A very long post on how to rebuild trust

I insisted on inflicting my Top Ten posts of 2007 on my readers. Not everyone is so unkind; many bloggers have managed to provide only their single best post of the year for public consideration. Jon Swift has compiled an excellent list, having invited his entire blogroll to send him a link to what each writer considered his or her finest offering from these past twelve months. Warning: it’s a time-suck, as the kids say these days.

A regular reader asks:

I do have a question for you that you may be able to answer. I am wondering if it is possible to reconcile with a person where trust has been broken and be able to rebuild the trust back again. Have you any personal experience in this area that you can shed wisdom on?

I’m not a relationship expert: three divorces by age 35 are proof of that. That doesn’t stop me from offering advice and reflections, and it doesn’t stop people from asking. So with the standard caveat that my opinion is only that, an opinion, here goes.

I’m going to assume my reader is writing about reconciling with a romantic partner. When trust is shattered in a sexual relationship, it’s usually qualitatively different than it is in other friendships or among family members. But I’d like to touch on the loss — and the restoration — of trust in a variety of relationships, because I’ve got a considerable amount of hard-earned experience in this area.

I had my first major mental breakdown in April 1987, shortly before I turned 20. I had my last (God willing) in the summer of 1998, shortly after turning 31. Over that eleven-year period, I was hospitalized more than half a dozen times. I also struggled very publicly with a host of addictions. And I know full well that addicts break the hearts of those who love them, over and over again. My mother, father, brother, and sisters suffered more than anyone. None of my friends, lovers, or wives were part of my life for that entire period; I very successfully chased everyone who wasn’t bound to me by blood out of my life.

My lies were the standard ones: “I’m sober”, I would say — when I wasn’t. “I’m seeing a great therapist” — when I cancelled all my appointments. “The meds are helping” — when they weren’t. Above all, my most consistent lie was “I’m fine.” Anglo-Saxon reticence, and the concomitant dissembling it requires, were part of my family culture. I spent many years on the stage as a child, and my acting skills came in handy when it came time to cover up the pain, the despair, and the appalling acting-out behavior that characterized my life in my late teens and twenties.

But sooner or later, it became clear that I wasn’t “fine.” My mother would get another phone call from another hospital; once again, she would break the news to the rest of the family that I had “had a relapse” — or, on more than one occasion, made a serious suicide attempt. Over time, those nearest and dearest to me lost their trust in me. They no longer believed I was “fine”, and some feared (with justification) that I never would be.

As I’ve written before, my last episode of drinking and drug use ended on June 27, 1998; my body filled with massive amounts of alcohol and prescription pills, I blew out the pilot lights on the stove in my old apartment and turned on the gas, trying to kill myself and my girlfriend. Miraculously, we both survived.

One week later, after two days in ICU and three days on a psychiatric hold, I was at my family’s ranch for the Fourth of July. I showed up for our family’s annual Independence Day celebration with a smile on my face and warm greetings for my loved ones. As usual, I acted as if nothing at all had happened, as if I hadn’t been in a lock-down unit just a day earlier. I’d pulled this with my family many times before, and this time they weren’t buying it.

Two of my dearest cousins pulled me aside and told me, with the firm, calm anger that is so characteristic in my family, that they were disgusted by the charade I was pulling. They didn’t believe I was fine, they didn’t believe I was healthy, and they were tired of watching me dissemble to the entire family. They told me they loved me but they didn’t trust me any longer. What had been sympathy years earlier had turned to exasperation. “I love you”, one cousin said, “but I don’t feel I know you. And I don’t trust you at all. You’ve got to change or you’re going to die, and we’re tired of being on this rollercoaster with you.”

My family had been “co-dependent” for years. Finally, finally, they were tired of enabling me. And though it was not their responsibility to change me, I can say that the switch from tender sympathy to “tough love” was a huge part of my transformation that important summer of 1998. It was only then that I realized how much I had lost in terms of my relationships with my loved ones; their anger, their lack of respect for my word, rocked me to my core. And my desire to win back that trust and that respect emerged that Fourth of July.

And yes, trust can be restored. I’ve done it with my family and with all those who loved me before 1998 and who still love me now. It didn’t happen instantly. It took years and years. Some of the trust was restored by time; each year that passed in which I wasn’t hospitalized helped. But I was proactive in rebuilding these damaged relationships. I was accountable to my family for my progress, keeping them updated on my Twelve Step program, my intensive psychotherapy, my spiritual work. I didn’t answer their queries with “I’m fine” any longer; I gave more detailed explanations of “where I was.” No doubt I overdid things; I became the Weather Channel, constantly broadcasting detailed reports about my emotional temperature. Over the years, I’ve learned to provide less frequent updates about everything that’s going on, but for a while, this “sharing” was a vital tool with which to rebuild trust.

My family trusts me now. When my father was dying last year, I asked him “Dad, you do know I’m really okay now, right?” “Yes, Huggle”, he replied. “I know.” I’m grateful he lived long enough to see the changes become real in my life, and that when he died, he was finally certain that his eldest son had no ambivalence about living.

But my reader wants to know, I suspect, about restoring trust in romantic relationships. That’s a different thing to do. Again, I’ve got lots of experience breaking the trust of my ex-wives and lovers. By the time I started dating she who is now my wife, in 2002, I had already surrendered most of the “trust-breaking bad habits”. That doesn’t mean I was a perfect boyfriend or am now a perfect husband, of course. But my wife knows that my language and my life match, that there are no big secrets. And I believe the same about her.

My wife was a psychology major in college. And if there’s one standard axiom in psychology, it’s that “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” My wife is no fool. When she and I first started dating, just over five years ago, her friends were appalled. I was 35, thrice divorced. I had a history of mental illness; I had a history of addiction to alcohol and drugs; I had a history of womanizing. My wife’s friends begged her not to be deceived by me, not to trust me. To my everlasting amazement and gratitude, she did decide to trust me. Or, to put it more accurately, she was willing to let trust build between us.

Trust is like a muscle, I’ve come to believe. When desire brings two people together, the impulse will be to trust automatically. Call it the “innocent until proven guilty” scenario. Perhaps because of my past, I don’t think that’s the best approach to love affairs. Like a muscle, trust is built through regular, repeated exercise. When my wife and I started dating five years ago, I knew it would be absurd to say to her “Trust me.” Trust would have to be earned. The best predictor of future behavior would have to be past behavior, but that “past behavior” would have to be what I had done the day or the week before — because what I had done five or ten years earlier was a hopeless foundation. The days turned into weeks, the weeks into months, the months into years. And the trust grew.

I built trust with she who is my fourth and final wife with three things: Accountability, Transparency, Consistency. My wife and I are accountable to each other; we don’t get to keep entire areas of our lives walled off. That might work for others, but coming as I do from a legacy of deceit and addiction, radical honesty and openness work best. Though this might seem oppressive to others, to me it’s helpful to imagine that my wife can see me 24/7. I ask myself, when I’m interacting with others (or when alone) “Is there anything I’m doing that would make her uncomfortable? Is there anything I do in private that is fundamentally inconsistent with how I represent myself publicly?” Transparency and accountability are useful tools for maintaining our mutual trustworthiness. And of course, trust — like muscle — is built by consistency. The past matters, but so too does the present. Each day in which I continue to “suit up and show up” for life builds a track record.

I have people in my life who may never trust me, who still judge me by my past. For a brief period in the mid-1990s, I had a series of affairs with my students. That behavior stopped forever when I got sober; indeed, those transgressions are now a decade or more in the past. But I can think of a colleague who still loathes me because of what I did. She’s not a close friend of mine, so I haven’t been able to build trust with her. This colleague has warned students and newer faculty about my past; from what I hear she doesn’t trust that this leopard has indeed changed his spots. I’ve confronted this fellow professor about these “warnings” she feels compelled to issue, and she’s been frank with me that she thinks I ought to have been fired “back in the day”. “Once a lech, always a lech”, she says, and she’s clear that I’m a “disaster waiting to happen.” Fortunately, she seems to be in a minority of one. But the point is clear: when we have a past, we can’t expect everyone to be able to overcome it. Some folks may never forgive, much less forget. And I’m okay with that. The people who matter to me trust me.

But I have friends today who love and trust me. My family loves and trusts me. My wife loves and trusts me. And that trust is based not on love alone, but on a growing body of evidence that I am willing to produce through accountability, transparency, and consistency.

19 thoughts on “A very long post on how to rebuild trust

  1. You remind me of an article that appeared after my dad died (Note: my father was Allen Funt, the creator and host of ‘Candid Camera’. Some of my most amusing memories are of my dad and thirteen year old Hugo engaging in spirited political debates while I bemusedly watched).

    The article advised us all to go through life as if we were ALWAYS on Candid Camera. In other words, to behave the way we would if we knew for certain that the world was watching at all times.

    Not a bad idea.

  2. You going to do one on whether it’s possible to rebuild trust between an abusive parent and the kid whose trust was broken? It doesn’t look possible from here. Once burned twice shy…so I guess I shouldn’t be asking if I already know. And yes I am seeing a therapist but he is useless and I can’t afford to continue with him anyway. But thanks for the story of how you rebuilt your life, it can help some folks.

  3. I have been reading your blogs for awhile, and your insight into human nature never ceases to amaze me. It is hard for me to reconcile the man you describe in the past with the man who writes the blog today. As the year ends, please know that what you have written in 2007 has given me hope that maybe people (okay, men) can change. Thank you!

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  5. I get angry with people who screw up, reach bottom, clamber up, and then want people they stepped on to accept the “revised” version. While I admire the restorative work, it’s a slap in the face to those who have made a conscious effort throughout their lives to live morally and ethically. When someone has done wrong, I want accountability, acknowledgement, and I want amends. Perhaps the colleague doesn’t feel you’ve atoned for past sins. Rather than feel powerless, she issues warnings and remains wary, hopefully pushing you to prove her wrong. See her as your physical conscience.

  6. I appreciated that blog, and the commentaries after it.

    I share a few of your afflictions; you’ve got one more divorce than I, and at an earlier age. We’re both taking the Steps since the elevator is broken.

    I echo your epiphany about the codependence of others. It does them no good, and it did neither you nor I any good.

    I’m interested in nevertoolate’s comment. I think that (s)he is right on about wanting accountability, acknowledgment and amends from us, and the suggestion to see your colleague as a physical conscience is an intriguing one. At the same time, (s)he has got a bit too much attachment of their own if they experience you as a slap in the face. (S)he needs to get over it.

    So do you, and so do I. All we can do is what we can do. If we remain attached to how others perceive what we do–as opposed to doing the next right thing and then detaching from the outcome–then we are all still stuck on the roller-coaster, whether we’re the addict/alcoholic/abuser or the abused child or loved one or codependent.

    The trick is to do the right thing, to the best of our ability, and to then be satisfied with having done it. Period. Judgment is for someone else entirely.

  7. While nevertoolate is (believe it or not) more blunt than would be my wont, I appreciate the sentiments: I am rarely impressed by the “I’m sorry” incantation by itself – actions were done to break trust, actions are required to rebuild them. Often these amends might be restitution, or they may involve facing the mundane music for reformed actions. Whatever it is, “I’m sorry” is mere words. Don’t tell me. Show me.

    I wonder if that colleague of yours had someone they were fond of dismissed for similar actions to yours – if that is the case, you’ll probably find that nothing less will suffice for you as far as they are concerned.

  8. Pingback: Thinking about Trust « Cheerful Megalomaniac

  9. If I were a college professor, I’d be shagging every hottie who poked her head in my classroom.

  10. If I was a student I would want my teacher to be devoting his/her time to teaching me and grading my work, not “shagging the hotties”. Or takng it out on anyone when said hotties aren’t interested in him/her.
    I am in nevertoolate’s position WRT my stepparent, and it’s going to be a tangly one straightening this out before said stepparent dies. I don’t know what to say about the colleague who still distrusts Hugo. But if Hugo has really kept from backsliding like my stepparent didn’t, good for him.

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  12. Just to clarify:

    I have done the best I can to make amends for my past misconduct with my students. I have made direct amends to the students involved (where possible); I have made amends to my colleagues and to the administration. I took the lead in designing the college’s consensual relationships policy (which didn’t exist when I was behaving so badly); I have spoken to faculty groups about the issue and done my best to hold myself and my colleagues accountable. I have no shame about my past any longer, though I deeply regret having “crossed a line that ought not to have been crossed.”

    In the case of this one colleague, this one person has refused to believe that my transformation is genuine, and unlike the vast majority of fellow faculty members, doesn’t take seriously my public and open efforts at making amends. That’s her prerogative, of course, but it doesn’t necessarily entitle her to continue to raise the subject to students and fellow professors alike.

  13. Rereading my comment, “slap in the face” was a little dramatic.

    Although my remark was meant to be a comment about bad behavior in general, I appreciate the clarification. (The blog itself is an incredibly raw self examination & thoughtful commentary that would convince me were I the colleague.)

    Can anyone explain why we often have more success repairing the relationship with the wronged party than those who were merely witnesses?

  14. “In the case of this one colleague, this one person has refused to believe that my transformation is genuine, and unlike the vast majority of fellow faculty members, doesn’t take seriously my public and open efforts at making amends. That’s her prerogative, of course, but it doesn’t necessarily entitle her to continue to raise the subject to students and fellow professors alike.”

    You’ve changed, you’ve made amends, you have apologized, you’ve helped set policy. That’s something rarely seen with bad behavior. Some people make excuses. Few people make amends. Fewer try to make a difference

    But the fact remains, you did something wrong. You destroyed the trust this person had in you. You accept that that trust cannot be regained.

    There is something to be said for professionalism, for not speaking ill of one’s colleagues. I don’t know the situation as well as you do; I don’t know you or her. Maybe she doesn’t take your transformation seriously. Maybe she’d like to. Maybe she’s angry, or trying to damage your reputation. You don’t know her heart, (unless she’s told you that she’s just trying to hurt you, in which case, ignore the rest of this!). You accept that she does not take your transformation to be genuine. But you don’t seem to accept that the faculty member continues to speak of your past.

    You seem to stress ‘this one person’. Would many people not believing you diminish what you’ve accomplished? Would the disbelief of the last holdout among your colleagues, I suppose, change anything? I doubt it, because you say that you accept that you can’t rebuild trust with everyone. The last line of your comment gets under my skin. She isn’t entitled to speak of her lack of trust?

    I’m still a bit confused here. Maybe I do not understand something, but I don’t believe that your transformation entitles you to her silence.

    http://hugoschwyzer.net/2007/12/05/against-compartmentalization-a-note-on-the-repercussions-of-a-local-scandal/

    You wrote that post. You wrote that a month ago. I looked it over again today, hoping it was from a guest blogger. You wrote about shock and betrayal, how horrified the students felt. Should they trust someone who had ‘crossed the line’, if they do not believe them to be a changed person? Are they ever obligated to be silent about the past?

    I can’t reconcile the fact that the comment at 12:18 pm and the December 12 post on ‘….Repercussions on a Local Scandal” came from the same person.

    (You can delete this. You probably will. It’s rude. It’s more a rant than a comment. I can accept that you did something bad in your past, that you have made amends for it. I cannot accept the comment you made today. I cannot accept your belief that someone who does not trust you is obligated to keep their mouth closed about prior bad behavior. In the same situation as the faculty member, I would probably feel obligated to disclose the information).

  15. MJ, what I wrote about the Mayfield situation and what I wrote about my own situation are two different things.

    Mr. Hassler at Mayfield was arrested for a crime (child pornography); I committed no crime (and at the time, I didn’t even violate college policy, one reason I was never disciplined!) To suggest that selling child porn (the felony with which Hassler is charged) and conducting an inappropriate affair with an adult are the same thing is, well, problematic. That doesn’t justify what I did, it just puts it in a different category. What I did wasn’t criminal, but unethical. What happened at Mayfield was criminal and involved much, much younger individuals. That’s not an unimportant distinction legally or morally.

    My colleague has the right to her views. But to repeatedly insinuate that I haven’t changed — when all the evidence suggests I have, and she has no evidence I have not — is, well, uncharitable. It’s not slander (at least I don’t think so), but it’s unkind and it does my students no service. But as I said, I’m not “entitled” to be trusted. I can wish that everyone would trust me, but I know that not everyone will.

    That said, MJ, my previous comment probably ought to be revised. My colleague has the right to say whatever she likes (short of slander), and all I can do is continue to work to prove her wrong. As the years roll by and I continue to live as I do and work as I do, my track record grows deeper and stronger — and her lack of faith in that transformation can do nothing to stain that.

    In any event, I almost regret including that paragraph in this post. It’s distracting the thread away from the main point: about how we restore trust after it’s been lost.

  16. Hugo – just wanted to thank you for this. This very topic is at the forefront of my life right now. Your words have helped me articulate my feelings on the matter with my spouse – such a very important thing. Thank you.

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