Marriage Advice From A Christian Perspective

Is it Possible to Rebuild Trust after Unfaithfulness?

  • Gary and Mona Shriver Authors, Unfaithful
  • 2010 25 Feb
Is it Possible to Rebuild Trust after Unfaithfulness?


Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Gary and Mona Shriver's recenlty released book Unfaithful: Hope and Healing After Infidelity (David C. Cook, 2009). Gary's opening story takes place 6 months after revealing to his wife, Mona, that he'd been unfaithful to her by engaging in a long-term affair with a close friend as well as a one-night "fling" with another woman. 

When I pulled into the driveway, I noticed Mona looking out the kitchen window. As I walked in and made my way into the kitchen I could tell she had been crying. "What's wrong?" I asked.

"Nothing!" she snapped.

"Come on, I can tell something is bothering you."

"If you don't know …"

"If I don't know what? What happened?"

My mind raced, taking a mental inventory of the day. When I left this morning, she was fine. She seemed even a little bit happy. I called at least three times throughout the day and hadn't picked up on anything being wrong.

"I really don't know what you are talking about."

She looked up at me with a hard, cold stare. "Where have you been?"

"I've been at work. I haven't been anywhere else. I swear to you."

"I have been trying to call you for over twenty minutes. They said you left a half hour ago." She was obviously working to control herself. Her words were deliberately paced and her tone even. "And it doesn't take a half hour to drive the three miles to home. Where have you been?"

The light came on in my head. Radio Shack. Brian. Just how long had I been there? I rushed to explain. "I stopped by Radio Shack and got some solder for my ham radio kit. Brian was working tonight and we got into a conversation about the new radio station."

She slowly got up from the table and walked back into our bedroom, closing the door behind her, her face a confusing twist of emotions. I could see the battle waging within her trying to find truth.

Trust. Something I'd never appreciated having until I lost it completely. Back before revelation, a half hour spent with a friend "shooting the breeze" would not have been a big deal. But in the light of our current situation, it was a huge issue.

Mona was hypersensitive to every minute I was outside her radar. I supposed I could get defensive and say that I couldn't live like this for the rest of my life, but quite frankly I didn't blame her at all. It wasn't like I'd had massive amounts of time unaccounted for while I was involved in an affair.

But how was she ever going to trust me again? In fact if I thought about it too much I had to wonder if I'd be able to trust myself ever again.

But I'd changed. I'd truly repented. And I was doing everything I could think of to heal this marriage.

I knew she would also have a hard time trusting herself. She'd told me her instincts, her "woman's intuition," had failed her miserably. I knew neither one of us could live like this for the rest of our lives. The good day I'd had began to fade with the closing of the bedroom door.

The Story on Rebuilding trust

Rebuilding trust is an essential part of healing after infidelity because a healthy marriage requires trust. We can facilitate the rebuilding of trust, which is not easy. Or we can tear down the fragile beginnings of that process, which is far too easy.

We chose to rebuild the trust.

Mona had to redefine what trust looked like in a healthy marriage. After much soul-searching she came to realize she had trusted Gary partially because she believed she'd be able to "know" when or if he was no longer trustworthy. That meant she felt safe trusting him more because of herself rather than whether or not he was trustworthy. She didn't understand that trusting him really meant putting herself at risk. Her sense of safety rested within a power she actually did not have.

Think of it this way. In a car equipped for training drivers, there is a brake pedal for the driver and a brake pedal for the trainer on the passenger side of the car. The primary pedal is the one used by the driver in training. But the trainer knows that if the driver errs, he also has the ability to apply the brake on his side of the car and prevent damage or injury. Mona thought she had that same "safety brake" available to her.

This also holds true for those who think that they can rebuild trust in a marriage by controlling their spouse—constantly sitting in that trainer's seat ready to apply the brakes if their husband or wife makes a wrong turn. No one can sit in the trainer's seat forever. Every driver eventually will drive alone.

Let's start with a biblical understanding of trust. The Hebrew and Greek words translated trust mean to believe, to uphold, to support. The idea is firmness or solidity; to be persuaded to have confidence in. We feel safe when we can rely on what we trust.

So when we trust, we are saying that we have been firmly persuaded to believe.  We choose a specific chair to stand on because we trust it will hold our weight. When we trust our spouse, we believe this person will do what they say they'll do and not do what they say they won't do. The bottom line is we feel safe. Once adultery has been revealed, that is no longer the case.

For several years, Gary had lied to Mona, and not only that, but he had also gotten quite good at it. After the revelation of his adultery, Mona could no longer trust that he would be honest. What he had done caused great harm. The trust Mona had was gone in a few short minutes. The question neither of us had the answer to was "could it ever be regained?"

Gary understood this very well. He told Mona, "I know what I'm asking. Every time you've fallen backward I've caught you. But this time I let you fall on purpose. It wasn't that I missed catching you; it was that I walked away to somewhere else. You hit hard; you were injured. I didn't even notice. And now I come to you and say, ‘I'm sorry. It's okay now, honey, just fall back and I'll catch you.'"

Rebuilding the trust meant Mona would have to find a way back to believing with confidence that Gary was a safe person to trust. It also meant she would put herself in a position where Gary could, again, let her fall and be hurt. She wasn't sure she could ever do that. But it was also the only way she would ever be caught by him again.

It's interesting that in Scripture, most of the verses dealing with trust are talking about our trust in the Lord, not in our fellow man. In fact there are several warnings about trusting in anything or anyone else.

The truth is that our God is the only one who is completely trustworthy. He is the only one who will always keep His promises.

But it was also true that Mona had failed Gary too.  Just in a different way. Remember, Gary had trusted that Mona would love him as she had promised. At the time of the affair, from Gary's perspective, she had not kept her promise either. Rebuilding the trust meant that Gary would have to believe that Mona would be a safe person to trust again.

Our journeys would be different, but we would both be taking one.

Gary has often heard infidels express that if only their spouse would forgive them, they could move past the adultery.  But what they are really saying is "If  they would trust me." Trust and forgiveness are two different things. We talked about that in the chapter on forgiveness.

The foundation we rebuild on will be the foundation intended for marriage—God Himself.  That foundation is sound because God is trustworthy. We rebuild the trust as if we were rebuilding a house — brick by brick. The house fell, but God's foundation is still safe. The things you do as a couple will, in essence, be handing each other bricks, one at a time, to create a structurally sound house on a firm foundation. One brick at a time until you both learn to function as the team God intended and can begin to sense the safety coming back into your relationship.

The most essential piece in this rebuilding is transparent honesty.  We've said it before and we'll keep on saying it. Honesty enables each of you to see the other's heart and paves the way when you hit bumps in the road. Honesty will keep you on the path.

The onus falls on the infidel here. This person sets the stage and the atmosphere. If he or she is willing to share openly about activities, phone calls, travel plans, anything where the spouse is not a participant, he or she has created an opportunity to begin rebuilding trust.

The question that usually comes here is "I'm to be treated like a two-year-old for the rest of my life?" The answer is no—that is what you're trying to prevent. But trust must be rebuilt first.

Trust is earned. Honesty plays a big role in obtaining it.

It's been said that part of a second chance is taking responsibility for the mess you made in the first place. Honestly taking ownership for what you've done to break that trust and what you'll do to rebuild it can encourage a spouse to stay on the path of rebuilding trust with you.

Dr. Doug Rosenau says the "ultimate cause of infidelity is a series of poor choices."1 If your spouse can be witness to the exploration of those poor choices, what Gary calls the transparent soul-searching of how and why the infidelity happened, it offers both of you an understanding of some reasons you are here. It also helps the spouse begin to see that you really want to change and brings hope you'll never go there again.

We must repeat that there is no reason good enough for the choice of adultery. But figuring out some of those baby steps that led to the affair and why you chose to take them helps you choose a different path the next time similar choices are in front of you. If your spouse has been a part of your thinking this through, they are better able to trust your choices next time.

When Gary realized, in retrospect, how vulnerable he was at the time his affair started, the foolishness of the choices he made before anything romantic happened became clear. As he was able to share those insights with Mona, she was able to begin to relax when wondering if it would happen again. As we talked about what choices could have been made instead and what choices he planned to make in the future, the way out of temptation that God had promised became visible to us both.

That same transparent honesty needs to be a part of the spouse's contribution to rebuilding trust. Mona needed to convey to Gary what this betrayal felt like to her so he could comprehend the consequences of his choices and could understand with empathy the pain his betrayal had caused.

Gary didn't want to focus on what had happened, and he hated to see Mona in pain. This is very common for the infidel, but we encourage you to think of it this way. If every time your spouse wants to talk about it, you shut them down by changing the subject, avoiding the questions, or tap-dancing around the issues, your spouse will hear that you don't care and don't want to change. You just want to move on. And if you're not willing to change, how will they ever trust you again? That is why it is so important to process through this together as a couple.

The other aspect of transparent honesty Mona had to accept was the fact that in the end, she would have to entrust Gary to God and place herself in a position of vulnerability. That was part of what happened the night Gary came home late. Just as much as Gary needed to be accountable to rebuild the trust, she needed to be willing to accept the efforts he was making. Rebuilding trust was a process for her, too. As Gary made deposits in trustworthiness, she would have to credit them to his account.

The final piece we'll suggest is almost too simple. Adopt an attitude that every little thing counts. It all adds up to rebuilding trust.

Gary talks a lot to infidels about getting behind the eyes of their spouse, seeking to understand the things that make a person feel safe and comprehending that some things, even things that are unintentional, can feel like a threat. Like Gary coming home late.

Trust can be lost in an instant—not rebuilt that way. To consistently build trust, you need lots of opportunities to come through.

So create them for yourself. Do what you say you're going to do. If something changes, call and explain why. If you say you'll pick up milk on the way home, pick up milk on the way home. Coming home without the milk becomes something far more than forgetting to stop at the store. It easily becomes another example of why you can't be trusted.

Every lie, no matter how trivial, counts.

Every omission of fact counts.

The process is slow and requires both of you. The spouse needs to acknowledge and give credit for the things the infidel does to rebuild that trust. If we refuse to credit a kept promise because "that's what you should have done in the first place," the motivation to continue trying wanes. We all need to know that what we're doing counts.

One of the most common areas we see this is when there is an unplanned contact between the infidel and their partner. Maybe the partner contacted them or a work situation put them together. The one who has been unfaithful is trying to be honest and rebuild trust, so they come home and say the words they know will upset their spouse.

For those of us who have been in that spouse's position, we know there's a little voice in our heads that admonishes us for believing. That tells us we're fools. And we know that our spouse is capable of lying to us. But if it's the truth and we tear into the one trying to rebuild, then we are the ones destroying the trust. And the one who was unfaithful will begin to doubt the value of being honest in everything. If the infidel gets beat up every time they're honest, they will eventually quit being honest. Remember the importance of creating that environment for healing.

Mona prayed that truth would be revealed. And it was. As time went on, her anxiety decreased and she became capable once more of believing Gary.

Trust does not require blinders.  We trust someone because we now choose to believe they will make the right choice. And we believe that because there has been evidence of those right choices.

Rebuilding trust is a risk for both of you. Each will make small steps forward as you see progress being made. Each fears what the future will look like.

The one thing we are confident of is if either one of you is unwilling to do the work required to rebuild trust, then the hole vacated by the trust will only grow bigger.

But if you'll work together, take the risk, and create the environment for healing, then you, too, can rebuild the trust that was lost. And the wound of adultery, although huge, will not be fatal.

C. S. Lewis explains beautifully why we work to rebuild trust:

"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change.  It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.… The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers … of love is Hell."2

February 25, 2010


Copyright (c) 2009 by Gary and Mona Shriver. Unfaithful: Hope and Healing After Infidelity. Used with permission. Reproducible with permission of Cook Communications Ministries/David C. Cook. All rights reserved.

After going through the journey to save their marriage from a devastating infidelity, Gary and Mona Shriver cofounded Hope & Healing Ministries, Inc., an adultery recovery peer support ministry. They are members of the Association of Marriage and Family Ministries and the Stanislaus County Healthy Marriage Coalition and have shared their story on many television and radio programs such as Focus on the Family and The 700 Club. Gary and Mona have been married more than thirty years and have three grown sons. They reside in Turlock, California.