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Updated 23 May 2013

Can trust be rebuilt?

What happens when trust is broken? And is there a way of ever regaining it? Health24's Cybershrink shares his views.

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Trust is a rather odd thing, though we generally think we know what it is. In fact, it's a kind of positive prejudice.

We're usually more familiar with negative prejudices, in which people pre-judge others negatively on the basis of usually irrelevant criteria (race, gender, colour of hair, nationality, whatever).

Although trust usually refers to a more individual and personal feeling about another individual or institution, it similarly entails a belief we adopt (with a real risk of being proved wrong ) without sufficient strong evidence that it is true.

Trust a leap of faith

When we trust somebody, we decide to have faith that they will treat us considerately and kindly, and that they will be honest towards us. We have to make a leap of faith in such situations, because we don't have time to accumulate enough evidence that this will certainly be so.

Paranoids aren't trusting enough, but lovers are sometimes too trusting. Trust nobody, and though you may avoid some of the hurts in life, you will more certainly miss out on the pleasures of love and friendship. Trust too easily, and you may be opening yourself to being used, exploited and hurt.

We speak of "putting our trust in X", emphasising that it is a decision, a choice, and an action by ourselves, rather than something that just happens. We base the decision on what we know of their personality, their previous behaviour towards us, and perhaps what we have heard about them from other people. We may choose to see trust as an act of faith, hoping not to be disappointed; or as something the other person needs to earn or somehow negotiate with us. We speak of someone being "trustworthy", meaning that they are deserving of being trusted. How we see this, and use it, depends on our upbringing and previous experiences.

Marriage a mutual decision to trust

One way to see marriage (and perhaps also the less clearly defined relationships other than marriage) is a mutual decision to trust each other, and to preserve each other's dignity and live up to each other's expectations as far as is practical. To the extent that the rules and expectations have not been clarified or stated, it can be easy for either party to disappoint each other, without meaning to do so.

But it's a generally agreed part of most relationships to expect mutual fidelity, in the sense that physical / sexual and intimate emotional relations are to be shared with each other - and nobody else.

One does not expect such agreements to be broken, at least not without prior discussion and either consent or dissolution of the pairing.

Infidelity leads to feeling of betrayal

When one discovers that there has been infidelity, apart from distress at whatever actually happened, one may be even more distraught that the betrayal involved secrecy, lies, and subterfuge.

Because this means not only that fidelity now cannot be assumed, it raises a lager spectre - that things may not be what they seem, that your partner may not mean what they say, and may be hiding other things, too, now or in the future.

There is a sense of outrage that there was no respect for one's feelings or expectations; and self-doubt. Even though we may have been in no way to blame for what happened, we have been deceived, and we doubt our ability to assess such situations - we thought we knew our partner, and now realise that to a significant extent we did not know them.

Running the risk of never trusting again

Anyone would be shaken by such events. The foundations of this relationship have been shaken and weakened. But if we have had previous experiences of betrayal, of being the victim of deception and hurt, we may be especially sensitive to this, and more deeply and profoundly shaken by it. The foundations are already cracked and vulnerable, and we risk over-generalising our conclusions, deciding that nobody is ever worth trusting, rather than recognising that this person in this situation was not deserving or our trust.

Now we have distrust. We may feel driven to check up on them, torn between being scared that we'll miss some clue, and scared of what we might discover. And this reaction can have unfortunate side effects. An innocent person who is investigated and spied on in this way will be indignant, angry, and may even eventually decide that if they are being blamed for things they are not doing, they may as well go ahead and do them anyway, as they're already suffering the consequences of such actions.

Even a guilty party will probably feel indignant, maybe even justified, after the event, in what they did - and they'll have a good opportunity for using the tactic of hiding their blameworthiness behind indignation at being snooped on. Either way they'll probably become progressively more secretive, hiding even innocent stuff, to try to avoid the conflict. Mistrust spirals and increases.

Learning to trust again

Yes, but it's difficult, and requires hard work from both sides. You will need to acknowledge, jointly, what happened, and that it was wrong, and that it is regretted, and that every effort will be made to ensure that it does not happen again.

The innocent party needs to work on letting go of the bitterness and desire for revenge, and to be prepared to try to start anew, more wary, but open to the possibility of a continuing and refreshed relationship. The guilty party needs to accept responsibility and recognise the need to start again to establish that they will be trust-worthy. He/she also needs to be frank and volunteer information to help the other person to feel comfortably aware of what is going on. And they need to accept the firm policy that nothing is to be done if their partner would be hurt on finding out about it.

Both partners need to renegotiate a new relationship , that will include openness and honesty between them, and a determination to bring up any problem that begins to arise within the relationship, for open discussion and solution jointly. No continuing contact with the person with whom the infidelity occurred is acceptable. Trust needs to be rebuilt.

Counselling can promote healing

Marriage counselling may well be needed, to promote healing in the relationship. You need to understand yourselves and each other far better, to understand past misunderstandings and disappointments, unrealistic expectations on both sides. Apart from seeking to solve whatever issues arise in such counselling, your aim is also to improve your mutual skills at identifying and solving problems as and when they arise.

The process of rebuilding a sound relationship takes time. Though counselling may be more brief, a couple may easily need one or two years to get things right again. Will you succeed? Not inevitably, but if both enter the process sincerely, recognising that all of us are flawed, but that we are also capable of not hurting each other, there is hope.

It's sad, these days, that it seems that people are more faithful to their Football team or favourite pop singer, than to their partner in life. And more tolerant - people tend to follow and support a team even when it loses matches, to favour a singer even after some dud discs. Is that really the right sense of priorities?
(Professor M.A. Simpson)

Post a question on Cybershrink's forum

 

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