Give Trust: Practicing Soft Power in Your Relationship

Margaret and Tony fell in love when they were teens but didn’t date and eventually marry each other until their mid-30’s.

She called to seek couples therapy and said, “I can’t trust him and I can’t stop crying about it.” Margaret found out about an emotional affair Tony had been having with a coworker for a few years. In their first session, Tony said it all started when he was feeling discouraged in his marriage and started to tell another woman at work about his feelings.

He hadn’t planned on having an affair. In fact, he didn’t think this was an affair— didn’t that mean he was having sex with someone else? He didn’t go there. This woman lived across the country from them. They never even held hands. “But don’t you get it?” Margaret said angrily. “You were sharing our private life with someone I don’t know. You were telling her things you never told me!” Tony exhaled and turning to Margaret said, “You’re right.”

That was the first step back towards each other. Margaret confronted him with what hurt her and Tony owned his part. He was getting his emotional needs met elsewhere instead of being truthful with his wife. He had been unhappy and instead of reaching for Margaret, he shared his feelings of hopelessness in life and in his marriage with someone else.

We discussed the path that led to the affair. Both of them recounting knowing they were growing apart but not coming to each other with curiosity. They were both too scared to speak up. They were walling off and having their own private thoughts about the other one without going directly to each other about the distance between them. her.

Images depict fictional representation

In subsequent sessions Tony and Margaret let me coach them on how to discuss uncomfortable material in a calmer and more productive way. I paused them often to point out how their tones, words and stances of judgement were adding to the conflict. They let me guide them in helping each other do a better job of staying open to hearing each other’s words and trying out new communication tools. This included me saying to them both, “If you want to win the argument or have a stance that you are right and they are wrong, you’ll both lose.” Margaret didn’t like this.

 “But Celeste, he IS WRONG. He had the affair.” “Yes,” I reassured her, “Tony had the affair. But making him wrong about it again and again when he has already owned it, will put you both on a battlefield. We’re working on you both becoming a solid team again. ” Frustrated, Margaret said, “I don’t know if I could ever really trust him again.” 

Tony practiced his empathy for Margaret and said, “You have every right not to believe me or trust me. That makes sense.” Turning toward Margaret, I asked, “If Tony ever does this again, would you stay with him?” Looking back over to Tony to see if he was watching and making eye contact with Margaret. Tony was looking directly at Margaret. Ready to hear her answer.

Margaret barely paused, saying directly and firmly to Tony, “No. If you ever hurt me again like this I will leave our marriage.” 

“Tony, tell Margaret what you heard so she knows you got it,” asking him to acknowledge her.

Facing her, Tony said, “If I ever hurt you by having an affair again, you’ll be done with this marriage.” 

Summarizing and adding to it, I said, “You both know what will not be tolerated in this marriage. This relationship comes first. You protect it from all external forces. If you perceive the other person is pulling away, you make an appointment with each other to check in. You practice the communication tools you’ve learned here. You put each other first. Do you both agree?” They both nodded and talked about what they were willing to do to make this marriage work. Making intentions to be more forthcoming and honest with each other. 

Then Margaret said, “Tony, you need to earn my trust back.”

This is a common and normal response after an affair gets exposed. “Margaret,” asking her to look at me, “I know you want to be able to trust Tony again. I think I have a way to make this work for you and for him. Are you interested in hearing about it?” Margaret nodded, looking back at Tony. I gently started, “I get that it feels scary and unsafe to trust Tony. You want him to earn your trust again.” Margaret nodded yes.

“That makes sense, Margaret. And, I’m concerned about the pressure on you both to keep special watch on each other. Asking yourselves, does she notice my efforts or is he doing this nice thing because he’s in trouble or does he want to do them?” Now they both nodded, understanding my concern. “Margaret, what would happen if you took a powerful step and said to Tony, I give you my trust. Every day when I wake up, I’ll remind myself that I give you trust.” 

Pausing to let her think about this and then adding, “This doesn’t mean you condone his past behavior. This means that you aren’t scrutinizing and watching his every move. That’s a powerful position.” Margaret nodded again and Tony leaned forward taking her hands. I continued, “It makes you both equally responsible for enjoying each other’s company. And equally responsible to speak up, staying open and curious. I’m not suggesting this is easy, or that you won’t have doubts or concerns. I’m saying that Giving Trust allows you both more space to really show up and build a new relationship where you don’t withhold your feelings and thoughts from each other.

When you Give Trust, you stay current. That means you don’t continually bring up the past. You don’t pile on evidence of past hurts onto your partner. You don’t keep reacting from your fears of being hurt in some future moment. When you give trust to each other, you both invite a growth-minded relationship . You try on better tools for communicating. You develop new neural pathways that allow you to receive a better form of love. Conscious love. A willingness to do the work that keeps you open, vulnerable and excited to finally be on the same team with each other.

(Note: Names and circumstances described above have been altered to protect the privacy of my clients.
Image Disclaimer: The images depicted in this blog are for illustrative purposes only and do not represent the actual individuals mentioned in the content.)