How to re-earn someone's trust after I've betrayed him/her
Trust is like a savings account. Healthy people let their “trust account” fill up slowly. When a person demonstrates trustworthiness over a period of time, the trust account gets full. This allows real, deep, rewarding bonding.
Betrayal empties the trust account. Whether it’s your friend, family member, or spouse who betrays you, betrayal depletes the trust account severely. This is especially true in marriage. For example, a spouse’s infidelity depletes a trust account in full…instantaneously. $0 left.
I’ve known dozens and dozens of people who’ve been betrayed by family members, co-workers, friends, and spouses. I’ve been betrayed several times in my life from people I deeply trusted and loved.
Being betrayed is one of the most wretched experiences a human can have.
The other day I did a counseling session with a man who has had a sexual relationship with a woman for years, including during the first couple years of his new marriage. His new bride just discovered the truth. He told me that she was still committed to him, though she’s in immense pain. He wanted to meet to ask me what to do next.
I told him there are four absolutely necessary, foundational things he must do in order to restore his marriage. (Though it's a debated issue within Christianity, just know that my own view is that if a person repents of their sins within a relationship, it is better to work on restoration. Yet, I do believe that infidelity is certainly a justifiable reason to end the marriage.)
(Note: these steps are applicable for the one who betrayed someone. If you’re the victim, then there are other steps for you. Also, while these steps were given concerning infidelity within a marriage, they are applicable to any close relationship.)
#1 = You must absolutely be sure that you want to remain committed to the covenant you made with her and God on your wedding day. There can be no gray area or middle ground. In this man's case, he had yet to bond completely with his wife because he was splitting his time, energy, and sexual pleasure with another woman. This couple hadn’t really been married yet. And I told him how crucial this first step is: If he wanted to make things better just to make his wife happy, then he would probably be unfaithful again, or at least, leave her in a few years holding resentment toward her. I reminded him of what he already knew: that’s not what Christians do. They make a covenant and maintain it. If he repented of these sins, and she wanted to remain in the relationship, then there was still hope that they could get fully bonded. He needed to make up his mind first. Would he throw away his covenant for good, rescinding the covenant he made in his vows? (Not good) Or would he finally, really commit to the vows he made?
This first step includes stopping whatever pattern you had previously and receiving accountability. This is especially true if you have an addiction. Get with a Christian counselor and really figure out what led to those decisions. You need to separate your past from your present. This allows you to really get committed to your marriage vows.
#2 = You must absolutely absorb—carefully listen to—all of the profound pain, rage, and grief you caused her. And this is crucial—you cannot, under any circumstance, make excuses for what you did. Take it. Take her emotions. Listen. Just sit there and listen. Don’t make excuses; don’t obfuscate; don’t circumvent. She will need to spew, and you are the one she needs to spew on. You’ve been carrying around poison and you just dumped the poison on to her. And she has to get it out. On you.
Now, if this takes years, so be it. Take it. She didn’t cause this. She’s a victim to your awful, stupid choices. Take it for as long as she needs to spew. In every single couple I’ve counseled through the years, the ones that did not reach restoration after betrayal, it was because this step was avoided. I’m telling you, if you don’t take it—all of it—then the person won’t feel validated. And without validation, she can’t heal fully. The trust account will never, ever get refilled. The person will just be terrified that you’ll do it again and then not take responsibility for it.
I once went to a basketball game with a guy I barely knew from church. He told me on the way how he had affairs during his marriage before…but hey, he was in a bar and had drunk too much. What was he to do? This is called “playing the victim.” And it ruins relationships. I thought: “You should have left the bar and kept your freaking zipper up.” Shockingly, they are divorced now…
Take full responsibility for your actions. It's the only way to heal.
#3 = When she’s done spewing on you for that episode, apologize. Really apologize. Say exactly how what you did caused such destruction. You must name the damage you’ve done to her. Name it. Tell her what stupid, evil, horrible choices they were. Tell her how you recognize the pain you’ve caused. Tell her how profoundly sorry you are. And mean it. If you don’t mean it, it’ll just make her more angry and sad and it won’t help her or you or your relationship. So, really, really, deep down, apologize every single time she spews on you. Forever. Never stop (unless she says it’s OK to stop apologizing, which is possible).
#4 = Go out of your way to demonstrate change and trustworthiness. Nothing—not one single thing—is too small. Does she need you to send a picture from your phone where you are every five minutes? Then do it. Does she need to purchase a tracking device to put on your car? Then do it. Does she need you to call her every hour to tell her where you are? Then do it.
And the second you make excuses and come across defensive, she’ll know you’re hiding something and you’ll continue to maintain an empty account.
Remember, your trust account is utterly empty with her. Nothing you say matters. Nothing. So, you must demonstrate that you can be trusted.
Here’s a tip: ask her what you can do re-earn her trust. Give her options like the ones I just mentioned. Let her see that you’ll stop at nothing until she sees that you can be trusted now.
Those are the four necessary steps you must do. Now here’s the deal: she doesn’t control how long the grief will last. Remember, you did this to her. It’s not her fault. If you accidentally had a car wreck and she broke her legs, she can’t control how long it takes her body to heal. She CAN decide to go to physical therapy; she CAN NOT control how long it takes to heal. This is even more so with emotional trauma.
Therefore, if five years from now you catch her really angry or crying because of what you did years earlier, go through the last three steps again. It doesn’t mean she’s holding it against you. It means she’s grieving. Now, if she’s been going to a counselor, surrounding herself with Christian friends who support her, and you’ve been perfectly trustworthy, her pain will diminish. (If you’re reading this and disagree, then we do disagree. You can spare me the emails and comments. I’ve seen and experienced too many times where people do, in fact, get back to complete trust and restoration, even if it takes years.)
And, years from now, after you’ve both been healing, it’s OK to add a #5 step. After you complete Steps #2-4 in that particular episode, and only after, it’s OK to then say, “is there anything I’m doing now that hurts you?” You’re helping her see that the past is NOT your present. Don’t go there until you really think she’s healed much.
What if she never gets over it? What if she continues to rage at you and hold it against you for several years? While there is no magic number in the years it “should” take, it might be the case that she’s not being deliberate in the healing process. I wouldn’t tell her that. Ever. I would suggest you both go to a counselor if you wonder, and let the counselor bring that issue up.
Follow these crucial four steps. And of course, a "step" that underlies all of these steps: pray, pray, pray. Ask God for wisdom. Ask God for healing. Go see a trusted Christian counselor. Reach out for support and help. Don’t give up. Give it time. God can do incredible things through the healing process. Be deliberate and allow the Spirit to do His great work in you and your relationship.