I lifted the phone out of my husband’s hands. He was so tired lately and had fallen asleep in bed while texting. I’d been out of town for the day and had come home late to find him already in bed. As I went to plug it in for the night, I saw a conversation on the screen that took my breath away. He had been texting a woman and a quick glance through the texts indicated that there had been more than a texting relationship.
My husband had been unfaithful.
I wanted to throw up.
That discovery began a nine month battle for my marriage. After I discovered the infidelity, he broke off the relationship. A few weeks later he returned to it. That would happen seven times before the battle finally ended. Five months after the discovery, he left to pursue the other relationship. I found myself a single parent with three heartbroken adult children and two distraught teenagers still at home.
Finally after nearly a year of hell on earth, Mark stopped fighting with God. I’d had a front row seat at watching the spiritual warfare in his soul and I now had a front row seat at watching him repent and surrender himself fully to God. However, it would be two more months before he moved back home. Even after he recommitted to our marriage and eventually returned home, our journey of healing and trust building had just begun.
Unfortunately our story isn’t rare. Too many couples are navigating the realities of infidelity. Pornography too often rapes the soul of a marriage by setting the stage for unrealistic expectations and broken trust. However, broken trust doesn’t have to be caused only by those two biggies, trust can be broken by constant criticism, dishonesty, financial foolishness, or even unguarded conversations with someone of the opposite sex.
Most marriages have likely experienced broken trust in some way big or small. So when trust is broken, how can it be restored? Is it possible to reconnect two hearts that have been broken? What does rebuilding trust look like in real life?
While there’s no “one way” to heal a hurting marriage, Mark and I found that rebuilding trust requires effort from both parties. Accountability on one side must be balanced with a willingness to risk on the other side. That dance may need to go on for years. It becomes a new normal in your relationship that can result in a deeper sense of intimacy and oneness. It is actually possible to come out better on the other side, but not without a willingness for both of you to do the work of rebuilding and restoring trust.
So what does that look like practically? Where do we start when trust is broken?
Let’s look six practical steps you can take to rebuild trust in your marriage.
Ask and Answer Questions
As hard as it is for me to share the story of my husband’s choices, it’s my privilege to share how hard he worked to re-establish his integrity in our relationship. Mark answered any question I asked. Sometimes he answered the same questions over and over again when I would ask them from a slightly different angle. He was never exasperated by my need to know. He never exclaimed, “Can we stop now? I’ve apologized. I’m here. When can we put this behind us?”
In the beginning it seemed there were dozens of questions each day. As time went on, the questions decreased to several times a week. We are now three years out and there are still questions that arise but I’d estimate they are no more than once a month or even a few times a year. He’s still answering them with the same patience and kindness he did in the beginning.
As the one who was betrayed, I have my responsibility in rebuilding trust. There are some questions I’ve chosen not to ask. Knowing the answer simply will not help. I’ve also committed to never throw his choices in his face. My questions are asked for understanding, not indictment.
We’ve also learned to ask healthy questions like, “How did that make you feel?” or “You’re very quiet tonight, what’s going on inside your head and your heart?” These questions keep thoughts and feelings expressed and on the table rather than underground in the dark crevices of our mind where Satan often does his nastiest work. This is particularly helpful for me because I tend to be an internal processor. Mark is naturally an external processor, but talking about our thoughts and feelings with each other doesn’t always come easily even for him. Asking questions that draws out emotions and thoughts not only helps our communication but it deepens intimacy as well.
A marriage with a foundation of trust has no secrets. Your spouse should have a “master key” to every part of your life. Questions aren’t an invasion of privacy. You gave up privacy when you said “I do” and began a lifelong journey towards oneness.
Respect One Another
When trust is broken, the process of healing is painful for both spouses in different ways and respect is needed for both perspectives. The one who broke trust needs to respect where the betrayed spouse is emotionally. Mark says, “Walking a mile in Jill’s shoes emotionally, I had to realize that an emotional rug had been pulled out from under her feet. I had to resist the urge to demand she move through her emotions at any other pace than the one that happened organically.”
The betrayed spouse also needs to give unconditional respect. When we become untrustworthy, a sense of conviction accompanies repentance. As I interacted with Mark he didn’t need my tone of voice or choice of words to condemn, criticize, or punish him any further. For both of us, we had resist the urge to react to one another in our hurt, responding instead with love and respect.
Too often accountability is approached from a “required” point of view. The one who was offended has lost trust and requires the offender to be accountable. That’s looking at accountability backwards. True accountability is a beautiful tool the trust breaker can use to begin to restore his or her own trustworthiness.
Mark used accountability well. He was willing to be an open book. For the most part, he pushed information my way rather than requiring me to pull it out of him. This was a huge gift to me because so much of our broken trust came from his deceit that I had discovered over and over again during that nine months. He didn’t want me to “discover” anything else so he communicated proactively about things that I needed to know about such as calls on his phone from the same area code where she lived or charges that showed up on our bank statements that could be misconstrued. He opened up his phone and email accounts to me giving me full access to them for any reason. Not only that but he was steady and consistent in words and actions. When his words “I want to be trusted again,” matched his “I’m an open book” actions, trust began to slowly take root in our relationship again.
Accountability wasn’t one sided either. One emotion that Mark had pushed underground for many years was his frustration with me “mothering him.” He found my tendency to control situations or to tell him what to do emasculating. This came out during counseling sessions we pursued in our healing season. I proactively invited Mark to call my attention to those times when I unconsciously moved back into old habits. This kind of “offered accountability” was a very effective way to rebuild trust on both sides of the relationship.
Forgive and Forgive Some More
If you have accepted God’s forgiveness, you have the power to forgive within you. Forgiveness isn’t a feeling, it’s a choice we make. Depending on the size of the break in trust, forgiveness may be a process, but it isn’t an option. It’s a requirement for rebuilding trust. Why? Because unforgiveness keeps our heart cluttered, bound up, and trapped in the past. Forgiveness opens our heart to be able to plant seeds of trust again. Forgiveness does not mean that trust is restored, it is a first step to move from the past into the future.
I chose to forgive for my sake initially. I needed to make sure my heart was not tied up and unavailable to God. However, there wasn’t just one time of forgiveness, instead there were hundreds. The more details I learned, the more I needed to forgive. I had to forgive him for misusing our money, for going to a hotel that had been special to us, for the pain our children were still working through and more. Each time another facet of the tangled web was revealed or discovered, I’d wrestle through it with God until I could choose to forgive.
Watch Your Expectations
Forgiving and beginning to trust also required me to examine my expectations. After Mark had been home for several weeks, had made incredible effort to begin to clean up the mess he made, and had sworn I knew everything, I discovered an email account he’d yet to close. I lost it emotionally. After all our hard work, I said to my counselor in exhaustion and devastation, “When will this stop? I can’t begin to trust him as long as I keep finding things!” My wise counselor listened and affirmed my feelings and then told me, “Jill, he won’t be perfect cleaning up this mess. Let’s look at the big picture: he’s been forthright in dozens of things, he’s repentant, and not only that but this woman has been communicating with him through this email account and he has not been responding. He has now deleted the account. You are on a healing journey with many layers and you need to have realistic expectations of what that will look like.”
Mark says, “I had to recognize that my unrealistic expectations of what real marriage looked like was partially responsible for pushing me to pursue a new relationship. I had to recognize that all marriages have challenges and that the grass isn’t really greener on the other side of the fence…there are just different weeds over there!”
Both of us had to realize that trusting one another required realistic expectations about marriage, each other, and failure. Marriage is hard, blending two lives is a life-long challenge we have to navigate, and we will both experience failure along the way. Setbacks and painful feelings are to be expected in the healing process. Those are expectations grounded in reality.
Balance Risk with Hope
You can’t rebuild trust without taking a risk of some sort. That’s probably the scariest part of rebuilding trust. The relationship is broken and initially you are both taking a risk to start over again in some way.
The risk of additional pain is very high. The risk of more broken trust is real. The risk of opening up your heart again to disappointment is tangible. It’s a scary road to walk for sure.
Yet, if both parties are humble, broken, and ready to repair, the hope of an even better relationship outweighs the risk of more pain. God longs to redeem the broken places in our lives. He wants to trade beauty for ashes (Isaiah 61:3) and to redeem what the locusts have eaten (Joel 2:25).
I am grateful that Mark and I both took that risk. I’m grateful we asked and answered questions, respected one another, forgave freely, adjusted expectations, and built on the smallest ounce of hope we had in those early days of piecing our broken relationship back together. God is in the business of turning our messes into His messages. He’s doing that in our marriage and with two willing partners, He can do that in your marriage as well.
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