Restoring trust takes a lot of time and work. Most of this work must be done by the person who HAD an affair. (There’s not much the spouse can do to restore the bond of trust. It was broken by the one who had the affair. So it can only be restored by the actions of the one who had the affair.
Actually, I’ve written quite a lot about the issue of trust over the years. That’s because it’s such a key issue for everyone after learning of their spouse’s affair.
In responding to the request for some “practical, specific activities to rebuild trust,” I’m listing below some of the steps to be taken by the person who had an affair in order to gradually rebuild the trust that has been destroyed.
Steps to Restoring Trust
Here are some specific guidelines for the person who had an affair:
1. Don’t expect your spouse to trust you again for a very long time.
While your spouse may want to trust again, trust cannot be “bestowed;” it will only come as a by-product of your willingness to do everything possible to gain their trust. While your commitments and promises are a good starting point, it’s your actions (over time) that will dictate the course of rebuilding trust. “Actions speak louder than words.”
2. Sever all contact with the third party.
This means no more contact of any kind. There should be no telephone, email, nothing! (The only exception to this is if the third party is a family member. Or it may be that there is a child born from the affair. In those cases, most people try to accommodate to some kind of contact in the future.) For any other situation, it’s a matter of being clear about the priority. Your priority is to help your spouse recover; and this may involve major life changes.
For instance, an affair at work means finding another job. An affair with someone in your social group means changing friends. Also, an affair with someone within your very small community means moving to another community. An affair through the internet means no computer at all for a while. And then only limited use with NO private email accounts and no chat rooms, etc. The bottom line is to do whatever it takes to sever all contact with the third party.
Note: If the third-party initiates contact, tell them your spouse knows about the affair. Additionally, tell them that you will have no more contact with them. Clearly ask them to honor this request. Even though you may feel bad to hurt the third party this way, it’s just a fact that everyone gets hurt in these situations. Your first responsibility is to bring no more pain to your spouse. (Also, it’s better for the third party to know where things stand. This way they can get on with their life without dragging this out or holding out false hope.)
3. Answer all of your spouse’s questions.
Most spouses want lots of information. They want not only who, what, when, where, why—but details too. Your natural inclination (both to protect yourself and to “protect” them) will be to only tell whatever you think you absolutely have to disclose. But you want to give no more. However, this is like trying to put a band aid on a major wound. Your spouse’s life has just been turned upside down. As a result, they need answers in order to make any sense of it.
But more important than the answers themselves, they need to know you are willing to do whatever it takes for them to recover. It’s up to your spouse. It’s not up to you to determine what they need to know.
As important as it is to answer the questions, it’s usually even more important that you are willing to keep answering for as long as they need to ask. It’s this “willingness” that demonstrates a degree of responsibility that is critical to your spouse being able to trust again.
4. Hang in through the very, very, very long process of talking through the whole situation.
Patience will be one of your greatest tools in getting through this process. As I’ve frequently written, I’ve never seen anyone completely recover from the emotional impact of this experience in less than 2 years. And that’s when both people are doing everything to try to recover. Efforts to deny it or bury it or just “move on” are doomed until your spouse feels he/she has been heard. Your spouse also needs to get answers, and the time to recover and heal.
5. Respect your spouse’s need to talk with others about this life-altering experience.
It’s understandable to want to keep this hidden from others. It may be embarrassing, awkward, and elicit criticism; but those are just some of the inevitable natural consequences of this experience. To expect to be protected from any consequences simply adds insult to the tremendous injury felt by your spouse. (Frankly, anything that feels too awful to talk about often feels too awful to get over. So it’s important that your spouse is not be isolated and alone as he/she struggles to deal with this devastating experience.)
6. Be willing to “report in” as to your whereabouts.
You can help the process of rebuilding trust if you honor any of your spouse’s needs for contact or to know your whereabouts. For instance, they may want you to call them at certain times. Or they may need you to provide a schedule that give them some reassurance of your actions.
Rebelling against their need for you to “report in” won’t make the need go away. In fact, the more you resist, the more they’re likely to feel that their concerns about your trustworthiness are valid. But the more cooperative you are in earning back their trust (including calling as often as necessary), the less time it will take. You see, the more you demonstrate your willingness to take responsibility for doing whatever they need to feel reassured, the less they are likely to feel anxious; thus the less they are likely to need this constant calling. Please understand, however, that even when the need for you to constantly call diminishes, there is likely to still be some lingering anxiety, uncertainty, and need for reassurance for quite a long time.
If you do everything possible to reassure your spouse for a couple of years and they still insist on your calling with every move you make, then that may indicate a different problem. There may either be an underlying need to “punish” or an inability to recover, no matter what you do. But do recognize that for about the first 6 months following discovery, a person struggling to recover from their spouse’s affair is fortunate if they can just eat, sleep and function. They don’t need to have to deal with your resistance to calling in the midst of such overwhelming destruction of their sense of trust and security in their lives as a whole.
7. Go to counseling with your spouse if they wish to get professional help.
This is not their issue to deal with; it’s your joint issue to work through together. The very process of coming together to work through all this not only demonstrates your commitment, but also provides the possibility of facing this crisis together in such a way that allows you to develop more honesty and closeness in the future.
Note: The above points are by no means complete, but they’re a good beginning. And pursuing this path is sure to lead to more understanding of what else is involved. But mainly, this kind of information can’t be “spoon-fed” in lists or superficial coverage. So I encourage those who have had an affair to read everything on my website, beginning with the Articles on Affairs. Also, most of the information posted on the site is based on the concepts more fully covered in my book, The Monogamy Myth.
Important Footnote about Trust
We tend to think that the trust issue is “resolved” whenever there’s a divorce following an affair. However, our ability to trust anyone has been undermined unless and until we deal with the emotional impact of the affair. The degree to which a person recovers and is able to trust again does not necessarily depend on whether or not they stay married. It depends on getting more understanding of the whole issue. This involves doing a lot of hard work (usually involving reading, talking, reflecting on it)—either with or without the person who had the affair.
Second, it’s not just a question of not trusting the spouse (even a new spouse); it’s also a question of not trusting your own instincts. This is understandable due to the experience of having been deceived in the past. Once someone finds out after years of being deceived, there’s a tendency to feel foolish at having been trusting and to feel afraid of having that happen again.
While we do need to “learn from our experiences,” the lesson to be learned from this experience is not that you can never trust again. It’s that you need a different kind of trust. It’s one that is based on an ongoing commitment to honest communication. And it’s not the old kind of trust based on assumption. We can’t just assume monogamy (even though, based on the wedding vows, we think we should be able to assume it). We need to recognize the prevalence of affairs. And we must establish the kind of honesty in the relationship that builds real trust.
Maintain Close Connection
Remember that trust is not something you bestow on someone. Trust is a by-product of maintaining the kind of close connection (and real knowing of each other) that comes from responsible honesty.
Peggy Vaughan, was an internationally recognized expert in the area of extramarital affairs. Peggy and her husband appeared on the Phil Donahue Show to share the intimate struggle of how they rebuilt their marriage after James’s adultery. Married for over 57 years to her husband, Peggy was also the author of several books including, “The Monogamy Myth” and “Beyond Affairs,” In addition, Peggy was the founder of Dearpeggy.com. Since 1996 her website has served as an Extramarital Affairs Resource Center for professionals and the public alike.