The Journey to Restoring Broken Trust, Part One

January 13, 2016

Brad Hambrick

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Brad Hambrick

BCC Introduction: In this post, Brad Hambrick describes how couples might work toward restoring their marriage in the aftermath of sexual unfaithfulness. He presents a series of steps that can progressively heal the trauma of broken trust. Join Brad as he lays out a map for this challenging journey…

The ten-step progression provided below begins with a relationship at its most trust-broken point. Not all marriages that experience the betrayal of sexual sin will start at step one. As you read through this progression two key questions to ask are, “Where was I at the darkest point after learning of my spouse’s sin?” and “Where am I now?” The progress you have already made should be a source of encouragement for the journey ahead.

The goal for this section is to help you see that even if you currently think, “I could never be at a ‘ten’ of trust again,” there still are many practical steps that can and should be taken between where you are and being a “ten.” You and your spouse may find that there are aspects of trust that you were weak at prior to the sexual sin (due to personality, personal history, etc.). In these cases examining this material will serve the dual purpose of marital restoration and marital enrichment.

Movement through this progression will be a dance between your spouse’s efforts at change and your willingness to take relational risks. Your spouse’s growth alone will not create trust without your willingness to take a relational risk. Your willingness to a relational risk alone without your spouse’s growth will not produce lasting trust. The dance may not be one step by your spouse followed by one step by you. But unless both of you are moving you’re not dancing.

1. Require Third-Party Mediation: At this level of trust-brokenness you do not feel safe (at least emotionally) to be with your spouse without someone else present. The high end of this level might sound like, “You can go to counseling, but I’m not going with you. I’ll go separately and tell the counselor my side of the story.” At this stage, trust is built as you hear your spouse be honest with another person and receive correction and instruction from that person. You still doubt your spouse is being totally honest or would listen to you, but you begin to see that your spouse is not a total liar who is so committed to lies that he or she won’t hear an objective third party. As your spouse cooperates, you begin to trust your spouse vicariously through the trust that you build with the third party (usually a counselor).

2. Listen and Require Validation: Now you are willing to talk with your spouse in a one-on-one conversation, but you are skeptical of most everything that is said. You don’t believe your spouse. You believe facts. If your spouse has facts to back up what is shared, you will trust that and little more. This is a tedious way to communicate, but it feels necessary in order to avoid pain greater than the inconvenience. Any statement that is not objectively factual (e.g., a future promise, interpretation of an event, expression of feeling) is viewed as deceptive, unsafe, manipulative, or insulting. As a pattern of validated facts emerge, you begin to trust that there is some commitment to live in reality that exceeds your spouse’s desire for personal expediency.

3. Listen and Require Less Validation: Listening to your spouse now feels like less work. The rate at which you are searching for questions and processing information as you are listening to your spouse is decreasing. Giving the “benefit of the doubt” for things you are uncertain about is still unnatural and feels dangerous. Any statement that is incomplete or slanted too positively is assumed to be intentional deceit and creates a trust “regression.” As your spouse’s statements prove to be increasing in accuracy, the practical necessities of life create an increasing reliance upon your spouse. Each time you notice this happening you may still feel highly cautious.

4. Rely on Your Spouse Functionally: Whether separated or in the same house, you begin to “do life together again.” A process of sharing basic life tasks (e.g., formal or informal budgeting, scheduling, transporting children) is created or reinstituted. This level of trust within a marriage feels very much like “living as roommates.” The dissatisfying nature of this arrangement can often discourage continued growth (i.e., “I don’t want to stay married out of a sense of duty”), but this discouragement should be decreased by understanding where it falls in the progression of trust restoration.

5. Share Facts with Your Spouse: As you functionally “do life” with your spouse, there is the opportunity for you to begin to share more of yourself again. Up until this point you have been receiving information much more than you have been giving information. At this stage you begin the process of “giving yourself” to your spouse again. You allow yourself to be known at a factual level. Questions from your spouse that start with “Why” or “How come” are still met with defensiveness. During this stage questions that start with “Would you” become more comfortable as you allow your spouse to influence the “facts” (e.g., schedule) of your life again.

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In a couple of days Brad will continue point the way on this difficult—but important—journey. Though there will continue to be steep hills to climb and some more obstacles on the path, there is also the prospect of great blessing ahead.

Brad Hambrick

About Brad Hambrick

Brad is Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, NC. He also serves as an adjunct professor of biblical counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Brad has been married to his wife, Sallie, since 1999.