By Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
Sometimes it’s couples where one partner has had an affair. Other times
it’s between parents and a teen where the teen has stolen, lied or has
been doing drugs. The issue is trust and the question is, “How long does
it take to rebuild trust when broken?”
Trust refers to being able to rely, depend or have confidence in someone or
something. It is not simply based upon a statement of intention given at some
place or time. It’s certainly more than a promise, which too is a statement
of intent, but perhaps asserted with greater intensity giving the impression
of greater meaning. Between people, real trust is an outcome of observed behavior
over time where one’s commitments are consistently met.
Depending on either the severity of the non-trustworthy behavior or the frequency
of non-trustworthy events, the length of time to redevelop trust can vary greatly.
A low frequency, high intensity event such as an affair can undermine trust
so significantly that the rebuilding process can take years. Other events such
as a child stealing change on an intermittent basis may also take time to repair,
not because of the intensity of the event, but due to the ongoing and intermittent
nature of the event. Single, low intensity events generally take the shortest
time to repair.
The key to rebuilding trust is understanding that rebuilding takes more than
just time and an apology. While an apology is an important part of the rebuilding
process, as stated above; rebuilding real trust is a function of observable
behavior over time where one’s commitments are consistently met. Thus
trust is an outcome of behavior, just as lack of trust is also a function of
Given the non-trustworthy behavior, the person who broke the trust will have
to understand that for the present and foreseeable future, they cannot be taken
at their word. Their trustworthiness will be a function of their deeds or actions.
Hence, their behavior must be observable and subject to scrutiny. Those who
have had an affair will have to better account for their time. Those who gamble
will have to account for their money. Those who steal will have to account for
their whereabouts and those who make inappropriate use of the Internet may have
their access restricted or use monitored. The person who violated the trust
will have to appreciate that this burden is the consequence of their non-trustworthy
behavior. Talk and promises are no substitute for observable behavior over time
to the rebuilding process.
The rebuilding process continues generally to the satisfaction of the person
whose trust was violated. It may be that certain safeguards will be required
for a substantial length of time, such as regular attendance at sobriety meetings
or phone calls during the day to state one’s whereabouts. In other cases,
the rebuilding process may bring the level of trust quickly back to the pre
non-trustworthy event and hence further ongoing efforts to scrutinize behavior
would no longer be necessary. The length of time to satisfy the person whose
trust was violated will vary according to the significance of the event and
prior or ongoing other non-trustworthy behavior the other person displays. Hence,
once must be fully trustworthy in all aspects.
Want to rebuild trust then? Start with an apology and then commit to observable
and appropriate behavior. Where necessary, repair or put in safeguards to protect
against further non-trustworthy behavior. Repair may require counseling or attendance
at special programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Repair may also require restitution.
Safeguards may include regular phone calls home or accounting for one’s
Remember, the responsibility for rebuilding trust lies with the person who
demonstrated the non-trustworthy behavior and to the reasonable satisfaction
of the person whose trust was broken. The process will take as long as it takes!