Four Steps to Rebuild Trust

Trust is essential.

According to one researcher, trust is the cornerstone of every relationship. But how do we become trustworthy? And how do we regain trust in someone when they’ve done something to betray our trust?

As essential as trust is for healthy relationships, trust is also tricky. In my counseling training, I was taught, “Trust is the result of trustworthy actions.” This is a handy description, but it needs some nuance to be effective. The obvious question is “What are trustworthy actions?” The answer may seem easy at first blush, but relationships of any length quickly reveal that what one person conceives of as trustworthy activity often goes unnoticed or underappreciated by the other.

John Gottman, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington, has done quite a bit of clinical research on the topic. According to Dr. Gottman, trust is built when we observe actions that let us know another person is for me, even when it costs them. Notice the two components to that description: one person doing; the other person recognizing. Both are equally necessary to build or rebuild trust. Conversely, when they are lacking, mistrust begins to build.

We can outline the process of rebuilding trust in four steps: (1) admit and repent, (2) define and exhibit trustworthy actions, (3) recognize and encourage trustworthy actions, and (4) trust in God.

Trust Recovery

Let’s take an example. A wife discovers that her husband is using pornography. She is understandably devastated and now mistrusts her husband’s every technological activity. How does the couple move forward and regain trust?

First, the husband must admit and repent. Trust cannot even begin to be restored if the wife doesn’t have a sense that her husband understands the pain that he has caused her. Admitting and repenting is in and of itself a process, and one that should not be short on sorrow, shame, tears, and apologizing. (For more information on repentance, I highly recommend Thomas Watson’s “Six Ingredients to Repentance,” summarized here.)

But let’s assume the husband has taken those steps, and now he genuinely wants to repair the massive trust wounds he has created. The couple must work to define actions that demonstrate to his wife that he is willing to sacrifice for her benefit, especially in the area of technology usage. For instance, he may need to give her complete access to all his devices to be checked at her pleasure. Or she may want to put a tracker on his smartphone to make sure he’s not using it inappropriately. Or she may want her husband to have an accountability partner to whom she herself can talk, in order to make sure her husband is following through.

These steps might hurt the husband’s dignity, but they may be necessary to help the wife begin to rebuild trust. Both husband and wife must define what behaviors are trustworthy in the aftermath of the husband’s pornography usage.

At the same time, the wife needs to recognize the steps her husband is taking. She should openly appreciate and encourage her husband. If she takes the husband’s steps of sacrifice for granted, mistrust and resentment will begin to build in him. Of course, even if the wife doesn’t respond well, that is no excuse for her husband to continue in sin. The husband has a clear mandate from God about how he must treat his wife, and that holds true regardless of her response. Nonetheless, the probability of trust being rebuilt is so much higher if one partner intentionally recognizes the efforts of the other.

Trust increases when both people are willing to push themselves. While one partner shows that they are willing to take steps to actively rebuild trust, the other partner also must show that they are willing to entrust themselves to that partner. But how can we begin to entrust ourselves to someone who has betrayed us? The answer, ultimately, is that we start by trusting God.

Trust in God

Let me suggest that the definition of trust we’ve been discussing is rooted not in the writings of a twenty-first-century researcher, but in the word of God. When God himself is the anchor of our trust, we can engage in trust-restoring activity. He is a covenant-keeping God whose promises are faithful and sure (Isaiah 25:1). He is utterly and totally reliable — even when his promises seem so far off.

We can trust God because he demonstrated his favor for us even when it cost him everything. God stands in need of nothing. He doesn’t need us or our worship. He was not short on communion and fellowship, nor was he lacking in glory. He chose to be self-sacrificial in the most painful and demonstrable way possible. Therefore he, and he alone, is the bedrock of our trust and the object of our highest hopes. When the focus of our trust rests primarily on God and God alone, we can cry out with Job, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (Job 13:15).

Anchor your heart in the unfailing words of a faithful God (Joshua 21:45), and his words will give you the strength to engage in the terrifying activity of entrusting yourself to someone who has betrayed you. When we are called to forgive and be restored, which means making ourselves vulnerable again in some way, only God’s promise of comfort and closeness can, in the end, ease our anxieties and soothe any future pain.

Our hope, our trust, and our faith do not find their strength or confidence in the actions of a fellow sinner, but in the steadfast love of a sinless Savior. There, and there alone, will we find a well of trust that never runs dry and never betrays.

(@RevJASquires) serves as pastor of counseling and congregational care at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He and his wife have five children.