How do I know if I can trust my spouse again? This question represents one of the most profound dilemmas a betrayed spouse will struggle with as they journey towards healing after a significant betrayal. How do I know I’m not going to get hurt again? How do I know I’m not just being a fool to trust him or her? Trust is so easy to break and so hard to build: today we’d like to give you more insight into the dynamics at play in this important struggle.
Before we talk about indicators of trustworthiness, we’re going to look at factors that are independent of trustworthiness, or a lack thereof, in your spouse, that affect your ability to trust them again.
The Interference of Betrayal Trauma
Betrayal often causes symptoms of trauma to appear. Symptoms of betrayal trauma include:
- Avoidance (possibly even as far as terminating your relationship with your spouse)
- Hypervigilance (fear response) which can involve scrutinizing all of your spouse’s behaviors, searching, researching, double-checking and interrogating
- Obsessive questioning, meaning that you continually grill your spouse, and may find it hard to stop
- Rage (fight response)
- Numbness (freeze response)
Identifying these symptoms isn’t meant to pathologize any of them. It’s just good to be aware of the symptoms so that you can recognize it if you experience betrayal trauma.
Sometimes you can spend a lot of emotional and mental space trying to figure out what happened. Gordon, Baucom and Snyder (2005) note “a primary disruption experienced by the injured partner is intrusive, persistent rumination about the event, which can become so overwhelming and uncontrollable that it interferes with both concentration and daily functioning” (p. 1394). If you’re experiencing symptoms of betrayal trauma, the process is entirely inside because of what the betraying spouse has done. The symptoms of betrayal trauma can protect you from reaching out to your spouse again, even if they’ve returned to a trustworthy place. We’re delicately saying that the symptoms of trauma can prevent you from trusting, even if you are in a situation where it would be safe to trust again.
Part of the impact of trauma is how it affects trust. Gordon, Baucom, and Snyder (2005) go on to observe: “A major cognitive response associated with the discovery of an affair is the change in beliefs about the partner and relationship; one can no longer trust in his or her partner or feel safe within the relationship” (p. 1394).
Trauma affects what you believe about your spouse. Here’s the point: they betrayed you. The betrayal causes trauma. In the ensuing fallout, it is possible that significant cognitive and emotional changes occurred in your spouse so that they are now a trustworthy person. But if your trauma is unresolved and unhealed, the trauma itself will prevent you from seeing, believing and acting on that trustworthiness.
We’re not saying all betraying spouses become trustworthy. Yours may not be. But we are saying that yours may now be, but your trauma prevents you from acknowledging this because it’s protecting you. In conjunction with your spouse doing what is necessary to become a changed, trustworthy person, you also need to take care of this trauma that has occurred.
For betraying spouses listening, it is not for you to turn on your spouse and say this is your fault/problem. A trustworthy betraying spouse can say “yes, I caused this, and I understand that your healing may not follow the same trajectory or speed as mine and you take all the time you need and I will do what I can to support you and I will do what I can to support you.” If they won’t do this, that is a sign that they’re not really trustworthy because they are still blame shifting.
That’s for betrayed spouses to consider as you reflect on yourself. Now, as you reflect on your spouse, we want to give you some warning signs, and some proceed with caution signs. Keep in mind that trust is not a switch that you flip. It is more like a savings account: it needs to be built up steadily over time. Real or perceived betrayals are like sudden, major withdrawals from that account.
Warning Signs of Betrayal
Now we’re going to take a look at the warning signs of betrayal. To some extent, every betrayed spouse is a bit different in how they respond to the betrayal, but there are also a number of practical things to look for that are indicators that you can trust your spouse again.
The delicate part is that there are normal levels of these problems in every marriage. Most married men/women have some level of defensiveness at times, but high levels of these issues do represent major warning signs of betrayal.
1. Pathological Defensiveness
It’s normal to be initially defensive after betrayal. A betraying spouse might say, oh it wasn’t that bad, that’s not how it really was. Sometimes this is because of their own shame. They feel horrible about it and they try to turn the dial on that bad-person dial back to zero because it feels horrible to sit in it. This is a sign of defensiveness, but not necessarily of untrustworthiness.
While the above are certainly not helpful, they’re not necessarily a sign of betrayal. Defensiveness is a sign of betrayal if the betraying spouse accepts zero responsibility. For example, if he/she says “I went out with my buddies, they started drinking, Bob slipped me a shot of whiskey, and I was unfaithful.”
In other situations, there is a total denial in the face of the evidence, saying “no, that didn’t happen.” They may also engage in gaslighting behavior, saying something like “why would someone try to wreck our marriage by saying I’m cheating on you?” as the affair partner is writing to the betrayed partner saying I’m having an affair with your spouse.
2. Blame Shifting
If you’re still getting blamed for the circumstances that led to the issue (you weren’t sexy enough, you were too busy, you were off chasing your career, etc.) People who don’t accept responsibility and blame others see themselves as victims of their circumstances. The problem is, if he/she was a victim once, he’ll likely become one again. On the other hand, people who demonstrate agency can accept responsibility and make the necessary changes to create safety in marriage.
A spouse who acts like they have the power to control their choices is more trustworthy than one who sees themselves as a victim. A spouse who is willing to say “I made a choice where I disregarded you and I disregarded our marriage and I chose to do this and it was wrong” can accept responsibility and make the changes to create safety in their marriage. They are more trustworthy than a person who is always the victim. This may sound backwards. You might think that it would be harder on your spouse to hear “it was my fault, I made this decision, and I hurt you” yet that’s what they need to hear. And your spouse already knows that, so acknowledging it is not new information, but it shows your spouse that you are willing to take responsibility for your actions.
3. Being Non-committal
If your spouse won’t verbally and sincerely commit to repair and restoration that may be a sign that s/he’s still keeping their options open or still considering an affair partner as an alternative. Trust from you is an expression of commitment. It’s a bridge you build towards a fixed point: if your spouse is a moving object, your bridge will fall. Not everyone who comes to couples therapy has come to a place where they’ve let go of the affair partner, and it’s important that they get to a place where they’ve completely stopped their involvement with the affair partner in order to commit to you.
You might worry that if your spouse begins to show trustworthy behavior, they’re just doing so to win you back, rather than sincerely. But remember that trust is built by being reliable over time. If a spouse isn’t sincere about wanting to win back your trust, they won’t be able to do the reliable over time part. They’ll douse it on for a period of time and then the bad habits will come back. The exception would be if they’re pathologically insincere. If they can maintain a layer of deception after deception for years and are willing to lead you on a total charade for years, that’s much more serious, but this is not often the case. Most spouses who commit to repair and restoration are sincerely ready to commit to the marriage.
How to Build Trust After Betrayal
Now if you are the betraying spouse and you’re listening to this: first of all, good for you! It takes courage to listen to people talking about what has happened to your spouse. We also have an additional download for you: it’s a PDF guide that talks about the basics of attunement, and how you can use specific behaviors to help rebuild trust in your marriage.
4. Unaddressed Entitlement, Narcissism, Unaccountability or Compulsivity
Other reasons not to trust your spouse include some personality disorders, and the denial that often comes with sex addiction. Not all personality disorders lead to affairs, but if you are married to someone with histrionic personality disorder, it will sometimes show up as an over-flaunting of sexuality, which can lead to affairs. Spouses with narcissistic personality disorder may feel they deserve everything the world has to offer including you being a faithful spouse to them while they do whatever other things they want to do. Some unaddressed expressions of bipolar disorder also lead to pursuing affairs. (Note: nearly all people with bipolar disorder are faithful spouses, but some manifestations of bipolar, during the manic phase, include pursuing affairs.) Until the underlying symptoms of these disorders are treated, it’s probably not wise to consider trusting again.
Unaccountability is the refusal to accept any form of accountability. Again, betraying spouses often get frustrated by the hypervigilance of the betrayed spouse, (why are you checking my phone, why are you checking my email again etc.), but the refusal to accept any form of responsibility becomes an issue. It’s a normal part of the distress following a betrayal for there to be cross-examination, scrutiny, and sometimes interrogations, which are difficult for the betraying spouse. But when the betraying spouse manifests a consistent ongoing refusal to accept any form of accountability for several months or a year or two, that’s a warning sign that they are untrustworthy. If they act like they can have this separate piece of their lives hidden in this way, that’s not trustworthy behavior. But that’s different from people objecting to some of the responses of the betrayed spouse.
5. Compulsivity: see an opportunity, act.
With compulsive behavior, there’s no connection in a person’s mind from desire to consequence (acting on that desire). If your spouse is acting without considering you as the betrayed spouse, (wanting to do something and not thinking about who it’s going to impact) that is a necessary ingredient for the betrayal to occur. As long as evidence of compulsivity is present, it’s probably not safe to trust.
Following betrayal, you’ll almost always have lots of conflict in your marriage, lots of unresolved issues, lots of resentment, and unmet emotional needs. It’s tough because you have to take care of your marriage and also repair it. But these are signs of conflict and distress, not necessarily signs of unfaithfulness. The distress in your marriage doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t trust your spouse. It’s normal to be distressed afterwards. In many cases, the marriage dysfunction that was not really acknowledged before is now on the table. Looking at all of these struggles, you may think this person is untrustworthy, but they may actually be trustworthy, you just now have to solve what was happening in the marriage.
A Dysfunctional Marriage is Not Necessarily a Warning Sign
It’s worth noting that there are higher rates of affairs in dysfunctional marriages versus happier marriages, but there are also plenty of distressed marriages with Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and unresolved issues in which the partners never engage in infidelity. You have to take care of your marriage and repair it as well (preferably with a therapist) but these are signs of conflict and distress, not necessarily signs of unfaithfulness.
Signs of Trustworthiness
A number of the signs of trustworthiness are the opposite of the signs of untrustworthiness.
1. Decreasing defensiveness
Having more empathy for the impact on you as the betrayed spouse without your betraying spouse dissolving into his/her own shame is a good sign that you can trust your spouse.
2. Accepting responsibility
Having your betraying spouse acknowledge the impact of their actions on you and accept responsibility is a positive thing. Recognizing and owning the damage done and hurt that it caused and seeking to make amends is a sign that they are willing to work on your relationship, and that they can be trusted again.
You do want to be aware that if you try to make amends immediately it may come across as defensiveness, so it is generally best to acknowledge the impact of your actions on your spouse, stop for a period of time, and then make amends later so it doesn’t come across as defensive.
3. Voicing commitment to the marriage
If the betraying spouse is verbalizing their commitment to the marriage and acting on it, that is a good sign. For example, if they’re investing at home, working with you on things, being willing to have the hard conversations, and wanting to work on things.
4. Personal Growth
Facing personal issues, working on themself, taking charge of mental health, recognizing personal dysfunction (being able to name it) and pursuing help via pastors, good friends or therapists are also important things.
It is a good sign if your spouse is willing to be accountable for their actions by telling you where they are going, when they are going out, etc. and being willing to give you the extra details to reassure you. This may be frustrating for them at times, but they need to understand that it’s important to do it. This is also the opposite of hiding a part of your life completely from your spouse.
6. A preference toward honesty over self-protection.
This means that the betraying spouse says I’d rather be truthful with you even if that’s going to make it difficult for us than hide something else from you. An example might be, if an affair partner reaches out to the betraying spouse, he’d rather tell you and face your distress than hide it and hope you don’t find out (even if he doesn’t respond to the affair partner). When your spouse tells you something he could have got away with, but would rather have honesty and disclosure than ‘happy wife happy life’ that’s a good sign even though you’ll go back to the pain, they’d rather have the consequence of something they’re really not guilty of because they understand the need for honesty between you. Again, this is the opposite of hiding, covering, or protecting.
Signs of Relational Health
If your partner is genuinely interested in your welfare and not just his/her own, that’s a good sign. In other words, is your partner motivated individualistically (i.e., to seek his/her own gain) or is he/she motivated cooperatively (i.e., to seek joint maximum gain)?
If your spouse does things that show that they are being honest with you (for example, letting you know where they are going when they go out) that is a sign that you can begin to trust them again It shows forthrightness if your spouse is willing to offer information before you’ve asked for it.
Commitment reassures your partner that you are in this together, and you are willing to repair the relationship and make things work. It involves knowing that your partner (betraying spouse) puts your needs at the top of the list and is willing to make sacrifices for you and your relationship. If they do this in a way that is not just because you’re prompting them to do it, it shows that they’re holding you in higher esteem. They couldn’t have held you in high esteem before when they were having the affair, so when you see them doing this for you out of their own volition that’s a sign of increasing trustworthiness.
If they’re prioritizing your needs, this is different from fawning or flattery where they’re just trying to get you happy again. It will probably be obvious when it is authentic versus, you’re just sucking up because you messed up.
4. Willingness to create new boundaries
If there were factors that lead to infidelity in your relationships, such as your spouse going for lunch with a member of the opposite sex, and now your spouse is willing to set boundaries to avoid temptation, to make sure that you feel safe and that they don’t ever get into a situation where it could lead them down that road again, that is a sign of trustworthiness in your spouse.
When betraying spouses don’t do this, the betrayed spouse may object to it unless they set boundaries. There is a loss of freedom that comes with this, but at the end of the day the betrayed spouse doesn’t want a doormat either, they just need to see that you’re willing to make the changes in order for them to be safe.
Having some restrictions on your freedom may be a necessary thing in order to re-establish trust in your relationship. Setting boundaries shows that you would honour them above some of these personal preferences that led to the betrayal, and when they see you doing that and they begin to trust you again and you repair the marriage, often some of the restrictions that were necessary immediately following the betrayal will be loosened. Boundaries will look different depending on how the betrayal happened. For example, if a husband has a pornography addiction that has been hidden for a long time and comes out that he’s been looking at porn on his smartphone, his wife may say that he needs to use a flip phone. But if the husband conducts all his business on his smartphone, this could lead to a problem. In this situation, it may mean asking him to work with his laptop and a flip phone for a while, and down the road when he’s demonstrated reliable behavior, he can return to using his smartphone again. It’s probably not a bad idea to take a break from using his smartphone for a while to help resist the temptation of pornography anyways.
People who have poor boundaries may need to set new boundaries permanently. Like if there’s a pattern of drinking at work events and you hook up with someone at a work event and you have an affair because you’re intoxicated, a boundary may be no alcohol and work events, and you will always hold that boundary to make sure that your spouse is safe.
5. Consistent Integrity
This extends to small things as well as big ones. Sauerheber and Disque (2016) note “Even the most unintentional, uneventful, or unpremeditated fib (or lie) can set the betrayed partner’s healing back. For example, Suz’s affair ended 2 months prior to both her and Derrick entering couples counseling. A year into these author’s work with this couple, Suz told Derrick she would be home from yoga at 5 p.m. Instead, she stopped to see a friend on the way home. When she returned home at 6 p.m., Derrick was livid. The issue was not her friend, but rather, as he explained: “You lied to me. The agreement was that you would come straight home from yoga unless you notified me” (p. 216).
If there’s untruthfulness, it may not even be intentional. But part of the repair towards trustworthiness requires a higher commitment to honesty and integrity than what was held before. That shows up in little details. Trust is built by reliable behavior over time. In the above example, all Suz needed to say was, “I’m stopping to see my friend.” Even if Derrick was upset because he had dinner ready, it’s not going to trigger the betrayal because she let him know. The important part is being committed to total honesty and integrity.
 K. C. Gordon and D. H. Baucom, “Understanding Betrayals in Marriage: A Synthesized Model of Forgiveness,” Family Process 37, no. 4 (1998): 425–49.
 Gordon and Baucom.
 Iona Abrahamson, Rafat Hussain, and Adeel Khan, “What Helps Couples Rebuild Their Relationship After Infidelity” 33, no. 11 (2011), https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X11424257.
 Robert Larzelere and Ted Huston, “The Dyadic Trust Scale: Toward Understanding Interpersonal Trust in Close
Relationships” 42, no. 3 (1980): 595–604, https://doi.org/10.2307/351903.
 Larzelere and Huston.
 Bob Navarra, “Precursors to Infidelity: The Six Warning Signs,” Dr. Robert Navarra (blog), accessed May 28, 2020,
 Jill Sauerheber and Graham Disque, “A Trauma-Based Physiological Approach: Heling Betrayed Partners Heal from Marital Infidelity,” The Journal of Individual Psychology 72, no. 3 (n.d.).
 Sauerheber and Disque.