Nothing hurts more than feeling betrayed by someone you love and trust. Betrayal can come in many forms, such as dishonesty, disloyalty, unfaithfulness, or withholding. Each of these feels like a moral violation that cuts to the core of your emotional soul and plunges you into a place of deep psychological distress. Relationships are very complex and, depending on the circumstances, a betrayal doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the relationship. For some people, working through a betrayal can make a relationship even stronger. When there's a desire to continue a relationship, there is often a good deal of focus on whether or not the hurt party can forgive the other person. Forgiveness, while necessary to the reconciliation process, is not sufficient for being able to move forward with a relationship. Whether a relationship can be repaired depends primarily on whether or not trust can be restored.
Trust is the glue that holds relationships together. It is what allows you to feel safe so that you can be vulnerable enough to emotionally connect with another person. When relationships first begin, trust is often given early as part of an unspoken code of honor. People we choose to engage with socially are generally assumed to be trustworthy until proven otherwise. Over time, as we get to know someone, that trust grows and deepens. When we break this trust it is not just with the other person, but often with ourselves. You question not only what the other person did, but how you let the betrayal happen. For a relationship to move forward after a betrayal, it is important that trust be re-established, not only with the other person but, perhaps even more importantly, with yourself.
Below are some steps for how to forgive and trust again once you’ve been hurt.
1. Forgive yourself.
An important part of the forgiveness process is forgiving yourself. When trying to understand a situation, we have a tendency to generate explanations for why things happen, even if they are irrational. We often blame ourselves: If I was a better person in some way, maybe this wouldn’t have happened to me. If I was less gullible I would have seen this coming. We think if we can find the flaw and fix it, we might be able to prevent it from happening again. Self-forgiveness requires self-compassion and learning that, even with your flaws and vulnerabilities, you still have tremendous self-worth and deserve to be treated well. It is important to know that the behavior of the other person was his or her choice and reflects who they are, not who you are.
2. Forgive the other person.
It is impossible to regain trust without first regaining control of your emotional well-being by finding your inner peace with the situation. Many people struggle with forgiveness because they don’t want to let the other person off the hook for his or her bad behavior. It is important to realize though that forgiveness isn’t about the other person but about your emotional freedom. Learning to forgive and make peace with things that happened in the past can happen more easily when you take your focus off of the specific events that occurred and instead try to see the perspective of the other person. Seeing someone else’s perspective can help you understand the events that occurred and make them less personal. It can also be easier to forgive someone when you see them as a whole person. If you find yourself stewing in anger over a situation, try to pull back and remember the good qualities you know the other person has, and recognize that we all have flaws and make mistakes.
3. Trust yourself.
It is nearly impossible to trust someone else unless you first trust yourself. A good deal of the fear that people feel when they think about trusting someone who has betrayed them comes from the belief that they will not be OK if it happens to them again. They fear being emotionally devastated by loss, the shame and humiliation of being duped again, and the toll this would take on their self-esteem. The fear can be so unfathomable it needs to be avoided at any cost. This is where the work needs to be done. Instead of focusing on why you won’t be OK, it is important to know why you would be fine and still be able to live a good life without the other person. If you are like most people, you’ve probably already lived through several very difficult challenges—think about what strengths got you through those times.
Some people also fear that they are being weak for not leaving. If there is any type of emotional or physical abuse you should leave and get professional help if necessary. However, when there isn’t abuse involved, in many situations it takes a good deal more strength to work through a difficult point in a relationship than it does to walk away from it. You need to believe that should it become apparent that it is time to separate from the relationship, you will be able to do so and still be a wholly functioning person. If finding this kind of trust in yourself seems very difficult on your own, consider working with a professional who can help you see the blind spots you can’t see in yourself.
4. Trust the other person.
The truth about trusting someone else is that the only certainty is that there is no certainty. There is always an element of faith in the trust we give to someone. After a betrayal, all you can do is assess the situation and make an appraisal about what you think is likely behavior in the future. Does the person seem sincerely apologetic and willing to make amends? Does the person act with integrity in other areas of their life? Were there circumstances that played a role, or does the betrayal seem to reflect their overall character? Has he or she broken your trust in similar ways in the past? In the big picture, is there more good than bad in the relationship?
If the answers to these questions affirm the positive, the choice in front of you is whether or not you can accept the flaws of the other person and again trust that they will act in the best interest of your relationship. There are never any guarantees when it comes to other people. Only time will show whether trust is deserved. However, withholding trust out of fear or anger will prevent you from emotionally reconnecting with a person and keep your relationship from moving forward in a healthy way.
Relationships are vital to our well-being and quality of life. Without the difficult times, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the good times. Working through a ruptured relationship offers you the opportunity to grow as a person and perhaps find a deeper meaning in the relationship itself.
Dr. Jennice Vilhauer is the director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Treatment Program at Emory Healthcare, the developer of Future Directed Therapy, and the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind’s Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life.