I work with a lot of couples in crisis. Promises made at a wedding 3, 7, 15, or 28 years ago that expressed good intentions and carried so much hope were somehow forgotten. Vows are broken. Hearts betrayed. Trust shattered.
Rebuilding trust? That’s one of the the greatest challenges any couple will ever face in their marriage.
(By the way, it’s not just couples where trust can be broken. Parents break their children’s trust. Children break their parents’ trust too. Employers and employees alike can cultivate an atmosphere of distrust. Friends can betray friends.)
So what do you do to begin rebuilding trust when you find yourself standing in the smoldering ruins of a relationship that’s been torched by betrayal? Here are a few suggestions for a couple who is beginning this process.
First, recognize that rebuilding trust is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Everything inside of you screams, “Don’t do it! Are you nuts! They’ll just do it again! They’ve already proven that they can’t be trusted! You’d be crazy to set yourself up again!”
But that seems to put Jesus’ followers in a real bind. Because Jesus has called us to forgive those who have harmed us. Right? But how can we forgive after we’ve been so deeply betrayed?
Second, understanding that forgiveness begins a process that opens the door to the potential for rebuilding shattered trust (Luke 17:3-4). This is not a quick fix. This takes time for both the forgiver and the offender. And forgiveness doesn’t mean simply letting the person off the hook after they say, “I’m sorry.” It’s not forgetting. There is accountability in healthy forgiveness.
(For more on forgiveness, check out some of our Round Table discussions and Insight Videos on the topic of forgiveness.)
Third, understanding that rebuilding trust requires two willing participants who are devoted to Christ first and then to each other. One person doesn’t make a relationship. It takes two individuals who long for restoration and are willing to submit to God’s purposes and then risk being vulnerable with each other to learn how to love. Oh, and the offender in the relationship needs to set the tone by taking the initiative to be vulnerable first. Unfortunately, if the offender refuses to take ownership, makes excuses, resorts to explanations, shifts the blame to the other person or bulks at requests for accountability, rebuilding trust is impossible.
Forth, recognize that the only formula for trust building is consistency over a long time. That’s the hard work of reconstructing the core foundation of a relationship one thin layer at a time. It’s a daily thing. It requires an intense amount of energy and investment on the part of both spouses.
The best analogy that I have found to describe trust building is the process of applying a fine lacquer finish on a piece of furniture that I’ve made in my wood shop. Here’s the process:
Lacquer is a finish that I spray on one thin layer at at time. After giving it sufficient time to dry, I lightly sand out the finish with extremely fine sandpaper. Sanding smooths and levels out the surface, allowing the finish to fill in the grain of the wood. It also creates thousands of micro-fine scratches in the finish. Then, when another layer of finished is applied, the scratches are filled in by the fresh layer of finish and binds the layers together. Then, after it dries, the sanding process begins again.
This process is repeated time after time after time. The layers build on each other and meld together to form a singular bond of protection the displays the beauty of the wood. The last time the finish is “rubbed out” with a superfine rubbing compound that produces a smooth mirror finish. The surface of the furniture feels like glass.
What I like about a lacquer finish is that it highlights all the beautiful grain in the wood. It deepens and takes on a richer glow over time as it ages. It’s a durable finish that protects the wood. But as with any piece of furniture that is used throughout a lifetime, it will wear and inevitably get scratched, chipped or even gouged. The finish can be repaired by repeating the process of rubbing out the scratch, reapplying a layer or two of finish (depending on how deep the scratch/gouge is). With a little TLC, the finish can again be restored.
That’s trust building: two partners who are fully invested in the long term process of rebuilding trust by demonstrating love consistently one layer at a time over a lifetime. The result is a durable relationship that lasts and reflects the beauty of the love of Christ reflected in the love of the couple.