Sunday, September 21, 2014

Can Trust Be Rebuilt? Part 1

This is a big question most hurt spouses try to answer after discovering their spouses' marital betrayal. And a very important question to answer. A healthy marriage relationship is founded on mutual trust. To truly be intimate and "one flesh" requires feeling secure with each other.

An affair destroys that trust and security.

In my book, Healing Infidelity, I liken it to a hurricane wiping a house off its foundation. It is gone, destroyed, the trust meter reads 0%.

Without trust, you can't have a healthy and vibrant marriage. So determining whether or not you can rebuild trust in large part plays into your decision on whether to rebuild, continue to rebuild, or cut your losses.

How do you determine whether trust can be rebuild?

To answer that, we need to break it down into several concepts that need to be considered.

In truth, I can't answer that question for you. No one on the Internet can, to be truthful. The best route is to make you aware of what you are up against, then based on what you know of your situation, decide whether the risks verses benefits are worth it or not.

The following list is not in any order of importance.

1. Some suggest that it is near impossible to rebuild trust.

Probably the prime example of that is the Chump Lady, whose tag line says, "Leave a cheater, gain a life." On her blog's About page, she clearly believes there is little to no chance of rebuilding trust once cheating has happened:

Chump Lady is not a site optimistic about reconciliation. I liken reconciliation to a unicorn, a mythical creature I want to believe in, but which is seldom seen. This emphatically is NOT a site to save your marriage — this is a site about saving your sanity.

She also admits there that this conclusion is based upon her own experience in being married to what she terms a "serial cheater" who showed little remorse or attempts to stop his affair habit. Like me, she is not a therapist who has seen a lot of cases and worked intimately with a wide variety of couples going through this.

Chump Lady, meet your unicorn. I'm a hurt spouse whose wife for seven months had emotional affairs with several people online, and two local emotional and physical affair partners. As of writing this, three years and four months after discovery day, I trust my wife and am happily married to her, and love her as much as I ever have. I'm not a mythical creature.

Though I recognize that I'm in the minority, I know I'm not the only one. I've read about others and have met others in my situation. We're not so mythical as some would lead us to believe.

I'll be quick to add, however, that Chump Lady does speak to a need that I also often see: hurt spouses who should have left their marriage long ago, due to several factors, and need that support to take the only remaining steps left to find healing and happiness. There are many who are sacrificing their sanity in a vain attempt to save their marriage.

I'm in no way going to the other extreme and claiming that everyone can or should save their marriage. Most every couple could save their marriage, if they both did everything they need to do to accomplish it. But I'm not naive enough to believe a whole lot will do it. As Jesus said, Moses allowed for divorce due to our hardness of heart. Many unfaithful spouses will not stop their affairs. Many unfaithful spouses will not repent, will not stop keeping secrets from their spouse, will continue to commit adultery.

Hardness of heart by one or both spouses will prevent any chance of rebuilding trust, any chance of saving the marriage. It is pointless to try for very long in the face of continued disrespect by one spouse for the other. Too many sacrifice their marital dreams by staying married to someone they don't trust and never will for the sake of the children or finances.

Divorce is a reality, and in many of these cases, the least of all evils.

But the truth is that rebuilding of trust can happen. I'm not going to lie and say it is easy. The odds are against you. There are many more ways it can go wrong than right. But there are enough who have done it to know that it is possible.

Willard Hartley in his book, His Needs, Her Needs, makes the statement that the standard success rate of long-term successful rebuilding of marriages after infidelity by traditional counseling methods is 40%. With his method, that success rate went up to 60%.

Even at 40%, that success rate is far from mythical. That is a substantial number of couples who are able to rebuild trust in their relationship following an affair. It is a disservice to discourage people from trying as much as it is to encourage people who should leave a marriage to stick with it.

It is all too easy for people who had a negative experience in rebuilding, especially if they did stick with it much longer than they should have, to project their experience onto everyone and make absolute pronouncements that rebuilding trust and a marriage after an affair is mythical.

Likewise, while I believe my success is repeatable by other couples committed to rebuilding, I have no illusions that most will be able to duplicate what I did. There are too many variables and circumstances to make any general sweeping statements either way.

So what are some of those variables?

2. Resetting Trust Expectations

The truth of the matter is in any relationship, but especially in a marital one, the more intimacy you develop, the greater the risk of betrayal. You are in one sense giving them a knife, turning your back to them, and asking them to shave off the hair on your back. At that point you are vulnerable. They could shove the knife into your chest and you'd be seriously injured, if not dead. But you trust them not to do that, so you give them the knife. That's the relationship between trust and intimacy. You can't have one without the other.

This very real risk is present in every marriage. However, we don't usually stand at the alter and say "I do" believing it will ever happen to "us". "He loves me too much to ever do that." We always believe what we have is special. We are unique. It happens to other people, but not us. The longer the marriage goes on with no sign of infidelity, the more confident we become that it will never happen to me.

This is what I call blind trust. It is simply inconceivable to either spouse that the other would ever seriously consider cheating on them, much less following through with it. On a scale of 1 to 100%, blind trust is about as close to 100% as you can get, like 99.9%.

After 29 years of marriage to a wife I'd always known to be faithful, I had every reason to believe it would never happen to me. We were both Christians with strong moral values. We both loved one another. Though we weren't perfect in showing it all the time, we both were happily married.

Five months before her affairs started, on our 28th wedding anniversary I asked her the question I always asked every year, "Are you happy married to me? What do we need to improve?" We both acknowledged our love for each other and our happiness with the marriage.

My trust level with her was so blind that even up until I read her words that she was having sex with another man, the thought she was having an affair never once entered my mind, despite all the red flags I'd seen. Most of which I didn't think anything about because I didn't believe she'd do that.

I'm not saying that when you marry, you shouldn't expect faithfulness from your spouse. Don't misunderstand me. But if my trust in her had been more realistic, the red flags my gut was sending out would have caused me to investigate sooner and potentially ended it quicker. Potentially before she'd had sex with anyone.

Blind trust on both our parts also allowed us to cross boundaries we shouldn't have crossed, because we erroneously believed, "I would never do that." We believed we were practically immune from ever cheating. So much so that my wife played with fire, and then got burned. And me along with her.

That level of trust in any marriage is not only unrealistic, it is unhealthy. We need to fear the fire enough that we don't stick our hands into it.

I mention this because there is a very real truth in rebuilding trust that some take to be a negative. That is the following:

You'll never get back the level of trust you had before discovery day.

This is because for many couples, their trust level was unrealistic to begin with. Not the expectation of trust, but the perfection of your spouse to never break that trust in any way.

We've already discussed blind trust. Now let's define a couple more terms.

Realistic trust: A level of trust based on expectations and commitment, but taking into account human frailty. Because we are human and not perfect, no one can be trusted 100%. No one should trust themselves to that level.

Working trust: A level of trust that enables a couple to establish an intimate relationship that produces a happy and sustainable marriage.

Now let's illustrate the dynamic. I'm going to use some arbitrary numbers for levels of trust. I'm not saying this is accurate or measurable in this way. I'm only using them to illustrate the concept.

The following levels of trust could be illustrated with the following percentages:

Blind trust = 99.9% or more.

Realistic trust = 90% to 95%

Working trust = 80% or higher.

Most couples before an affair tend to be near that 100% mark. Once an affair hits and is discovered, the trust level sinks to anywhere from 0% to 30% depending on circumstances.

Rebuilding that trust in order to save the marriage only needs to reach that 80% mark. It is reasonable to believe it can get back into the 90s. But the facade has been broken. You can never get back to 99.9% trust level, nor should you. The affair has made it painfully clear that it can happen to you. You are not unique. Neither you nor your spouse are immune to temptation.

One step in being able to successfully rebuild trust is for both spouses to adjust their expectations on trust to a more reasonable level. One that expects the other spouse to be trustworthy, but is not so blind to human imperfections that we play with fire or ignore it when our spouse is doing so.

From here on out, the possibility that it could happen again is a distinct reality. That realistic trust needs to be there to keep each of you on your toes. Indeed, if it had been that way before the affair, there is a good chance either of you would have stopped it in time, or not even allowed it to get started.

Successful rebuilding is not dependent upon rebuilding back to a near 100% blind trust.

The remaining concepts we'll look at next time in part 2.

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