Reprint: On Rebuilding Trust

This post originally appeared in December 2007.

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.

2 thoughts on “Reprint: On Rebuilding Trust

  1. Pingback: Was Hugo Schwyzer’s Confession Embellished? « Student Activism

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