How Are We Ever Going To Trust Again?:
The 7 Elements of Rebuilding Trust After an Affair
One of the most frequent questions we are asked by couples divided by infidelity is this: How are we ever going to trust again?
Then, the spouse who has been betrayed will ask for very specific trust-building items for their partner to do. The spouse who had the affair will wonder why it’s taking so long for their partner to trust them.
These are valid questions, and we have concrete answers, simply because we have been there.
Today, I am going to share with you how to rebuild trust in a marriage that has been divided by infidelity.
This is not an easy thing to do, but it IS completely possible. We are living proof of that.
Let’s begin the process of building trust!
What is Trust?
In order to build trust, we must first know what it is. The dictionary defines trust as the “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.”
For us to understand trust in the context of a relationship, it’s also important to know what it is NOT.
- Trust is not forgiveness or faith. Both faith and forgiveness are free gifts. (Read more on forgiveness)
- Trust is not a free gift. It is earned.
Trust is earned by repeated favorable behavior over time.
Notice that trust includes behavior, which is action. It’s not enough to say, “Trust me,” when actions are not evident.
Researcher Brene Brown, using qualitative research techniques, has identified seven elements of trust. Whether her intention or not, these seven elements of trust are rooted in God’s Word, the Bible. In fact, there are multiple verses clearly defining what God says trust is.
I don’t know about you, but I most want to hear how God defines trust and apply it to my life.
So, in an effort to properly define trust according to God’s Word while also appreciating Brown’s research, here are The Seven Elements of Trust, adjusted for our purposes, along with a few scripture passages for each element.
As you can see, each of the elements includes action items. Remember, rebuilding trust requires action. Trust is earned by repeated favorable behavior over time.
How is Trust Broken?
With infidelity, it’s pretty obvious how trust is broken. A spouse has been unfaithful to their partner, breaking the covenant vow of marriage. (Read more on infidelity/adultery)
Trust begins to break down the moment we open ourselves—in thought, word, or deed—to someone or something outside of our marriage.
When we give to someone else what rightfully belongs to our spouse, we are no longer trustworthy.
Even in non-infidelity situations, trust can be destroyed by other types of broken promises. In fact, we believe that “smaller” broken trust in a marriage can lead us to deeper deception, such as infidelity.
In our story, even while we were experiencing strife and conflict in our marriage, I still trusted my husband. I believed that he would keep his vows, even as I felt the growing tension between us. But, when the affair was revealed, my trust for him was gone in an instant. I felt crushed by the weight of the deception. It was as if a tornado had sucked up everything I believed to be true.
Ethics attorney and author Michael Josephson says “Trust is built like a tower of stones, one stone at a time. But when a trusted person lies or breaks a promise it doesn’t just diminish the tower by removing the stones from the top, it demolishes it by removing stones at the bottom.”
I can resonate with this description of broken trust. It’s destructive. Years of trustworthy behavior disappear in an instant.
According to current cultural standards, many believe this is a tower that cannot be rebuilt. Thankfully, God tells us a different story.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
How Do We Rebuild Trust?
Ok, let’s dive into how we can rebuild destroyed trust. Do you believe it’s possible? This is an important question for both spouses to answer.
But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.
Here’s another question for you to reflect on: Are you willing to do whatever it takes to save your marriage?
While that may seem like a dramatic question, it is important for you to answer truthfully. It takes two to tango, friends. You both must be willing to do what it takes to heal your marriage.
When you make that choice—taking bold action in faith—your marriage will be better than ever!
So, how do we rebuild trust? In infidelity situations, the wayward spouse (the one who had the affair) cannot simply state they “won’t do it again,” even if they genuinely believe it in their heart.
A declaration of trustworthiness must be backed up by authentic trustworthy behavior.
Up until this point, the wayward spouse has not been trustworthy. Every infidelity case includes forms of deception. The trust has been broken. Promises have been unkept. Covenant vows have been shattered.
So, it isn’t enough to say, “Trust me, I won’t do it again.” You have broken a promise, proved yourself untrustworthy, and need to earn trust back with actions, not words.
It is not enough to say, “Trust me, I won’t do it again.”
Ok, we now know it takes action. Then, let’s break down The Seven Elements of Trust into trust-building action items.
BOUNDARIES: Set boundaries together. Stick to them. If you are uncertain about a situation, don’t do it.
The fact that you (the wayward spouse) ended up in an affair reveals that you cannot be trusted in high-risk situations.
While this fact may wound your ego or even lead to feelings of shame, humbly admitting this truth will help you choose to actively engage in trust-building with your spouse.
The first step toward trust is placing BIG boundaries around your marriage. You cannot allow yourself to be in situations where you fall into temptation.
For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love.
Galatians 5:13 NLT
Decide together what is necessary to place a wall of protection around your marriage. For more information on boundaries, we recommend Boundaries in Marriage by Drs. Cloud and Townsend.
RELIABILITY: Do what you say you are going to do.
In order to keep an affair secret, the wayward spouse lies. It’s inevitable. For instance, you might say you are at a meeting when you are actually with your affair partner. Perhaps you are late to dinner, not because of traffic, but because you were at a massage parlor.
Whatever the situation, your word is not reliable. You are not dependable right now. So, it’s vital that you consistently choose to do what you say you are going to do.
Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
In this, you will need to prove that you are reliable. Remember, trust is earned by repeated favorable behavior over time. In order for the wounded spouse to know you are trustworthy, please offer proof. Don’t wait for your spouse to ask for it. Be willing to send a quick photo of where you are, set up tracking on your phone, and offer to do whatever it takes to become reliable again.
ACCOUNTABILITY: Own your mistakes, ask for forgiveness, and allow trusted people to hold you to it.
Many wayward spouses have resisted this trust-building action. Mostly, it’s because they feel like they are being “babysat.” I get it. My husband felt the humility of this high-level accountability at first. But because he was humbly willing to subject himself to a few watchful eyes (mine, counselor, pastor), the need for extreme accountability was short. Why? Because trust was being built!
When you are willing to be accountable, you are becoming trustworthy. Gradually, the need for high levels of accountability diminishes.
However, we all need accountability in our lives. We need to be in the company of like-minded people who help to keep us from acting out. (For more on the importance of trusted, like-minded friends, read this article)
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
We also need to allow ourselves to be accountable to our spouses. If we are really “one flesh” as stated in Genesis 2:24, then we need to stay on the same page. We’re a team.
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
VAULT: Be a safe person.
When I think of a vault, I picture a fortress—strong and solid—that absolutely nothing can destroy.
An affair is a bomb that rips open a vault and exposes the valuable treasure inside. It’s no longer a safe place.
Before the affair, our marriage was a safe place where our two hearts could meld together, beating as one. It was “us against the world.” Once the affair was revealed, I couldn’t imagine ever feeling safe with my husband again. It was heartbreaking. I felt so alone and vulnerable.
How did we create a safe marriage again? It began with my husband’s empathy and genuine desire to serve me in my pain. He was empathetic, remorseful, and desperate to comfort me. He grieved his sin, openly weeping at the destruction he had caused.
By empathizing with my pain and vulnerably revealing his own pain, he became a safe person.
Wayward spouse, you need to become a safe person again. Your spouse needs you to take action steps toward health and healing in your marriage. You need to take drastic measures to become a safe, stable person your spouse can trust.
Be empathic. Both of you. Be vulnerable with each other. Become a student of your spouse. Practice active listening in order to fully understand your spouse’s feelings and needs.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
INTEGRITY: Courage over comfort. What is right over what is easy. Actions over words. God above all.
Can you think of a higher compliment than being called a “person of integrity?” I can’t. The word ‘integrity’ seems to encompass all things good. In fact, I find people of integrity also bear the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.
In order to be a person of integrity, we have to make hard choices every day. For one, the world around us offers a myriad of ways to lose self-control. An extra-marital affair is just one of many signs of a lack of self-control. Others may be internet usage, workaholism, substance abuse, eating habits, extreme hobbies, etc.
When we lose self-control, we tend to gradually drop the other fruit of the Spirit as well. This is why the boundaries and accountability we spoke of earlier are so important. When we are tempted to lose control, we will have systems and people in place to protect us from ourselves.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
In our family, we reference Galatians 5:22-23 frequently. I happen to love a good list, so it’s a great way for me to check my heart. Being aware of the fruit of the Spirit is one of our ways to be accountable to God. Maybe it can work for you, too.
NON-JUDGEMENT: We share openly and honestly, without judgment.
I believe this is especially important for the wounded spouse. It’s very easy for the wounded spouse to judge the wayward spouse’s actions. After all, their partner has broken covenant marriage vows, deceiving their partner and others. Certainly, this seems like a sin worthy of judgment. And it is. But not by us.
Our sin is God’s to judge. Moreover, He is the only judge. When we recognize this truth, it frees us to trust God for the outcome while also desiring restoration and healing.
“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven;”
This is—as we like to call it—a “both/and.”
A heinous crime has been committed AND we love the criminal. The tension of the “and” can feel very abrasive. This was one of the most difficult concepts for me—the wounded spouse—to understand. How could I hate my husband AND love him all at the same time?
One moment, I would want to cuddle up in his arms and cry on his shoulder. The next moment, I could imagine punching him in the face. Some days, this mix of extreme emotions was more than I could bear.
But, isn’t that how God loves us? He sees our sin, yet offers his love. God knows we will sin again, yet he freely gives all that He has. Even more, He has watched us defiantly disobey him, yet He sent his son to die on a cross for us. (Read an article on hope in God here)
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
In marriage, we have the opportunity to be completely vulnerable with another person. Judgment and vulnerability don’t go together.
When judgment is removed, there is room for vulnerability, honesty, and authenticity to move in.
Consider allowing God to be the judge of your spouse. It’s not your job. You have other clear directives (See Ephesians 5) from the Lord on how to be married. Leave the judging to God. Again, when judgment is removed, there is room for vulnerability, honesty, and authenticity to move in.
GENEROSITY: Give—in every way—selflessly.
After the reveal of an affair, it’s tempting for each spouse to withhold generosity. A protective wall gets built up around the wounded spouse’s broken heart. In addition, the wayward spouse tends to be resistant to generously sharing detailed truths about the affair.
There are countless other ways spouses lack generosity during the aftermath of a revelation: affection, information, forgiveness, intimacy, time, etc. But generosity is critical in healing the marriage, especially coming from the wayward spouse.
The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
2 Corinthians 9:6-7
For the wounded spouse, begin the process of generosity by asking yourself if you believe your spouse is a good-willed person. Deep down, is your spouse someone who has exhibited the fruit of the Spirit in the past, but now has committed an egregious sin?
Believe it or not, your willingness to take the time to reflect on this question—in the midst of your pain— is a generous act of love toward your spouse. The answer to this question will help to guide you in the next steps toward healing. If your spouse is a good-willed person, perhaps you are more open to reconciliation than you originally thought. If not, you need to seek out wise counsel to help you decide on how you will move forward. (Find out how we can help here)
Wayward spouse, you are about to experience giving the gift of generosity like never before.
Healing a marriage after infidelity requires a lot of selfless giving of truth, time, energy, accountability, love, resources, and effort.
Did I mention the truth? Yes, truth is critical. Many wayward spouses want to protect the wounded spouse from the truth. Unfortunately, withholding truth halts the process of trust-building.
Tell the truth. Secrets don’t belong in marriage.
While your spouse may not want to know all the details, they are entitled to clear and forthright answers to the questions they ask. Please do not try to withhold information. Get it all out now. Delaying the truth is only going to hurt more.
In addition, be generous with your time. Healing takes time. Please don’t expect to keep your usual pace of life and “fit in” reconciliation. Therefore, each of you will need to make some sacrifices in order to dedicate time to heal from this deep wound in your marriage. It takes longer than you expect, especially if you don’t implement this from the start.
But, don’t be discouraged. Genuine generosity opens our hearts to more selfless acts of love, forgiveness, and healing.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
You may be asking, how do these seven elements of trust play out in real life? I have given you several tangible items throughout this article, but I know some of you like a good list.
Below I have created a list of trust-building items. They are listed in two categories: ‘low-hanging fruit’ and ‘the extra mile.’ Low-hanging fruit will be a relatively easy win for your marriage. The extra mile will require more effort, planning, and sacrifice. Neither list is exhaustive but hopefully will provide you with some ideas.
Remember, trust is built with repeated favorable behavior over time. It is earned, not freely given. And it takes time. Nevertheless, it’s worth it! When you implement these elements of trust into your marriage, you will be amazed at how your life is transformed.
- Which of the seven elements of trust feels most challenging to you?
- How will you implement trust-building in your marriage today?
- What trust-building items are you already doing?
If you wish you had someone to walk alongside you during this journey of trust-building after infidelity, you’ve come to the right place.
We guide marriages divided by infidelity to journey from hurt to hope. We have experienced the pain and destruction of an affair, and now we are guiding couples toward the hope and healing that we have. Find out more here.
Would you like to read more about how we journeyed from hurt to hope in our marriage? Download our free eBook: Help! I Found Out My Spouse is Having an Affair: A Step-By-Step Process of Navigating the Reveal of Infidelity.