Rebuilding trust in marriage takes hard work
Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series.
Last column we discussed trust and its significance as the necessary foundation of any growing, intimate relationship. We suggested that trust is a decision rather than a feeling. We recognized that it is both complicated and risky.
We focused in particular on trust in marriage. We noted that it is an "all or nothing" proposition. Marital trust must be mutual; without doubt, limit or hesitation.
Yet, as we acknowledged at the conclusion of last week's column, most marriages experience, at one time or the other, a betrayal of trust.
It may be a slow steady crumbling of the foundation of trust upon which our marriage was built. If, for example, we realize that our spouse no longer gives us the time, the attention, the caring that was part of our first years, our trusting of his/her love can slowly fade away.
Or, we may find trust destroyed as the consequence of one disastrous act. Most common is an extramarital affair. We experience a sudden and total loss of all the years of trust we had invested in our marriage.
Out of my experience as a marriage counselor, I have come to realize that an imagined betrayal can be just as destructive as a real one.
If we imagine that our spouse's increasing silence indicates a loss of investment in our relationship, our trust is threatened. We may not even consider the possibility that such silence reflects a growing preoccupation with his/her own emotional problems or pains. Imagination is enough to threaten our trust.
Likewise, we may imagine that our spouse's late nights at the office are a cover for an extramarital involvement. We fail to give credence to his/her protestations that the long hours are intended to earn the extra money the family needs. Again, trust quickly evaporates.
In fact, just letting ourselves imagine betrayal suggests that our trust was shaky to begin with. When our decision to trust is firm, we do not allow our imagination to question our spouse's trustworthiness.
Betrayal — real or imagined — is a disaster serious enough to end any marriage. We find ourselves withdrawing any and all of the intimacy we had previously offered to each other. Our deep hurt often is expressed in anger and bitterness as well.
Sometimes we attempt to cover over such pain with a facade of reconciliation. We pretend that, if we just forget what happened, things will get better on their own. But it won't work.
There is hope. But it's hope grounded in hard and painful work. True reconciliation requires five extremely difficult steps.
1. Awareness: We need to be aware of the depth of our hurt, anger, bitterness, doubt, guilt, shame. We also need to recognize that probably we both have contributed to the crisis, and each consider how our behavior has led to the loss of trust.
2. Confession: Our awareness must be shared confessionally, with no attempt to shift total blame to one person or the other.
3. Forgiveness: As impossible as it may seem, we must forgive each other, and ourselves, for the mess we've made.
4. Restitution: We each need to intentionally vow to change our thoughts and behavior. We have to correct the problems that have led to our crisis in trust.
5. Recommitment: We must decide to risk trusting again, despite all our pain and doubt. If we are ever to reexperience a growing, intimate marriage, we have to once more commit ourselves totally to each other.
In all honesty, I don't think we can do it alone. It's just too big a job. We need the help of a professional marital therapist. Working with a counselor is no guarantee that we will put things back together, but it's probably the best chance we've got.
We've only scratched the surface, really. When we're talking about the very foundation of marriage, a few short paragraphs is hardly enough. If you have experienced a loss of trust in your marriage, I do hope these thoughts can provide some measure of both direction and hope to you.
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