Some damage cannot be undone. Bill Cloke on what it takes to regain intimacy.
I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.” —Friedrich Nietzsche
Laurie and Frank were high school sweethearts. They married young because Laurie became pregnant and, being Catholic, any other choice was out of the question, so he decided to do the right thing. It wasn’t that he didn’t love her—he did—but eventually Frank longed for his lost youth. You can see where this is going, and it’s not good. Laurie worked full time to put Frank through college and law school. He worked long hours and she stayed home with the kids. As his success rose they began to lead separate lives. He and his buddies would routinely frequent strip clubs after work and occasionally bust out for a Vegas trip which inevitably did not stay in there. One night after Frank came home drunk and passed out on the sofa Laurie came across text messages from one of the girls wanting to hook up and that was the start of their particular fandango. At first he denied it, then he became indignant and finally contrite, sad and terrified that he would lose her. Frank realized what she meant to him but Laurie worried incessantly every time he went out and would give him the third and fourth degree when he arrived home. Inevitably a huge row would ensue only to end in an icy standoff that would last for days. Laurie’s trust in Frank was shattered and there was no turning back. They were lost in a sea of suspicion and secrecy.
Trust is the bedrock of what makes relationships work. It is the fundamental process of love and intimacy. When trust goes, what goes with it are safety, security, respect, love and friendship not to mention the anger, insecurity, anxiety, and fear, and how it makes the aggrieved person become the police, the FBI and the CIA. Distrust causes spouses to scroll through cell phone histories, read email, and ask endless questions about “Where have you been and who were you talking to?” Life becomes laced with arguments large and small about what is really going on rather than trusting what is said can be taken at face value. In the thirty or so years I’ve been doing therapy, there is not a thornier issue than the loss of trust, in whatever form it may take.
Trust can be lost through lies, rage, violence, drug and alcohol abuse and most prominently sexual infidelity. Once it’s lost there is usually a humpty dumpty effect. Hard put it back together again. Usually the behaviors that created the distrust are difficult to change because they are complex and convoluted. These little critters skip and jump through our system like ciphers popping up in unexpected places while giving our mind the best of reasons to be doing whatever it is that our bodies are pushing for.
The body certainly does vote and when it comes to sex, nothing is more powerful. I have seen very wealthy and powerful people literally spending millions of dollars on sex, drugs, and rock and roll, all the while being in the midst of a marriage with children. The level of guilt is staggering enough to kill a herd of horses but it generally does not stop the offender. The reasons why men or women cheat are multifaceted. They can range from loneliness, poor self esteem, cultural entitlement, arrogance and/or sexual issues within the marriage or relationship. It says something about our world and the steady decline of moral imperatives.
Once trust has been lost what can we do—if anything—to get it back ?
1. Come clean but not completely clean. Denial only leads to more distrust so the truth has to come out and the willingness to take responsibility for your actions. Detailed truth can sometimes make the hurt even worse and compound the pain and therefore the healing process. Couples can spend tons of time on details while losing the thread of what needs to be done to correct the misconduct.
2. Avoid being defensive, righteous or casual about the problem. There must be a sincere effort to work out the issues or the wall will never come down. The angrier, the less you are able to hear what the aggrieved one has to say and what they feel the worse it gets.
3. Talk about what made you do it. Opening up about your own struggle, the need to get help and the concept that being aware of what got you there in the first place will help to prevent further infractions. If there is a sexual addiction problem you must be willing to attend SA (sexual addiction) meetings or do what is necessary to make it better. If there is loneliness in the marriage take the initiative to make an appointment with a counselor. Talking about your feelings of alienation is the best way to connect again.
4. Be an open book. That means open your cell phone, email and appointment book for a period of time. This is usually the hardest part because any person who has lived that clandestine underground life of secrecy likes it that way. They feel entitled to privacy, they become righteous and indignant. At this point you will need to take a beat and ask yourself what is really important, your relationship or your privacy? It really comes down to that.
5. Renew your vows. Whether married or not, there is a need to discuss values about living life and what that entails. This may be the most important part of the process. Take time to talk about what you want moving forward, what got you into this mess and what needs to happen moving forward. Write it all down and make a ceremony out of it. Invite your friends and family. Tell the world what you are going to do and mean it.
For Laurie and Frank, it was too late. Frank had gone too far with too many to correct what had gone wrong. Had they talked about it sooner there may have been a reckoning but too much water had gone under that bridge to make their relationship work. I think Frank did learn a tremendous amount about how to live with another person and who he wanted to be. For Laurie, the wounds were deep and it will take time for her to trust anyone again.
Renewing trust is not just a decision: it’s a lifestyle change. It’s about coming home to yourself and your mate and making it work. Keeping a relationship clear and open is a valuable process. When we lie, cheat, steal and do bad things to ourselves or others we pay the ultimate price: we lose what is most precious to us. If you need help, get it. If you need a change, then make it. Creating trust is a big deal: treat it that way. There are many facets and turns in this very delicate and daunting process of trust. If it’s not dealt with properly then it will torch your relationship until what remains are ashes and regret. If you can look at the restoring of trust as a learning process that will hopefully bring with it greater intimacy and love, then go ahead on. If not, then make other plans.