Certainly one of the most important qualities in a successful marriage is trust. However, when it is broken by dishonesty or betrayal, the emotional damage is so serious that the very survival of the union is uncertain. As a therapist, one of the most commonly asked questions by those seeking marriage or couples counseling is , “Can trust be regained ? “ and “ Can the injuries caused by the breach ever really heal ? “ Often, underlying these questions is a sense of hopelessness and the belief that a broken trust can never be repaired.
While the challenge of rebuilding trust is not easy or simple, forty years of experience in dealing with issues like infidelity has taught me that there is hope and that restoring a durable trust is possible if couples are able and willing to make the effort and to make some basic changes in their relationship.
Conceptually, what is needed for trust to be regained is emotional reassurance i.e. confidence and certainty that you can count on your partner when s/he is most needed. Betrayals like affairs or secretive financial activities are so devastating to trust because they draw into serious or complete doubt how well one knows or understands who one’s partner is. Doubt about one’s mate shatters the sense of emotional security on which trust is built.
Therefore, the keys to re-establishing deep trust in the relationship are rebuilding an environment of confidence and safety for both partners. I say both because it is easy to assume that in these issues one partner is the helpless victim and that the other is to blame. In dealing with broken trust ,as in most marital issues, “It takes two to Tango.”. Surprisingly, often the person who overtly broke the trust also has trust issues with his/her partner. In fact, many marital betrayals stem from a fundamental insecurity or lack of trust felt by the offending partner. Thus, both need to work to convince the other that they are still trustworthy.
While this sounds good in theory, what, specifically, can couples do to rebuild confidence in one another? The secret to developing trust is illustrated in an episode from the comedy series , Two and a Half Men. In one episode Charlie is able to disarm hostile females and make friends with them by doing two things: 1) Listening to them without arguing or interrupting and 2) Responding with the simple phrase “I understand.” Although Charlie was not sincere, the power of this simple comment exposes the intensity of a person’s need to be listened to and understood. Listening in this patient and accepting way is called Intimate Listening.
While many counselors focus on communication techniques, I believe not enough focus on the importance of intimate listening. Many common problems in couple conversations stem from getting stuck in conflicts about who is right and who is wrong. Instead of calmly listening until their partner is finished, many partners will interrupt or challenge the accuracy of what is being said. In so doing, listening has stopped and understanding what the person was trying to express is lost.
Intimate listening, also referred to as being empathic, differs from regular listening in that it focuses on the person’s feelings not on the logic or facts or point of view of what is being said. It allows the speaker the time and space to say , without interruption or argument, whatever they need to say and then, reflects back that the listener hears, understands and cares about the speaker.
Many mistakenly think that intimate listening must involve agreeing with the content of what is spoken . It doesn’t. The listener doesn’t have to agree with what the person is saying because the content of what is being voiced is not the concern of an intimate listener. The primary goal of intimate listening is to identify what a person is feeling.
The next and most important step in rebuilding trust is Intimate Reflection i.e. reflect back to one’s partner what was heard in a way that communicates these five fundamental emotional needs :
1) Understanding of the person’s feelings and experience
2) A willingness to Listen and to Accept what the person is feeling ( not agreement with the content of the words),
3) Love and Caring for the person who is talking I love you and am committed to you and our relationship.
4) Reassurance – You can count on me to support your feelings even if we don’t agree.
5) Safety – You don’t have to pretend. It is okay to be who you are. Even though we may disagree , I won’t attack , leave or reject you for being vulnerable and honest with me.
Intimate reflection is a conversational process which builds trust because it conveys a deep receptiveness to who the person actually is and does not demand agreement or sameness as a pre-condition of acceptance and caring. Over time, empathic reflection demonstrates concern for the other person’s feelings and conveys loving acceptance of them. Confidence in the unconditional love of one’s partner is the crucial element in trusting relationships.
If you have suffered betrayal in your relationship but still love and desire a renewed and better relationship, try listening and understanding in a new way and see what a difference intimate communication can make .
Rev. Michael Heath , LMHC , Fellow AAPC 8 30 2020.
Acknowledgment and attribution for graphic image: