• Robert Schwebel, Ph.D.

Trust After an Affair?

Updated: Aug 24

Even before his wife discovered it, Carl knew that his secret affair had been an enormous violation of trust and a very serious mistake. He regretted what he had done.

Throughout his life Carl made mistakes, sometimes serious ones, but always seemed to emerge with a sense of dignity. He learned from his experiences and was willing to make changes.

After the secret affair, he decided that he would never again “cheat” on his wife and never again mislead her about anything.

When his wife, Michelle, learned of the affair, Carl apologized and pleaded for forgiveness – all to no avail. Despite his efforts and good intentions, Michelle, would not forgive him.

Carl insisted that he had changed. He talked to Michelle about the hours he had spent thinking about his mistake. He spoke about the inner insecurities he had discovered and overcome. He told her that he had sought the assistance of friends and a professional counselor.

Most of his friends recognized a positive change, but not Michelle. Frustrated, Carl pleaded and argued even more vehemently about his changes.

Michelle wouldn’t budge. Maybe the problem was that she held grudges. Maybe not. Perhaps he had gone too far. Some actions are unforgiveable. However, before reaching either of these drastic conclusions, Carl might want to think about one more consideration:

It was very easy for him to know about his own changes. But why should it be easy for her? She had trusted him before the affair and then been betrayed. It would make sense that her trust would be slow in developing. Why shouldn’t he allow for this?

Such an understanding of the “other person’s perspective” is an important part of resolving conflict. If Carl could grasp this, he would greatly increase the likelihood of re-establishing trust.

He would say the all-important statement: “I understand why you feel the way you do. It makes sense.”

He would add self-criticism: “I see why you don’t trust me. I made a very serious mistake that hurt you a lot. I broke our trust. I was deceitful.”

Such an introduction would make it more likely she would be receptive to the rest of the statement: “I really have changed. I will try to show you. Please watch what I do in the future. I hope I can earn and regain your trust.”

In other words, acknowledge the harm and give the other person a time to doubt you. Allow for suspicion or mistrust. You can’t force these feelings away.

Don’t argue. You can’t make someone change on your own timing. Nobody wants to be forced into forgiveness.

The best way of convincing another person that you have changed is to allow for suspicion until you have demonstrated, without doubt, that things actually are different. There’s no guarantee you will be forgiven, but it’s your best shot.


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These articles are written to share ideas about how to create and sustain loving and cooperative relationships based on equality and mutual respect.




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