If you’ve hurt someone and you want to make amends and rebuild trust, it can be done. Even the most long-term and successful relationships have their moments of difficulty. Rather than seeing a trust-breaking event as a failure, it can also be transformed into an opportunity to strengthen and improve your relationship.

Rebuilding trust with someone you’ve hurt can take time. When trust is lost, it can be hard to get back to how things were. It is possible. but it requires acceptance and sincerity on both sides.

Although it is the offender’s responsibility to sincerely make amends,  lot will depend on the willingness of the ‘injured’ party to accept your efforts and work with you to regain what was lost. The good news is that, if it works, you can both emerge stronger and with a healthier relationship.

Trust is a vital component in our relationships. It means having confidence in the reliability and honesty of the other person. As a significant relationship develops, it implies a correspondingly deepening trust between the people in the relationship.

(In this article I am referring to significant personal relationships between two people. This might be an important friendship or a more intimate and committed union as in the case of lovers or chosen life-partners).

To a large extent, trust is implied, not spoken of. When it does surface in a close relationship, it is often because trust is in doubt, or something has happened to destabilise the relationship.

How trust develops

As a relationship develops you may ask yourself “Can I trust this person?” If your sense of trust is affirmed, so you tend to feel more secure. There are many different facets to this initial, burgeoning trust. For example, we may trust a partner to respect the unspoken ‘rules’ in our relationship like keeping a secret for example, but we may not trust them to be on time!

A progressive process

Trust builds over time. As a relationship deepens, you may feel progressively safer to reveal aspects of yourself or your experience. If the other person accepts this shared information without judgement, you’ll feel reassured. In turn, they might tell you a little more about themselves, and the cycle continues. On the other hand, if the other person rejects your disclosure, you are unlikely to risk more revelations, and you might even end the relationship.

So trust is rooted in mutual feelings of transparency, honesty, and safety between two people. Though most trust-building happens earlier in the relationship, it is still vital to continue to demonstrate trust to each other regularly. In ongoing relationships, this happens automatically, in small ways that are a part of your normal behaviour together. To this extent, it is closely related to reliability and predictability. 

An occasional deviation from the implied agreements between you (avoiding shared chores, or forgetting a birthday, for example), doesn’t cause a problem. Lapses like this can be easily corrected by ‘surfacing’ and discussing them before they become an issue. If the ‘offender’ takes responsibility and follows up with an apology, changes their behaviour, or whatever is deemed appropriate, the balance of trust is restored. 

However, breaking these tacit understandings repeatedly, or with no apparent acknowledgement of the harm done, will begin to fragment the level of trust in the relationship. This too can lead to the demise of the relationship.

More serious aberrations such as lies, concealment, infidelity, or inappropriate sharing of privileged information outside the relationship, are much harder to repair. Consequently, some relationships will never recover. 

When trust is lost

Once broken, trust can be a lot harder to restore than it was to establish trust at the start of the relationship. Whereas the initial trust-building was a shared process, repairing the damage when trust has broken down can be a lot harder.

In the final analysis, only the person who perceives themselves a having been let down can decide if trust is restored. This will require a measure of goodwill, forgiveness, acceptance, and tolerance on their part. It also requires patience and time. There are no guarantees, and even though the one making amends may be genuinely remorseful and sincere in their efforts to rebuild trust, the final decision rests with the other person.

Where to start

This process of repair will be a little different depending on the cause of the loss of trust. If you have been disloyal to a friend in some way an apology may be enough. In more extreme cases, cheating on your partner, for example, you will need to go deeper by explaining your behaviour and answering your partner’s questions.

How to start rebuilding trust

First, you must decide together if you are both willing to commit to a period of healing and repair. Though it may seem as if the ‘offender’ must do all the work, it also requires a willingness by the other person to participate. They must be open to the process, and prepared, in time, to accept and even forgive the ‘offence’ whatever it was. Also, as any family therapist knows, though a problem may appear to be caused by one partner, both can usually learn and grow from the experience. 

Rebuilding trust takes time and requires the following:

Apology

Be sincere in your apology and show that you genuinely want to make amends. Avoid trying to justify your behaviour. If the situation between you somehow contributed to your actions you can discuss this later. The first job is to establish a firm foundation from which to start the trust rebuilding process.

Acceptance

You should both agree that your relationship is worth saving. Acceptance of the by both parties is important. This doesn’t mean liking, or blaming, or judging. It simply means recognising the facts as they occurred.

Commitment 

Neither of you should try and ‘prove’ anything to the other. You are each responsible for your own feelings, doubts and concerns. Be patient; the offender must understand that the other person needs time. Equally, they must understand that the one who ‘did wrong’ is sincere in the efforts to repair things. 

Openness 

Be open to learning and self-improvement. Broken trust can’t be fixed with just words. Keep your dialogue open and honest, but also make a special effort to demonstrate your sincerity and commitment by your behaviour towards each other.

Responsibility

Whatever the ’cause’ of the breach of trust both of you are responsible for making the trust-rebuilding process a success. Your relationship can emerge stronger and fitter. Keep your shared goal in view and avoid the temptation to reproach or blame the other.

Clarity 

You must both want it to work Though you may start out in different places, open and candid discussion can bring you together. Be honest, trust the other person in their sincerity, and be consistent in your words and actions.

If you have agreed to rebuild trust, be patient. Avoid any sense of urgency or need. This is a process of growth and improvement. If the two of you are sincerely committed to the process, you should find that your relationship is strengthened, and so will you both be, as individuals.

References:

Nelson-Jones, R. Human Relationship Skills (2nd ed), Cassell, London, 1995.

Winek, J.L., Craven, P.A. Healing Rituals for Couples Recovering from Adultery. Contemporary Family Therapy 25, 249–266 (2003).