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November 6, 2015
by Megan Lundgren, LMFT

Can "Responsible Forgiveness" Help Couples Rebuild Trust?

November 6, 2015 22:13 by Megan Lundgren, LMFT  [About the Author]

It’s a question that is asked daily in marriage counseling practices around the country: "Can trust be re-built?"

More specifically, is genuine forgiveness possible in marital relationships? Can individuals in a relationship truly experience trust in their partner after painful or repeated violations of trust? *

There are many kinds of actions or events that can result in breaches of trust in marriage, from breaking a commitment to ignoring the needs of one’s partner. To trust a spouse is to believe that they will be reliable to make sacrifices for the sake of the marriage, often resulting in a general sense of reciprocity or give-and-take in the relationship.

Before exploring the importance of trust in intimate relationships, consider the alternative: what happens when individuals opt not to trust their partner after painful experiences? When individuals choose not to trust their partner after being hurt, they may cope with pain by putting up emotional walls and creating distance in the relationship. This boundary may feel more secure than risking vulnerability through forgiveness, since it is possible that victims may be hurt once again. And yet, under these circumstances intimacy in the relationship is not possible.

Terry Hargrave, Ph.D., founder of Restoration Therapy, writes in Forgiving the Devil: Coming to Terms with Damaged. Relationships, “One of my fundamental beliefs is that people are hurt by relationships and healed by relationships.” In Hargrave’s view, there is significant emotional resilience that may be fostered in individuals by working to rebuild trust in damaged relationships. By addressing painful histories rather than numbing oneself to relational pain through avoidance, individuals may themselves reap psychological benefits.

Dr. Hargrave asserts that in order for trust to be reestablished in relationships, both partners must be willing to acknowledge the damage in the past, and gain insight (often through psychotherapy) into how to stop violations of trust from continuing. Although past damage cannot be undone or necessarily forgotten, relationships can be salvaged when partners are willing to learn from their past.

Is it, at best, counter-intuitive, or at worst, masochistic, to not only return to the scene of the crime, but to re-enact scenarios with a perpetrator in hopes of an alternative outcome? According to Hargrave, the essential element that allows marital relationships to experience forgiveness and rebuild trust is the ability for the perpetrator to take responsibility for their actions and the resulting harm.

The person who violated trust in the relationship must give their partner reason to believe they will not hurt them in the same way again. When the wrongdoer accepts responsibility for the pain they have caused, and sincerely promises to refrain from the hurtful behavior, their partner is freed from the duty of holding the wrongdoer responsible for their hurt. For trust to be re-established in relationships, the victim must believe that the wrongdoer is holding him or her-self responsible to make the changes that they have discussed.

Forgiving and rebuilding trust in relationships means allowing the wrongdoer to commit to being trustworthy in the present and future. According to Hargrave’s principles of forgiveness in relationships, the victim of wrongdoing must make an intentional and informed choice to trust that their partner will care for them. An example of this kind of qualified trust is a spouse saying something like, “I was hurt, and you were the cause of that hurt. Although part of me wants to withdraw from our relationship to stay secure, I see that you are willing to take responsibility for your actions and are committing to not hurting me in this way any more. For this reason, I will allow myself to forgive and trust you.”

The emotional toll of breaches of trust can mean that the sting of past hurts lingers. The process of forgiveness must include each of these actions, often repeatedly:partners opportunities to learn from past hurts, the wrongdoer accepts responsibility, the wrongdoer commits to not hurting the victim again in this way, and the victim risks trusting their partner to care for them. When couples engage in this process of responsible forgiveness through marital therapy, victims of violated trust can identify and express their pain from the past, while also acknowledging valid reasons to hope for a different future.

According to Dr. Hargrave, the potential for individuals to trust after a violation may hinge on the individual’s determination of whether the violator of trust is willing to refrain from their hurtful behaviors in the future. When this occurs, the perpetrator assists in the victim’s healing through redemptive relational experiences in which the victim experiences a new way of being in the same relationship. In Hargrave’s words, forgiveness “is about coming together, after hurt in the relationship, to rewrite the story of love and trust in a responsible way that will make relationships strong.”

*This article is written for individuals who are not currently experiencing domestic violence, emotional/physical/sexual abuse, or addiction in their relationship. To seek professional help in addressing issues resulting from abuse or addiction in relationships, consider consulting a local Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. 


Hargrave, Terry D. Forgiving the Devil: Coming to Terms with Damaged Relationships. Phoenix, Ariz.: Zeig, Tucker & Theisen, 2001. Print.

About the Author

Megan Lundgren Megan Lundgren, M.S. LMFT

Megan Lundgren is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in Relationship Therapy. At her group practice in Monrovia, a suburb of Los Angeles, Megan supervises a team of Therapists who focus on helping individuals and couples thrive in their closest relationships. Megan's husband, Daniel, also has a Master of Science in Marriage and Family Therapy and partners with Megan in running their practice, Relationships For Better:

Office Location:
140 East Colorado Boulevard #D
Monrovia, California
United States
Phone: (626) 272-4908
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