First Things First: How to rebuild trust in marriage

Contributed Photo / Reggie Madison

Note: Various colleagues are filling in while First Things First President and CEO Lauren Hall is on maternity leave. The following was written by Reggie Madison and published at in July 2020.

When trust is broken within a marriage, rebuilding it cannot automatically be assumed. Many times you can rebuild trust if both parties are willing to do the work necessary to restore it, though. David Horsager, author of "The Trust Edge" says, "(Trust) is a confident belief in someone or something. It's the confident belief in an entity to do what's right and to deliver on what is promised and to be the same every time, whatever the circumstances."

Whether it's due to infidelity, lies, withholding information or betrayal, the ability to believe the offender will genuinely act in the best interest of the marriage is severely compromised.

While there are no guarantees the trust may be rebuilt, there are some things you can do to rebuild it. This is for the person who has broken the trust. Here are some principles which may help to restore your partner's trust.

1. Listen without being defensive. Broken trust is more than just the act that was committed. Your spouse has invested time, emotion and their own vulnerability into believing something about you, but now they're not sure who you are.

Their image of you has been tarnished. It's not simply that you hid money, lied or had an affair. It causes one to question their own choice to emotionally invest in the relationship. Don't minimize or oversimplify the act. Lean in to listen. Ask questions to understand the pain as fully as possible. It may hurt to hear. You will probably want to defend yourself. Don't.

Avoid statements like, "That wasn't my intention" or "I didn't mean to hurt you."

2. Own your actions. Don't attempt to justify your actions. Be honest about what you said or did. Answer your spouse's questions honestly. You can't worry about trying to make it not look as bad as it may seem.

Avoid statements like, "All I did was ..." or "It wasn't a big deal."

3. Accept the emotional impact on your spouse. You cannot control how the betrayal impacts your spouse. Betrayal affects people in different ways due to personality, experiences, relationship history, length of relationship, etc. It is painful to know that you have caused your spouse such anger, hurt or sadness. Trying to lessen or minimize the pain caused is more about you not wanting the guilt and less about understanding the impact of rebuilding the trust.

Avoid statements like, "You're taking this too seriously" or "I didn't think it would affect you this much."

4. Apologize. You may need to apologize more than once. You may apologize for the act itself because that's all you understand initially. Some time later you may apologize for the real hurt it caused as you understand it or see it more. You may apologize for the way it has changed the relationship when you recognize the tension and difficulty your spouse has functioning within the marriage. Instead, be specific about what you are apologizing for. There must be genuine remorse for the action and its effects.

Avoid statements like, "I've already apologized. Isn't that good enough?" or "I'm sorry you feel that way."

5. Make necessary changes. This may mean sharing passwords for social media, phones or bank accounts. It may mean more communication about what's happening at work. It may mean changing who you interact with and how (friends or co-workers). Being stubborn about making changes to decrease the likelihood of a repeat situation sends the message that you don't understand the betrayal and insecurity that you've caused. Often, these changes can be talked through so that they are realistic changes.

Avoid statements like, "I'll just make sure I don't do it again" or "I just messed up this time. I've got it under control now."

6. Patience. You can't rush the process of rebuilding trust. You must respect the process. Understand that different people respond differently to betrayal.

Your spouse needs time to build an image of you that they can believe will genuinely try to act in the best interest of the relationship even when it's difficult. You're not entitled to being trusted again. Your spouse does not owe you their trust once it's broken. With humility and compassion, take the time to earn it and, more importantly, to simply be trustworthy.

Avoid statements like, "Don't you think it's been long enough?" or "Are you going to hold this against me forever?"

Rebuilding trust takes a commitment from both people in the relationship. Betrayal does not have to end the relationship; the relationship may be able to improve through time, communication and understanding. There are many relationships where betrayal proved to be a catalyst for the couple to address issues in their relationship, ultimately making them stronger.

Reggie Madison is vice president of community relations of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email him at