“How can I ever trust you again?” “How could I have ever trusted you?”
“Trust me, this will never happen again.” “How can I win back your trust?”

The sudden loss of trust is shocking. It may seem impossible to imagine ever regaining it. As important as it is, it is also true that before the discovery trust may have been something that was hardly ever spoken of. How often do spouses say something like, “I feel so much trust for you.”?

That’s because trust is so fundamental to any close relationship, that it functions as a backdrop that makes everything else possible. In a recent TED Talk a musical conductor spoke about trust between the conductor and the orchestra as the thing that makes the music possible. He refers to trust as “the most fundamental gel in ever single human relationship. Without it, everything breaks down.” As our lives unfold we tend to focus on what trust makes possible… the music…and go on the assumption that the foundation is in place.

We trust that tomorrow will come, that the ground will be solid, and that our partner is who we think they are. We trust that we are who we think we are to our partner. We base our identity, our sense of who we are to ourselves and to others on the foundation that is held in place by this trust. We feel safe. We trust our own trust. And most of this goes on unconsciously.

Infidelity drives home just how fundamental trust has been for your marriage at the very moment that it is shattering. Your partner

is not who you thought they were, your life together is not what you thought it was, his or her feelings for you are not what you thought they were. Trust is broken and safety has vanished. Trust is suddenly brought into relief. In the wake of it’s painful loss, how fundamental trust is becomes shockingly apparent. Trust says, “I was the most important thing all along and you never saw me.”

The invisibility of trust is actually one of the reasons why affairs occur. “I didn’t think it would upset you so much.” “I didn’t think it would really matter.” These statements can be about a basic lack of understanding of the role trust plays in a marriage; trust, and it’s corollary, loyalty. Because that’s what the trust in a marriage is about. If I extend my loyalty to you, I trust that you extend your loyalty to me. And everything else is built on top of and around that bridge between us.

Trust relies on a sense that your spouse shares these values with you. That is why restoring trust is not as simple as saying what you are going to do and then doing it, over and over again. Keeping your word is a start. It makes you reliable, but doesn’t necessarily help your partner regain a deep sense of trust.

So then, what is left? Can trust really be rebuilt?

Many couples remain together after an affair, but some merely survive, trying to resurrect an old romantic ideal, and end up perpetuating the status quo that contributed to the affair happening in the first place. I frequently hear something like, “Don’t think I didn’t think about it…, but the difference was, I didn’t act on it.” In other words, “things weren’t that great, but I thought it was my duty to put up with it.” There can be a strong pull to try to put things back together as quickly as possible, just the way they were before and be done with it.

Other are eventually able to turn this into an opportunity to unravel that status quo. A lot of couples I see will have depths of conversation with honesty and openness that they haven’t had in decades. It takes commitment, patience and courage, but the payoff is a new and surprising sense of connection to and excitement about each other. This comes about in a process of reweaving a story together. Along the way, there will be fear and grief and anger, the very feelings that couples may have spent years trying to protect each other from.  For more on this read “Why Being Good Won’t Heal an Affair.”

Every affair will redefine a relationship and every couple will define what the legacy of their affair will be.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. maria

    My husband had an affair 30 yrs ago. He remembers all of the intimate details, but won’t tell me when it started or ended. At the time I was diagnosed with breast cancer and was doing chemo. I know for sure it was over 2 years because of the way he was behaving while I was sick and working in another town to help support our family of 4. He wont go to counseling, considering he gave me STDS while i was doing chemo. He said he broke with her after he claims he realized he didn’t want to lose his family. He still tells me it’s something he thought he needed, and that he was stupid and does not know why he did it. He claims he was trying to find a way to break it off. He claims she was threatening to tell me for over a year. So what is the truth, if at all?

  2. Anonymous

    Great article. I didn’t realize how very important trust is in a relationship until “it” happened to me, i.e., my husband having an affair on me 4 years ago. I always thought the worst part would be thinking about the sexual part of the affair, but that was really just a small part. The sneaking around and shattering of all trust hurt more than that. Like you stated, Ms. Burger, I wanted to hurry up and get my husband into marriage counseling and just get things back to how they were. I thought it would all go away after just a few weeks. Well, that didn’t happen. He kept telling me he would attend counseling with me, then would back out. After close to 9 months of trying, I finally gave up. Ironically, he then wanted to reconcile, but still didn’t want to do the counseling. That’s when I realized he was lost to me forever. We finally divorced last year and I’ve moved on and am very happy in the relationship I am in now. My ex is still with the affair partner but even after nearly 4-1/2 years, no one has met her yet, even though our daughter only lives about 2 miles away from her dad. I remember what it felt like to have that trust totally shattered and I don’t ever, ever want to go back there again. I will be interested to hear if other couples were able to overcome an affair.

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