How to Rebuild Trust in Your Marriage After a Major Screw-Up

Mistakes happen in every marriage. Here’s what to do when you make a really big one.

grey scale edit of man and woman walking in an alley

At some point or another, no matter how wonderful your marriage is or how many bluebirds chirp on your windowsill in the morning, someone will screw up and trust will be broken. It could be something small (watching your favorite show without your partner or pretending to work late to get out of plans with those friends), or something big (lying about a secret credit card or, gulp, an affair). So how do you rebuild trust where trust is broken? Sure, groveling can help, and flowers might be a step in the right direction. But the process of truly earning someone’s trust back is nuanced and requires thoughtful actions and quite a bit of patience. These are some steps you can take to earn your partner’s trust back.

Own Up to It

To rebuild trust in your marriage, you have to accept responsibility, apologize, and own it. And, never, ever try to justify it or offer any kind of explanation or excuses. “Although all choices are made in the context of what is happening for you, that won’t help you when you’re asking for forgiveness,” says Anna Osborn, a California-based licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in couples, relationships, and love. “Offering any sort of justification for your actions or minimizing them (i.e. ‘At least I didn’t do X’) will only make your spouse shut down and feel doubly hurt.”

Be Honest

When you’ve blown it in a relationship or marriage, it sometimes feels convenient to not tell the whole story. The thinking is that you’ll minimize the damage by omitting certain details or altering the truth just enough to spare yourself more fallout (i.e. “It was only one time!”). But lying never restores trust in a relationship. “Don’t be tempted into this trap,” says Osborn. “Telling the whole story will serve you better in the long run and your marriage can actually begin to heal. If you hold back certain details and they come out later, you’re risking more than you realize.”

Keep Your Promises

If you say that you’re going to change your behavior, then you’d better make damn sure that you’re going to change. Empty or unfulfilled promises will only exacerbate the situation and further convince your spouse that you can’t be trusted. “Follow through with the things you say you will do,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Mindy Beth Lipson. “Otherwise, it is just words and means nothing and breaks more trust.”

Focus on Consistency

As you’re rebuilding trust in your relationship, keep your words and actions consistent. Your spouse’s image of you has been shaken and they’re looking for stability wherever they can. Doing what you say you’re going to do will go a long way to proving to your spouse that you’re serious about changing. “Consistency demonstrates to your spouse that they have reasons to trust you again and also allows you to appear safe to them again,” says Osborn. “Don’t discount the power of consistency when it comes to rebuilding trust.”

Accept That Earning Back Trust in Relationships Take Time

It’s no fun having an angry spouse under the same roof. But there are times when an apology isn’t enough to turn things around right away. When trust is broken, it can be a long and lengthy repair process to rebuild it. If you’re committed to it, then you have to be in it for the long haul. “Realize that if you are wanting someone to forgive you on your timetable or on your terms you are being very selfish,” Lipson says. “And you need to work on that fact as well as learn to sit with your own painful shame and not let it destroy yourself and those you love.”

Realize That Things Might Never Be the Same

Broken trust can be a difficult hurdle to overcome and, even if you both get back to a good place, it might not be perfect. Your partner might not forgive you entirely, and if they do, they won’t forget. Accept it, accept your role in it and try to find a way in this new normal that leads to you both being the best possible version of yourselves for each other. “Do your best, but don’t expect the outcome you want,” Lipson says. “Be respectful and go into the process of repair with an open heart and mind, and an awareness of all outcomes being in the highest good for both parties.