After an affair, recovery of trust can be difficult for many couples. To succeed, the process requires deliberation, commitment, and conscious intention. Below, I list 21 suggestions that have helped partners renew trust and change the tone of their communication from resentful and angry to compassionate. Each is a portal into possibilities for reconnection:
1. Let the goal of each conversation be to create belief in your ability, as a couple, to hear each other out.Prioritize helping your partner feel valued.
2. Debate is a contentious, competitive process; healing is not.Communicate. Don’t debate.
3. Listen purposefully.
4. Deep communication is about sharing and connection. It is not linear, and it is not necessarily transactional. It is about joining, emerging, and evolving together. There are no formulas for authentic forgiveness. Each healing act must contain elements of grace, love, hope, and risk. Intentionality, too.
5. You need to understand the sense of your partner’s language.More importantly, you need to listen with compassion in your heart and grasp the feeling behind the words spoken.
6. Even if your partner is angry with you, accept and honor their emotion.
7. Feel their distress. Engage with their feelings without defending yourself. That is empathy. Know that when you grasp a message in this way, you create possibilities for emotional safety and healing. You are accomplishing something important.
8. When you speak with your partner, don’t discuss whose perspective is more “correct” or more in tune with “what really happened.” Healing is not a contest. If you find yourself going in that direction, note that you are off on a tangent. You are not getting warmer, you are getting colder.
9. Conversations in which you both try to get your points across at the same time are a waste of time. While you are listening to your partner, do not prepare what you are going to say next. Prepare instead to “hit the mark” in helping your partner feel that you have grasped the way they are experiencing themselves. Become a sharpshooter at hitting this mark — and always remember that the target is empathy. Take turns speaking and listening.
10. Conversations that start badly tend to end badly. Learn how to call a time-out. If you feel a conversation is going badly, it makes sense to start over. If a conversation feels like a debate, cut it short. Say something like, “Can we slow down and start over? I think we can talk about this in a better way.”
11. After calling a time-out, return to the issue at hand shortly. If possible, agree on a specific time to resume the talk. If the time-out is not followed up by a round of conversation, it will likely be understood as an avoidance maneuver. The time-out strategy then loses legitimacy. When you follow through, you energize trust.
12. Healing takes courage. You will have to lower your guard and make yourself emotionally vulnerable. If you commit yourself to healing, give yourself credit for resolve and grit.
13. Keep a journal in which you jot down issues that you would like to avoid talking about with your partner, but know that, for the sake of working things through, you will have to face. Consider every entry in this journal a triumph for your relationship.
14. Assume that your relationship is in a state of severe validation-and-reassurance deficiency. And then do something about that.
15. Deliver reassurance and emotional nurturance.
16. Be careful about explaining the reason(s) why you did something that inflicted pain. These explanations can come across to your partner as if you’re justifying why you did what you did, so consider instead expressing regret for having caused distress. Convey what you would do differently in the future to avoid hurting your partner if a similar situation arose.
17. Ask your partner what forms of reassurance matter most to them.Use that information to show you are serious about renewing trust.
18. If or when you are not sure you understand your partner, demonstrate compassionate curiosity and interest. If you question your partner about something, be alert and make sure you do not come across as accusatory — as if they purposefully confused you — or contemptuous, as if your lack of understandingmeans that they are poor communicators. Do not judge their communication style; learn who they are from it.
19. Make a list of behaviors, tasks, concepts that you will execute in order to shift the mood of your relationship from distant and disconnected to closer and warmer. Put simple, straight-forward things on your list, like, “I will make a point of giving my partner sincere compliments on a regular basis.” Consider this: “I will make an affectionate gesture or remark (or both) whenever I take leave or return from a separation with my partner.”
20. Think about what you would want your partner to do for you, and then do it for them. If they appreciate it, continue to do it. If not, don’t repeat it. In other words, improvise, and see what works. Adopt an experimental attitude. Be mindful.
21. Your communication goals need to include validating your partner as a person deserving of love, respect, and acceptance. Their job will be to validate you as a person deserving of the same.