Whether its a string of unearthed lies, one big betrayal, or even cheating, a breach of trust in a relationship leaves many couples hurt and unsure what to do next. And no matter what you do, you may feel like you can’t seem to find your way back to the way things once were. Of course, this is painful, but it is also normal. Your relationship is different than it once was, because you, the people in it, relate to each other in a new way.
Does this mean that you can’t repair the damage done? Not at all. With hard work, communication, and a genuine desire to continue to grow as a couple, you are fully capable of reconnecting with your partner and, perhaps, even growing into a deeper, more profound relationship. To start, you must — and I do mean must — give up the notion that your relationship should return to the way it was before. That isn’t a helpful goal for either party. Instead, aim to reestablish trust and continue to choose each other. It’s so much more liberating and can help you and your partner understand and treat each other with mutual respect.
Now that you’ve adjusted your expectations, take these practical steps to rebuild with your partner.
1. Create rituals and routines.
One of the easiest ways to reestablish trust is to create a pattern that both of you can rely on — there is safety in consistency. “Create rituals and routines for checking in,” says relationship coach Danielle Robin, who created Couple Goals, a program that helps couples strengthen their connection. “This could be a daily text message with something you feel grateful for about the other person or a longer weekly sharing ritual. Show that you are making the time to connect and, more importantly, to listen.” Being able to rely on and return to a consistent practice together will help not only in reestablishing trust but also in proving you share a commitment to doing the work it takes to sustain a healthy relationship.
2. Determine and state your boundaries.
After Anna*, 30, of Philadelphia, developed a crush that sent a ripple through her relationship with her now-fiancé, she found that reestablishing boundaries was key in sustaining their 10-plus-year commitment. “We knew we loved each other and would choose each other over and over again, but slowing down and taking the time to identify exactly what kind of boundaries made us feel seen was invaluable,” she says. Boundaries are different for every person and every couple, but defining them with “I” statements is a great place to start. A statement like, “I feel anxious when you are out and are unresponsive to my messages” can help you establish better practices for communication when you are away from each other. It also saves you from a frantic “Why aren’t you responding to me?!” message. Or saying “I feel hurt and vulnerable when you leave out parts of a story because of how you think I may respond” can help you reframe what lying by omission truly stirs up for you without placing a judgement on the other person. (Yelling, “You never tell me the whole story!” is not a good route to take.) Speaking in this manner removes blame from the conversation and strengthens empathy with your partner, which is an amazing tool for understanding each other and rebuilding trust.
3. Dig into what really happened.
“The couples I see who successfully navigate a betrayal are able to shift their focus away from blame and shame and to accountability and growth,” says Angelica Rossin, LMFT. “[They] use their experience as an opportunity to create positive change in themselves and their relationship.” To do that, a couple must develop a shared understanding of what happened, why it happened, and what it means for their relationship. “The offending party needs to work toward an understanding of their decisions and take ownership of any unconscious patterns that led to the betrayal,” she adds. “Putting the behavior in context may also help mitigate the anxiety of the aggrieved party as they gain a greater sense of order in the cause-and-effect.”
Let’s say your partner flirting with someone else was a response to feeling trapped in a relationship. Exploring the pattern of feeling trapped and understanding if it is a response to your behavior or a bad habit that has followed them through their past relationships can help you navigate and hopefully heal the issue with awareness instead of fear. Using non-judgemental language that highlights how none of this is meant as a personal attack but rather something that you deal with in a relationship can help you figure out how to respond rationally rather than in a state where you are blinded by emotion.
4. Express yourself well and often.
“For a little while after I caught him browsing a [dating] app, I had permission from my boyfriend to bring the violation up whenever I wanted and to ask as many questions as I had,” Mara, 26, of Brooklyn, New York says. “It was uncomfortable and difficult, but ultimately over time, it helped me get over my need to talk about it, and we were able to put it behind us.”
The way you bring something like this up is also important, according to Rossin. “It makes sense that the aggrieved party is prone to express very strong emotions of anger and rage,” she says. “However, it is critical to be able to express the vulnerability underneath the rage so that their partner can actually hear their pain and be better positioned to tend to it.” This helps create what Rossin calls “emotional safety,” which is the result of both partners feeling that the other truly wants to know and understand what they have felt and experienced. It also opens the door to conversations that heal rather than continue the cycle of anger and negativity.
5. Toss out your timeline.
Still, healing takes time — there is no way to fast-forward the process. “You have to be willing to work through the brokenness that mistrust brings into a relationship,” says love, sex, and relationship coach Kerry Goring. “There is going to be blowback. There is going to be anger and maybe a flurry of check-in texts to make sure you are where you say you are.” If you are unwilling to move through some of the more messy and emotionally charged parts of rebuilding your relationship, none of the other work can be built on top of it.” Forgiveness is central to deciding to work through whatever sparked the upheaval in your relationship in the first place, and it, along with understanding, will continue to be vital as you navigate new territory together.
Make no mistake about it: This is not an easy time for your relationship. However, now that you’re here, it can be rewarding to continue to choose someone as you navigate pain together with the ultimate goal of building something together.
*Names have been changed to protect innocent daters everywhere.