The ten step progression provided below begins with a relationship at its most trust-broken point. Not all marriages that experience the betrayal of sexual sin will start at step one. As you read through this progression two key questions to ask are, “Where was I at the darkest point after learning of my spouse’s sin?” and “Where am I now?” The progress you have already made should be a source of encouragement for the journey ahead.
The goal for this section is to help you see that even if you currently think, “I could never be at a ‘ten’ of trust again,” that there are many practical steps that can and should be taken between where you are and a “ten.” You and your spouse may find that there are aspects of trust that you were weak at prior to the sexual sin (due to personality, personal history, etc…). In these cases, examining this material will serve the dual purpose of marital restoration and marital enrichment.
Movement through this progression will be a dance between your spouse’s efforts at change and your willingness to take relational risks. Your spouse’s growth alone will not create trust without your willingness to take a relational risk. Your willingness to a relational risk alone without your spouse’s growth will not produce lasting trust. The dance may not be one step by your spouse followed by one step by you. But unless both of you are moving you’re not dancing.
1. Require Third Party Mediation: At this level of trust-brokenness you do not feel safe (at least emotionally) to be with your spouse without someone else present. The high end of this level might sound like, “You can go to counseling, but I’m not going with you. I’ll go separately and tell the counselor my side of the story.” At this stage, trust is built as you hear your spouse be honest with another person and receive correction/instruction from that person. You still doubt your spouse is being totally honest or would listen to you, but you begin to see that your spouse is not a total liar who is so committed to his/her lies but that he/she can hear an objective third party. As your spouse cooperates, you begin to trust your spouse vicariously through the trust that you build for the third party (usually a counselor).
2. Listen and Require Validation: Now you are willing to talk with your spouse in a one-on-one conversation, but you are skeptical of most everything he/she says. You don’t believe your spouse. You believe facts. If your spouse has facts to back up with he/she says you will trust that much and little more. This is a tedious way to communicate, but feels necessary in order to avoid pain greater than the inconvenience. Any statement that is not factual (i.e., future promise, interpretation of event, expression of feeling, etc…) is viewed as deceptive, unsafe, manipulative, or insulting. As a pattern of validated facts emerge, you begin to trust that there is some commitment to live in reality that exceeds your spouse’s desire for personal expediency.
3. Listen and Require Less Validation: Listening to your spouse now feels like less work. The rate at which you are searching for questions and processing information as you listen is decreasing. Giving the “benefit of the doubt” for things you are uncertain about is still unnatural and feels dangerous. Any statement that is incomplete or slanted too positively is assumed to be intentional deceit and creates a trust regression. As your spouse’s statements prove to be majority accurate, the practical necessities of life create an increasing reliance upon your spouse. Each time you notice this happening you may still feel highly cautious.
4. Rely on Spouse Functionally: Whether separated or in the same house, you begin to “do life together again.” A process of basic life tasks (i.e., formal or informal budgeting, scheduling, transporting children, etc…) begins to be created or reinstituted. This level of trust within a marriage feels very much like “living as roommates.” The dissatisfying nature of this arrangement can often discourage continued growth (i.e., “I don’t want to stay married out of a sense of duty”), but this discouragement should be decreased by understanding where it falls in the process of trust restoration.
5. Share Facts: As you functionally “do life” with your spouse, there is the opportunity for you to begin to share more of you again. To this point you have been receiving information much more than giving information. At the stage you begin the process of “giving yourself” to your spouse again. You allow yourself to be known at a factual level. Questions from your spouse that start with “Why” or “How come” are still met with defensiveness. During this stage questions that start with “Would you” become more comfortable as you allow your spouse to influence the “facts” (i.e., schedule) of your life again.
6. Share Beliefs: As you become more comfortable sharing facts with your spouse again, that naturally leads into sharing what you think about those facts. Conversations become more meaningful as you share more of what you like, dislike, agree with, disagree with, and want from the events of life. You can now talk about the way you believe things “should” be without a tone of judgment, sadness, or guilt overpowering the conversation. As you share your beliefs, you feel more understood and appreciated. At this stage, you and your spouse may have relearn (or learn for the first time) how to have different opinions or perspectives while protecting the unity of the marriage.
7. Share Feelings: Up until this stage emotions have likely been “thrust at” or “shown to” more than “shared with” your spouse. At this level of trust you are willing to receive support, encouragement or shared participation in your emotions. An aspect of the “one flesh” relationship is returning (Gen. 2:24). You are beginning to experience your burden being reduced and your joys multiplied as you share them with your spouse. The marriage is beginning to feel like a blessing again.
8. Rely on Spouse Emotionally: Now you find yourself able to relax when he/she is away. You are able to believe your spouse is transparent and sincere when he/she tells you about their day or shares with you how he/she is feeling. It is now the exception to the rule when suspicions arise within you about your spouse’s motive for saying or doing something.
9. Allow Spouse to Care for You: Allowing your spouse to express affection has lost any sense of “invasion” or being “unclean.” When your spouse wants to serve you, you no longer think he/she is doing an act of penance or cynically question what he/she will want in return later. Your spouse’s efforts to bless you can be received as blessings rather than being treated as riddles to be solved or dangerous weights on the “scales of justice” that will be used to pressure you later. You can savor the sweetness of love without bracing for a bitter aftertaste.
10. Relax and Feel Safer With Spouse than Apart: This is trust restored. Your spouse’s presence has become an anchor of security rather than a pull towards insecurity. Your spouse’s presence reduces stress in troubling circumstances. You find yourself instinctively drawn to your spouse when something is difficult, upsetting, or confusing. Even when he/she doesn’t have the answer, their presence is its own form of relief and comfort.
Trust and Ultimatums or Time Tables: There is intentionally no pacing guide for this trust progression. In this regard, growing in trust requires trust. It is an act of faith not to say, “I’ll give it three months and if we’re not at level seven, then I don’t think there’s any hope for us.” That kind of time-pressured environment stifles the growth of trust. Ultimatums are even more ineffective. When you try to make a deal (i.e., “Unless you stop [blank] or tell me [blank], then I am not moving to the next level of trust”) you undermine actual trust being built (i.e., “You only did that, because I made you”). Your goal in reading this progression is merely to gain an understanding of where you are what is next in the development of trust. Efforts at artificially accelerating the process will ultimately do more harm than good.
This material is an excerpt from the “True Betrayal: Overcoming the Betrayal of Your Spouse’s Sexual Sin” seminar. This teaching segment is covered in step seven of those materials.
If this post was beneficial for you, then consider reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Adultery” or “Favorite Posts on Marriage” or “Favorite Posts on Pornography” post which address other facets of these subjects.
A recommendation for anyone struggling with pornography is to install internet accountability software on all of your electronic devices. An excellent provider of this software is Covenant Eyes. Their ministry provides a many articles, for which I am a frequent contributor, for you continued growth and encouragement