“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.