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How to Build (& Rebuild) Trust and Repair from Betrayal

Are you struggling with trust in your intimate relationship?

Has trust, the foundation for your love relationship, gradually or instantly eroded by your partner…

  • Not being there for you to connect with on a daily basis, on the weekends, or even to offer you comfort at urgent times of need?
  • Engaging in a pattern of lies?
  • Constantly criticizing or demeaning you? Trashing you instead of cherishing you? Or even physically threatening you?
  • Dismissing incidents of drinking or drug use as “that only happens once every few months”? Or, rationalizing hurtful words and actions as “I only said or did that because I was drunk.”
  • Minimizing their use of porn, dating websites, or intimate photos as “I’m just looking!” or having an emotional or sexual affair?

Fortunately, today’s science tells us how trust is formed, what causes betrayal and how to rebuild trust if it’s been broken.

This blog will cover trust expert, John Gottman’s research, which includes practical relationship skills that increase trust in your relationship. I will also explain attachment theory, which gets to the HEART of the MATTER in relationships and explains how trust is strengthened through strategies you can use with your partner that are drawn from the PACT (Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy) and EFT (Emotional Focused Therapy) models.

How is trust (or mistrust) formed in childhood?

*Check out my video and brief exercise at 2 minutes, 38 seconds for the answer. Here is the link.

You can do this exercise with your partner or by yourself to understand your conscious and UNCONSCIOUS beliefs about TRUST that we begin forming at a very young age. Get a piece of paper and a pen or pencil to draw your own “Trust Cycle”.

What is Attachment Theory, Relationship Styles, & the connection to trust?

The information in my video was a visual description of Attachment Theory, which explains that:

  • The level of trust that adults will effectively respond to our emotional distress shapes the security or insecurity of the emotional bonds between children and parents.
  • The security or insecurity of our emotional bonds in childhood directly influences our attachment (relationship) style in adult romantic relationships.
  • Attachment styles are not a reflection of your emotional health or how much your parents loved you. Many adults know, in their bones, how much their parents loved them, and still share that their parents were not able to consistently and appropriately emotionally respond to them when they needed comfort or connection.
  • Emotional intimacy is learned through modeling, teaching, and experiencing (& can be learned at any age :).

The GOOD news is … YOU CAN CREATE A SECURE BOND with your intimate partner regardless of the dynamic you had in your family of origin.

A secure attachment relationship is one in which I am reasonably secure in signaling my needs to you and expect (or trust) you to respond to my signals in a timely and helpful fashion because it sets the course for:

  • how I move toward primary (adult) partners
  • how I move away from them
  • and how long I’m willing to stay in close proximity with them.

A lot of this is determined in early childhood, and it gets into our body, our nervous system.” (Stan Tatkin, PhD, 2013, Your brain on love).

John Bowlby developed attachment theory in the 1950s from his research of parents and children. In the 1980s, other researchers began researching the application of attachment theory to intimate adult relationships and realized that:

From cradle to grave, we have similar emotional needs and we’re STRONGER when we’re in a securely attached (trusting) relationship.

What are the 3 different attachment (coping/relationship) styles in a nutshell?

In 1987, the Rocky Mountain News published a “LOVE QUIZ” that assessed their readers’ attachment styles. Choose the statement that best describes your feelings and attitudes in relationships to determine your style:

  1. I find it relatively easy to get close to to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t often worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me. (measure of secure attachment style) This style builds the most trust. 
  2. I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being. (measure of avoidant attachment style)
  3. I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to merge completely with another person and this desire sometimes scares people away. (measure of anxious attachment style)

If you’re thinking, “This ‘science’ does not seem legit! My parents were TOTALLY there for me. I should have a SECURE attachment style!” 

  • You might have grown up in an “island” culture (Wired for love’s author Stan Tatkin’s description of families that tend to raise children with avoidant attachment style). In an “island” culture, your parents might have been TOTALLY devoted to you- ate dinner together every night, went to your extra-curricular activities, church together…. BUT they did not express emotions (or affection in some cases), did not know how or were unwilling to emotionally comfort you, and did not ask you about your inner world.
  • Or, you might have been profoundly hurt or betrayed in a previous intimate adult relationship or have not healed from a trauma that occurred outside your family that has caused you to struggle to fully TRUST your current partner and possibly yourself as well.

Another important distinction is if you have an identity (race, sexual identity, etc.) that has experienced discrimination in society, you might struggle to TRUST others

Even if you grew up in an emotionally nurturing home, you might have had to turn off your emotional needs and be highly self-reliant in order to protect yourself.

  • For example, if you experienced systemic racism, it makes sense that you would struggle to fully TRUST others (even your intimate partner) because trusting and depending on others involves the risk of being vulnerable and getting hurt.
  • For example, if you identify as being part of the LGBTQIA+ community, you might have learned you needed to hide your true feelings and vulnerability in order to protect yourself from others who could discriminate, reject, or directly hurt you just for being yourself and loving someone outside of heteronormative standards.

What are the 3 levels of trust, according to trust expert John Gottman, PhD?

Trust- “a feeling of safety and security, which allows for vulnerability and openness, shown through actions, partners have each other’s backs, and care about their partner’s best interests EQUALLY with their own.”

Trustworthy- “a partner’s willingness to sacrifice for their relationship”

Commitment- “You are my journey. I have chosen you. I cherish what I have with you. No one can hold a candle to you.” Partners are 100% in! Partners compare their relationship favorably to others.”

If you are in an intimate relationship, write down the level you are currently at and your feelings and thoughts about this.

If you are single or in a relationship, write down the level you aspire to reach and why?

What builds trust in adult relationships?

In John Gottman, PhD’s book The science of trust (& outstanding Youtube video), he explains that: 

“Trust is built in very small moments, which I call ‘sliding door’ moments, named after the movie because in any interaction with our partner, there’s the possibility of connection with our partner (when they’re in need) or turning away.

When you choose to be there for your partner, you build trust! If you choose to only think of yourself, it’s a missed opportunity [of increasing your relationship’s ’emotional bank account’]. One such moment is not that important, but if you’re always choosing to turn away then trust erodes very gradually, very slowly.”

Gottman shares a wonderful example in his video, and I’ll share two personal “sliding door” moments here as well. Just to clarify, this skill of turning toward your partner is what Gottman identifies as attunement; the ability to “read” your partner’s emotions AND skillfully respond to them.

Example of reading partner’s emotions~ Last summer about a week after the loss of our dog, I noticed the look of sadness on my spouse’s face. Knowing that it’s hard for him to ask for comfort, I “opened the door” by saying, “It looks like you’re sad. Are you missing Zen?” (our pit bull) He responded, “yes” with some tears flowing and shared his grief with me.

Example of skillfully responding to partner’s emotions~ Just this past March, I had a sleepless night thinking about the changes I would need to make for my business as well as feeling fear of the unknown as a result of the Covid pandemic. As soon as my husband woke up, I expressed some of my fears and asked him if he could talk (knowing that some days he needs to begin working at 6 am). He patiently and compassionately engaged in one of our most supportive conversations we have ever had.

What else builds trust according to attachment theories?

“I am willing to do WHATEVER it takes for my partner to feel safe, secure, and loved.” – S. Tatkin, PACT Couples Therapy Model

In PACT sessions, couples learn secure functioning principles that strengthen TRUST such as: “I give first, and then I receive, we never make our partner feel like a third wheel, we repair hurts quickly and effectively”, etc. Couples also learn how to read each other’s body language, “co-regulate” or soothe one another’s distress, amplify each other’s joy, and strengthen their bond in part by becoming experts on one another.

If you and your partner would like to try a fun and powerful PACT experiential exercise you can do at home, take a look at my video and exercise called “The Couple Bubble”. Enjoy! (Insert LINK!)

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“When I know… I can reach you, you will respond to me emotionally when I need you, and you value me and will stay close, then I will feel securely attached.”

S. Johnson, EFT Couples Therapy Model

In EFT sessions, couples learn to build a more secure bond by learning how to slow down their interactions to take the time to attune to one another (see the definition below). They also learn how to repair misattunement as this is also a part of even the best of relationships. When partners share what’s happening inside themselves- their deeper emotions, thoughts, and meaning of their private selves- they’re revealing a vulnerable part of themselves that strengthens TRUST. How their partner responds to these authentic, risk-taking moments is crucial as well in increasing TRUST in their relationship. Partners learn how to “read”, validate, and empathize more effectively with one another.

What causes distrust or betrayal and how to heal?

A surprising finding in Gottman’s research on trust~ Betrayal and distrust are not strongly related to each other.

While a pattern of turning away creates DISTRUST in an intimate relationship, betrayal is more corrosive and often is traumatic.

Gottman explained Carol Rusbelt’s research on betrayal in this 4 minute Youtube video. Here is the link.

The atom of betrayal is not just turning away from [your partner’s emotion], but also doing a ‘CL ALT’. I not only turn away from my partner, I also think to myself, ‘I can do better! Who needs this crap? I’m always dealing with her negativity.”

“Rusbelt spent three decades studying the variable, “CL ALT”= comparison level for alternatives. Once you start thinking you can do better, you begin a cascade of not committing to the relationship, trashing your partner instead of cherishing your partner, building resentment rather than gratitude, … less dependency in getting your needs met, … and escalating conflict so it becomes an absorbing state…”

If you’re thinking, “I struggle with trust and it DOES sound like my partner has betrayed me. But, what are examples of betrayals BESIDES sexual infidelity?”

  • Take a look at my blog, “How Couples Can Heal From an Attachment Injury Betrayal” (Coming soon…) in which I include Gottman’s list of “10 other ways partner’s betray one another” besides affairs.

Gottman’s Trust Revival Method- 3 phases of healing from betrayal

In Gottman’s book, What makes love last; How to build trust and avoid betrayal, he explains the steps couples need to go through to heal. Below is a brief summary:

1. Atone-

  • The betrayer’s tasks: continual expression of remorse, non-defensiveness, repeatedly demonstrating trustworthiness (sacrificing for the relationship), listen to and understand your partner’s pain.

  • The betrayed partner’s tasks: opening the door to forgiveness (not getting stuck feeling inconsolable hurt or anger) as long as the betrayer is making the same effort.

2. Attune-

  • The couple constructs a new relationship that can meet both of their needs
  • Attunement skills include turning toward your partner in the following ways: deeply knowing your partner, sharing vulnerabilities (including darker emotions), asking open-ended questions, expressing validation and empathy, and making successful repairs.

3. Attach-

  • Attunement in the bedroom involves risk and requires an extremely high level of safety if you or your partner experienced sexual infidelity; The first step is being able to talk about romance, passion, and sex with the eventual goal of sexual intimacy that is pleasurable to both partners.

Can betrayals be prevented? Is it possible to “affair proof” our marriage?

Some authors believe this is possible. Others like Shirley Glass, PhD, an expert on affairs, believes:

“There is a prevention MYTH, which states that a loving partner and a good marriage will prevent affairs.”

Glass explains: “This misconception is NOT supported by any research… Any advice based on this bad assumption and simplification of a complex issue is misleading. The fact is, sometimes an affair can be understood by exploring deficiencies in the marriage, but often it cannot. If you don’t examine all the factors that contribute to an affair, you cannot know.”

How to increase your marriage’s resilience, according to Glass:

1. Keep your “windows” (to your partner’s soul) and “walls” (between the outside world and your inner world and relationship) in place.

  • Keep the “windows” between partners and “walls” between partners and the outside world to maintain healthy boundaries and prevention of betrayals. When these get reversed, relationships are prone to affairs.

2. Cherish your partner since this is critical to protecting your relationship from a cascade toward betrayal.

How to rebuild trust if it’s been shattered?

Fortunately, there are many evidenced-based strategies to rebuild trust! I will list my top 5 tools:

1. Listen to your partner’s hurt and acknowledge your part.

This requires a lot of strength and awareness of the benefits because when we love someone, it’s incredibly hard to hear that we’ve hurt them! So, it makes perfect sense that our gut reaction is to explain, rationalize, minimize, etc. but this actually INCREASES your partner’s pain. On the other hand, when you are willing to deeply listen and vulnerably reflect back your partner’s pain and your part in it (instead of defending yourself or counterattacking), your partner can begin to heal!

One of the most powerful things the listener can do is mirror back the same emotion and if possible at the same intensity of the speaker to show that they fully “get it”!

When the hurt party sees that level of profound empathy, they can finally LET GO of their pain.

This requires humility, empathy, and your willingness to put your relationship ahead of your need to protect your ego.

2. ATTUNE to your partner. Gottman’s research has shown that this is the MOST important skill in rebuilding trust!

Attunement is considered the gold standard for empathy and building a secure bond with your partner and it can be learned (to different degrees) by anyone.

If you want to improve in “reading” your partner’s emotions. consider these tools:

  • Get rid of distractions, sit face to face, eye to eye, intentionally focus on your partner’s deeper message and tune into your body. (This is a conversation in real time, not via text.)
  • Read one of psychologist, Paul Ekman’s books. Ekman, an expert in nonverbal body language, identified 7 universal emotions that humans around the world exhibit on their face.
  • Watch one of the early episodes of “Lie to Me”. This is a fascinating (fictional) crime show that enlisted Ekman as a consultant to ensure that the nonverbal body language clues were accurate.
  • Watch a Youtube video by psychologist Vanessa Van Edwards on identifying the 7 universal emotions.

If you want to improve in responding to your partner’s emotions. try these tools:

  • Do an exercise I created called “Emotional Responsiveness Tools”First, in one column, write the 7 universal emotions + add in others that are important to you. Second, in the next column, take a guess or ask your partner HOW you can most skillfully respond to them when they show that specific emotion. Third, role play it out (as contrived as it may be, this helps you learn by doing and receive the feedback you deserve. Write down what you learned and memorize this.
  • Participate in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). EFT focuses the most on the therapist modeling emotional responsiveness (validation, empathy, tuning in to the meaning of your message) and facilitating emotionally responsive conversations between partners.
  • Ask your couple therapist if they can incorporate video playback into your session. I LOVE using this method with my couple clients because there really is no better learning tool than “real time” video. I make sure to highlight couple’s strengths MORE than their opportunities for growth because it takes a lot of COURAGE to be filmed and watch yourself. This feedback is priceless- both seeing what you already do well and where you and your partner can grow.

Lastly, to increase your partner’s choice to turn toward you…

one tool you can try is “changing the music to change the dance”. According to Sue Johnson, PhD, when partners express their deeper, more vulnerable emotions, their loved one innately feels drawn to them. “Changing the music” refers to replacing our automatic ways of coping that protect us, but create a barrier to connection such as withdrawing or criticizing.

When partners find the courage to be vulnerable and share softer emotions about themselves and ask their partner for support (“change the music”), their partner will be more inclined to respond to their reach or to reach for them, which will lead to a dance of connection.

3. Genuine Forgiveness Process

If you are on thin ice with your partner because they have possibly filed for divorce, moved out, or kicked you out and you are willing to go to whatever lengths possible, this is a deeply healing process I highly recommend. In Janis Abrahms-Spring’s book, How can I forgive you? she outlines this process’ steps for both the “offender” and the “hurt party” in an easily understood way. I have guided several couples through these steps and am so grateful for her work since it provides a road map for partners back to each other’s hearts. I have a summary of this book in my blog, “How Can I Forgive You?” (ADD LINK) …

4. Plan of Action

In another Abrahms-Spring book, “After the Affair”, she explains how crucial it is for the hurt party to write a list of trust building behaviors that their partner, who had the affair, can do to rebuild trust. Some behaviors are high cost behaviors such as, leave your job and others are lower cost behaviors like stop attending an activity where you might encounter your affair partner. In cases of affairs, the betrayer needs to demonstrate transparency at an exceptional level- access to their phone, computer, etc. Most people would agree that “Actions do speak louder than words”.

A personal plan of action example~ Taking on the Mother-in-Law!

A few years ago, my spouse and I developed an agreement regarding what behaviors we would and would not accept from his mother toward me during a family vacation. My partner and I co-created a plan that both included preventative steps, ex. He agreed to never leave me alone with his mother and interventive steps, ex. If I felt my mother-in-law’s behavior was excessively disrespectful (after speaking directly to her), my spouse agreed that our family would leave the vacation home and rent a hotel room. We did daily check-ins to see if I needed any more or a different kind of support and for me to express gratitude toward my husband’s efforts.

Our planning paid off!

We were able to stay “connected and protected” at the family vacation home and TRUST was definitely restored as I felt my spouse totally had my back!

5. Co-regulation~ connecting through the body

Co-regulation is a term in PACT couples therapy that refers to partners learning how to calm each other’s nervous systems. Our biology shows that from cradle to grave, we are most regulated or comforted by other’s touch and words. In PACT, therapists also encourage individual partners to increase their toolbox for self-soothing for times their partner is not available.

Co-regulation is even considered a “Super power”! Attachment theory research shows, “We’re stronger together.”

When we “launch” from a secure base to go off into the world, we’re so much braver. This is, in large part, because we know if we struggle, we not only have ourselves to depend on, we can connect with our partner. And at the end of the day, we also recharge when we can share our struggles and have our partner soothe our distress or when we experience an achievement, we have a partner to amplify our joy by celebrating it with us!

What does co-regulation look like in adult couples?

  • A loving gaze into your partner’s eyes or your partner looking at you as if you’re the most precious thing in the world.
  • Your partner holding you in their arms and comforting you (ex. stroking your hair) in a way that feels incredibly soothing.
  • Giving your partner a foot or neck massage after a long, stressful day

In closing

As humans, we’re all going to struggle with trust to different degrees in our intimate relationship.

What gives me hope personally and professionally is that we have the science of trust today to serve as our road map in developing the healthiest and most satisfying relationships. And even with our knowing what we should do to cultivate the highest level of trust in our intimate relationships, we also know that if we make a mistake or unintentionally erode trust, we can heal and build an even stronger relationship if we’re willing to learn and practice effective repairs with our partner.

I also believe that along with our own personal and spiritual growth work, our adult intimate partner can contribute significantly to helping us heal our past wounds involving distrust or betrayal from childhood or other significant relationships. It’s a big responsibility and a gift.

Which level of trust do you and your partner wish to strive for in your relationship?

Trust? Trustworthy? Commitment?

And what actions are you willing to take to make that happen?

I hope that this comprehensive blog provided you with lots of valuable information and practical tools for you to implement in your own intimate relationship as well as in other relationships you value.

If you are struggling with rebuilding trust, I am here to support you, your loved one, and your relationship.

Contact Lana Isaacson, LCSW, CAC III today at 720.432.5262, [email protected]com or schedule your session or free consultation here.