Relationships 101: How to Rebuild Trust and Fix What’s Broken
What does trust mean? According to the dictionary, it’s a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something. In the context of a relationship, it’s that same firm belief, but in your partner. And sure, definitions are great, but understanding what that feels like is an important distinction.
You can’t have a relationship without trust. According to clinical psychologist, professor and author Andrea Benior, trust is necessary for emotional intimacy and a healthy, close relationship. You can’t wonder where your partner is “really” going when they tell you they’re running to the store. You can’t ask yourself what their ulterior motives are when they give you a compliment. You can’t feel anything other than yourself when you’re with them. It might take work at first, but in the end, trust is simply the lens through which you see your partner.
Trust gives you the reassurance to know that your partner loves you no matter what. It’s a reassurance that any argument is survivable, any flaw is accepted, and any feeling of emptiness can be assuaged by their presence.
When you do hit bumps in the road with your partner, trust is the medication you’ll use to heal those wounds. Being able to forgive them for the behavior that you didn’t agree with only makes that trust stronger. And in the times that those fights get extra spicy, you don’t feel insecure about giving them time or space to do their own thing without you. Suspicious? Of course not, you’ve got trust on your side.
When you trust your partner, you know you’re their priority. They have your best interests at heart. When differences or challenges do occur, you know that you can overcome the problems together. It also means you don’t need justifications. When you trust your partner implicitly, you don’t need to explain or justify everything. You know that they will use that same trust to understand that your intentions are pure.
Trust, ultimately, is the foundation of love. It bridges you between something you want and something you have. You can feed off the adrenaline (and turbulence) of chasing your partner forever, or you can achieve a level of trust that ensures they’ll always be there—we assure you that the latter is more enjoyable, healthy, and sustainable.
How do you know if you fully trust your partner?
Now that you have a broad understanding of what trust means in your relationship, it might be helpful to paint a picture of what it actually looks like. Since trust and its impact casts such a wide net, it’s pretty central to most aspects of a relationship. No matter the scenario, trust is a factor. And these are some specific questions you can reflect on and decide what kind of trust you and your partner have.
Are you having open conversations?
But what does open really mean? It’s not about being honest about which sub shop you went to for lunch, it’s something much deeper. It’s about being willing to let your guard down and share things about yourself you consider sacred. Your fears, insecurities, feelings of doubt—the things that would feel completely inappropriate if you weren’t talking to someone you implicitly trust. These aren’t the conversations you had while your palms were sweating on your first date, desperate not to say something that will spoil the energy. These are the casual, comfortable conversations that touch on subjects that in any other environment would be deeply personal. It’s a two way street, where you take turns being the empathetic listener and the willing sharer. Some discussions are harder than others, but the point is that you and your partner can “go there.”
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Is your partner your top priority? And vice versa?
It’s very easy to claim, or think of yourself as a selfless person. To actually be a selfless person is a whole different story. So while putting your partner’s needs before your own is somewhat of a prerequisite to trust, we can take a moment to acknowledge the amount of effort it takes. But hey—It’s a worthy price to pay! When your partner takes time out of their work day to drive you to pick up your car from the shop, it’s a seemingly small (but significant) road paved toward a deeper trust. They didn’t just talk the talk, they blocked time out of their day, reorganized their own priorities, and walked the walk. It creates a level of comfort that you can count on going forward, knowing you don’t have to worry about them not being there. Letting your partner pick your next show on Netflix? Not earth shattering, but still trust building! Don’t think of them as a million sacrifices, think of them as small steps toward ingratiating yourselves into each other’s lives. Because the ultimate trust is when those sacrifices don’t feel like sacrifices at all.
What’s your eye contact like?
We know what you’re thinking—eye contact feels equal parts obvious, cliche, and inconsequential. And to that we say—obvious makes it easier to track, things become cliche because they’re real, and this is very much consequential. When partners are able to look directly into each other’s eyes when talking, it shows they have nothing to hide. Beyond that, easy eye contact represents a level of comfort and trust that can’t really be faked. So even if you go home now and prove to yourself you can talk to your partner for 15 minutes without blinking, you’ll know in your heart that it was a manufactured choice. The goal is to lock eyes naturally, because the two of you have nothing to hide—both physically and emotionally.
Are you active listeners?
It’s not all about sitting in silence, letting your partner vent, or even eye contact (eye contact is still important). According to Irene Hansen Savarese, LMFT, “Active listening is, if practiced and mastered, the best gift you can give your partner.” An active listener means taking what you’re hearing and internalizing it as if it’s your own problem. It’s a commitment to your partner that in that moment, whatever is being discussed applies to both of you. Sometimes we have an urge to interrupt and offer our advice, which is not always the answer. Being an active listener means you’re so dialed in that you can read the nuances of the dialogue and be whatever your partner needs to be—showing them love, care, and respect (which adds up to trust).
Do you both feel comfortable admitting your mistakes?
This one is framed around arguments, and which direction you and your partner instinctually steer the conversation. When your partner calls you out, do you take a moment to digest before owning up to the mistake? Or do you fire off a return criticism to take the attention off yourself? In order to effectively solve problems in your relationship, you have to trust that any feedback your partner gives you has merit. Even if it feels harsh or embarrassing, you’d rather take it seriously now than let it continue to be a problem in the future.
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How is your physical intimacy?
Oh, did you know we were going to mention sex in this? Not so fast. Physical intimacy doesn’t always mean between the sheets. It’s the little things—a surprising kiss, holding hands, a hand on the small of your back—that show the extent of your bond. A lot of times sex can turn into a scheduled transaction for partners that have fallen off the same page, ending in a feeling of accomplishment because you feel like you’ve “done your duty.” But you can’t fake those smaller moments, and those are the details that take your trust to the next level.
Is your dynamic consistent?
Some would argue that this is the most important aspect, we’ll just say that it’s equally as important as the previous questions. We’ve all heard stories of our friends in past relationships (some of you have even experienced it yourselves), where one partner hits a breaking point and demands change in the relationship. The shock of that initial conversation causes immediate change from the partner being asked of it. But over time, the behavior starts to fade, and the dynamic returns to its old self. That’s why you need consistency! If you need physical intimacy, active listening, eye contact, or open dialogue from your partner, that doesn’t mean one week out of the month. Trust means being able to count on it.
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How can you build toward trust?
Now that you know what trust looks like, we’re sure you’ve identified some gaps in your relationship. First of all, don’t sweat it. Trust isn’t a switch you get to flip on and leave alone, it has to be nurtured—meaning your work is never done. As soon as you stop trying is as soon as the trust will start to fade. Luckily, we’ve got some tips to focus your efforts.
Step 1: If you’re going to communicate, mean it.
As human beings, there’s an inevitability to realizing that we can easily manipulate our words to achieve desired results. For example, when your mom asked you if you made your bed, you could answer “yes” before you even touch a throw pillow. Even though the truthful answer to the question was “no,” your brain quickly decided that a small fib will help reduce friction in the conversation. Not a big deal, right? Wait until those small, insignificant fibs start to build into an entirely disingenuous dynamic. Add too many of these up in the context of your relationship—always claiming to be home from work on time, but always being late; promising to stop by the store, but something always “comes up”—and trust starts to fade. So if you’re looking to increase trust with your partner, you have to be extremely mindful about following through on the things you say. It doesn’t matter that you really “wanted” to stop by the store on the way home, you’d be better off acknowledging the unlikelihood during the initial conversation. So instead of coming home empty handed and untruthful, you’ll be empty handed and honest.
Step 2: A nice, easy path toward vulnerability.
There will be opportunities in your relationship where you’ll be offered either the pain-free, meaningless route, or the painful, meaningful route. On the pain-free, meaningless side are moments you decide to give your partner surface-level lip service—my day was okay, nothing too crazy. On the painful, meaningful side are moments you decide to open yourself up and let your partner know what’s really going on—today was really tough, I’m feeling insecure around my boss and don’t know how to fix it. These are the moments that add up and create a more open bond between you and your partner. Establishing that level of vulnerability is the foundation from which you can start building trust. It’s an intimacy that gives you the confidence to go even deeper—talking about something embarrassing from your past, letting them in on what freaks you out, exposing parts of yourself that you don't think are "attractive" enough for a first-date reveal—which leads to an even deeper trust. Again, it doesn’t have to happen all at once. Pick your moments, and let your partner in.
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Step 3: Respect is the name of the game.
There’s a fine line between being honest and being plain nasty. A lot of times we justify saying hurtful things because we think well, it would be worse if I lied to them. Which, in our heart of hearts, we know we’re just selfishly getting stuff off our chest. Our partner deserves our respect, first and foremost. So when our instincts tell us that we need to unleash a barrage of honesty before we can start rebuilding trust with our partner, remember that the packaging of your words is just as important as the words themselves. This doesn’t mean that you have to be awkward and professional with your partner. But it does mean that you must remember that every time you treat them in a way that demeans or violates their basic minimum of dignity and respect, you harm your connection a bit—creating a larger barrier between you and their trust.
Step 4: Don’t always expect the worst.
We’re talking about the benefit of the doubt, and how you should give it to your partner. Even if your trust has been broken, making a concerted effort to believe what your partner says is the healthiest starting point. Starting from a place of doubt adds a toxic layer to the communication that distracts you from the point. It won’t be easy at first, especially if you have a partner coming back from things like substance abuse or infidelity. But the exercise is in letting go, forgiving, and building your trust back from a place of empathy. You don’t have to waste your energy assuming the worst in your partner, because if that is the case, they will reveal that on their own. You have to give them a shot to succeed before you can even think about rebuilding trust.
Step 5: Have the tough conversations when you need to.
Some feelings are impossible to ignore, and when those times come, you have to express it. Having the confidence to discuss issues that aren’t necessarily comfortable creates a maturity in your relationship that will pay dividends down the line. Being able to talk about emotional issues without becoming emotional—shouting, verbal attacks, totally shutting down—is the precedent you want to set. And sure, as we stated earlier, you want to present your qualms with a level of respect that will make the conversation feel collaborative, but you still have to “go for it.” Plenty of couples are content keeping conversations on the surface, refusing to rock the boat and in turn leaving trust on the surface as well. You want that trust to go as deep as it can, and it’ll only get there if you open up and let it in. You want your partner to know the real you? They’ll only get there if you show them. And the more tough conversations you have, the better you’ll get at not jumping to harsh conclusions or feeling threatened.
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Step 6: Take a leap together.
This can be anything. An adventurous backpacking trip through hostels in Europe, a commitment to an ambitious-but-rewarding diet, watching a movie genre that you’ve typically ignored—whatever it is, you’re doing it together. Shared experiences are the most natural way to build trust with your partner. There’s nothing to talk or think about, it’s about simply getting out of your comfort zone with someone else. Stack enough of these experiences together, and you’ll find yourself surprised by the trust that comes. Did we mention this can be something sexual? Because this can be something sexual. Taking a leap with something as intimate as sex is a shared experience so personal that it would be nearly impossible not to feel closer because ot it. Also, according to a 1973 study by Dutton and Aron, fear-induced arousal can actually increase your sexual attraction—just saying.
Step 7: Remember, it’s a two-way street.
You might be feeling the urge to sit back and wait for your partner to show you how they’ve changed. And when we spell it out like that, you realize how utterly silly it would be to think this all falls on them. This doesn’t mean that you wait for an act of service, and then promptly return that act of service like you’re in a binding trust contract. The balance will constantly shift, because it’s impossible to predict when your partner will need to lean on you, and vice versa. According to The Role of Reciprocity and Directionality of Friendship Ties in Promoting Behavioral Change, we observe a higher behavioral change and more effective peer-influence when subjects shared reciprocal ties with their peers compared to sharing unilateral ones. Think of this as a long-term commitment to being supportive of your partner when they need you, so that when the roles are reversed, you’re surprised and delighted. Sure, it sounds hard, but the beautiful part is when your partner shares the same outlook. Suddenly you have a relationship built on unconditional support, love and trust.
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