Betrayal by those closest to us is the hardest to overcome. All betrayal is painful, but when it comes from those we know (and who know us) most intimately, and whom we trust the most, it can be particularly shattering. It is right, healthy, and normal to feel the weight of this sorrow and to take your time to process all that has happened to you. It is possible, however, over time, and with help, to overcome the broken trust and renew a healthy relationship. The key to rebuilding trust is to give it in stages.
The process of restoring trust to a broken marriage begins with repentance and evident fruit. Spouses who have had their relationships damaged by adultery should not be asked to simply accept the offending spouses remorse. Time is needed both to grieve what has happened and to look for genuine fruit of repentance. A spouse who is cold and defensive, who makes excuses or justifications for their failure is not evidencing fruit of repentance. A spouse who simply wants to “get past this” and who confesses sin in order to not have to talk about it anymore is not evidencing repentance. A spouse who remains private, distant, or secretive is not evidencing sensitivity to the damage they have done and is likely not repentant. The offended spouse should continue to look for repentance, but trust must be earned over time. It is not simply restored because the sinning party confessed and said they were sorry. Should real repentance begin to evidence itself, however, trust can begin to slowly rebuild. It will rebuild in stages: mediated trust, validated trust, functional trust, factual trust, and emotional trust.
Mediated trust recognizes that confidence in your spouse has so broken down that you cannot listen to what they say without questioning everything. At this stage it is important to involve an objective third-party who can help mediate conversations. As you observe your spouse sharing with a third-party, and watch them receive counsel from a third-party you can begin to trust them vicariously through trusting their counselor. At this stage you do not believe your spouse, but you are beginning to look for evidence of vulnerability, sensitivity, and responsibility. As you see these things you can begin to rebuild trust.
Validated trust moves from an objective third-party, but does not fully embrace the words and communication of your spouse. At this stage you listen to what they say, but you want validation that what they are saying is true. If they say they were at the gym you want some kind of evidence that they were there (pictures of them in the facility with time stamps; a brochure or pamphlet; etc.). If they had coffee with a mentor from church you want confirmation from the mentor that they met during that time frame. If money is spent then you want to see receipts. This validation should be freely given. If you have to investigate and play detective you will not cultivate trust. They must confirm their truthful statements. This will not, of course, alleviate all concern of deception, but as you accept validation you will learn to rebuild trust.
Functional trust relies on your spouse in the day-to-day responsibilities of life. Life will begin to return to functional normalcy. You will do the budget together, discuss activities and events, plan kids’ schedules, and discuss meals. If you are living separately you will begin to return to some of these normal functions, even while you think through when to return to living together. At some level this will feel like a formality, for the trust has not truly been restored. Remember that it is only a step in the process, this is not the end goal. Functional trust should not ignore the pain and trauma of the betrayal, it should not minimize it. It is simply a step towards rebuilding trust by recognizing you can perform some tasks together.
Factual trust is the first step towards sharing yourself again. At this stage you are beginning to allow your spouse to influence your life and schedules again. Brad Hambrick writes about this stage stating:
As you functionally “do life” with your spouse, there is the opportunity for you to begin to share more of you again. To this point you have been receiving information much more than giving information.You allow yourself to be known at a factual level. Questions from your spouse that start with “Why” or “How come” are still met with defensiveness. During this stage questions that start with “Would you” become more comfortable…(True Betrayal, 70)
You are sharing facts at this stage: facts about your day, your plans, etc. You are still guarded with your emotions, and uncertain about how to interpret their emotional sharing, but you are working towards common ground in the area of facts.
Emotional trust is the final step and it is the hardest to develop. Here you slowly begin to express vulnerability with the person who has betrayed you. You share how you feel, what you believe, like or dislike. Your conversations can be more meaningful and you can share disappointments and sorrows. You have, of course, been emotional throughout this whole process, but those emotions were less “shared” and more “exposed” or “unloaded.” They couldn’t be kept back but they were not an invitation into your life. Now you are beginning to open up your life again and allow your spouse to see inside. Hambrick writes:
As you share your beliefs, you feel more understood and appreciated. At this level of trust you are willing to receive support, encouragement or shared participation in your emotions. An aspect of the “one flesh” relationship is returning (Gen. 2:24). You are beginning to experience your burden being reduced and your joys multiplied as you share them with your spouse. The marriage is beginning to feel like a blessing again.
Eventually you will be able to relax more and have confidence that your spouse is being transparent too, but this will all take time.
None of this happens quickly or easily. There is often progress and then struggle, regress, and then progress again. Do not become discouraged at the length of time it takes to rebuild trust in a broken relationships, it is normal for things to move slowly and for you to have mixed emotions. The important thing is to think through where you are at in the process and what your expectations for each step should be.
It is possible to rebuild trust. I have seen it happen many times in many counseling cases and with many godly couples. A broken marriage is one of the hardest things to recover from, and yet God’s grace is able to do more than we can even imagine. All things are possible with Him (Matt. 19:26), even rebuilding trust.
Dave, just prior to opening my email, a friend confided in me of her husband’s affair which had been going on for over a year. Needless to say, she was totally blind sided by this news! When I saw your article, I forwarded it to her as she is, right now, hopeful that restoration can be made. I am praying for my friend and want to say how much I appreciate your blogs and how God uses them to reach others whom you have never met. Thank you and keep blogging!! 😉
This is very good. A very clear path to reconciliation without the fear of compromising the trust factor.
But what do you do when the spouse does not show any remorse and still behaves in a secretive manner? It has been 3 years since I found out my husband has had affairs during our marriage. We went to counseling at our church, he said all the right things and we were on the mends until the following year, when I discovered he met one of the moms from Our daughter’s Girl Scout troop for drinks. Since that time, our marriage has been on a sharp decline. I know he is on different dating sites. I found his wedding ring stuck in the back of one of his drawers after claiming to have lost it. He avoids any type of emotional interaction with me. And any level of general conversation turns into harsh responses or belittlement. I have tried talking to him about how I feel which leads to harsh arguments. I am at my breaking point. I understand what the Bible states about marriage but I feel like an abused wife and I am ready to leave.
I am very sorry for the situation you find yourself in. I can only imagine how difficult that is. It would be wise to seek some Biblically grounded counsel. You want to know what your options are and you will want to get some encouragement and support.
Dave, my apologies for a comment that is much too long, but this issue is my issue. You’ve written an important and incredibly accurate article. The second paragraph is particularly meaningful for me. I’m a former pastor whose life was ravaged by my wife’s affair. Once it came to light, I was devastated but willing to work toward restoration. What I needed was evidence of repentance. What I got was tepid regret. I needed to hear “I love you and am so sorry and will do whatever it takes to bring restoration to our marriage.” I heard “I need to decide if I can trust you because I’m afraid you’ll hold this over my head for the rest of our lives.” After several months of no evidence of repentance, I realized that trust was completely destroyed and our marriage was over. With counseling and much prayer, I ended our marriage. It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made, one I will wrestle with for the rest of my life.
The affair and subsequent demise of our marriage exacted a heavy toll on me. I lost my closest friend in my wife, half of my time with my kids, and my ministry position. It was and is a great burden to bear. The fact that God allows for divorce (the thing he declared his hatred for) after an affair (the powerful metaphor he used to describe Israel’s rebellion against his love) speaks volumes to the destructive nature of an affair. Without true repentance of the offending spouse, it is very unlikely that a marriage can survive.
I should say that God’s grace to me has been overwhelming and his peace immeasurable. He has carried me through the hardest season of my life. For that I’m unspeakably grateful.
Thanks for the article. Good, good stuff here.
Thank you for your honest and vulnerable comment, friend.