feelings and verbalize your needs more often.  You need to request behaviors that make you feel more cared for, appreciated, cherished, valued, respected and secure.

Finally, touch, hug or hold each other multiple times a day, every day.  Touch is one of the surest ways back to connection and closeness.  I am talking about affectionate touch, not sexual touch.

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