By Brian Coffey, Christina King, and Shirlene Elledge

Trust, or a lack of it, is a common topic of contention for most divorcing couples. Its breakdown is often attributed to some specific behavior — infidelity, drug or alcohol use, or emotional abuse. The exact cause of the trust breakdown may be difficult to pinpoint, but it is generally associated with communication problems, or the simple fact of the divorce itself. Couples who have children and want to be effective co-parents as well as positive role models will need to work to rebuild their trust. The good news is … it may not be as hard as you think.

What is trust?

Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th Ed.) defines trust primarily as: assured reliance on the character, ability, strength or truth of someone. This definition seems long for a word that is so commonly represented as understood. Trust is something we experience early and often in our lives. Why such a complicated explanation? Perhaps we don’t understand trust clearly after all. This makes it even more difficult to rebuild trust when it is needed most, like when transitioning from parents to co-parents in a divorce.

When divorcing people speak of the lack of trust, it is frequently as a binary concept: you either have it or you don’t, it turns on or off like a light bulb. This image leads to some emotionally daunting questions: “How can that light be turned on again when I know (or fear) it will just be dimmed or turned off like so many times before?” “How can it be turned on again, when it is broken?” “Who is responsible for replacing it?” These questions are usually just as present for both the breaker and breakee of the trust.

This false binary construct can create the common, yet often times avoidable, opposition associated with encouraging the rebuilding of trust during and after a divorce.

Trust is a process, not a feeling

The Webster definition describes trust as an assured reliance on someone’s character. Relying on someone is a dynamic process, not a static or even binary condition. This process can often be volatile when the trust is broken; and yes, it can provoke various emotions. Think of a volcano with its periods of relative quiet and peace, followed by brief episodes of rumbling and steam, and then the occasional eruption of molten lava and spewing ash. The volcano metaphor captures the feelings associated with breaking trust, which is only one side of a dynamic process. A volcano erupting is perhaps not a very helpful (or calming) image when one is trying to restore trust. So, rather than a volcano, think of a bank account.

One of the leading authors on the notion of trust, the late Steven Covey, talks about trust in terms of an Emotional Bank Account in his book “The Speed of Trust.” Bank accounts, like volcanoes, also represent a dynamic process with ups and downs, frequent fluctuations, and the occasional volatile eruption, influencing a spike or dip in the daily balance. If you think of rebuilding trust as making a deposit in an emotional bank account, the concept is not as intimidating. A deposit is made every time a promise is made and kept, an agreement is honored, or an honest mistake is admitted and steps are taken not to repeat it. Every deposit helps grow the accumulation of trust. When the balance is at a comfortable level, additional trust can be extended on credit. When deposits are made on time to cover the principal and interest, the balance can be considered healthy and can even withstand a withdrawal now and again.

However, just like with a regular bank account, massive withdrawals can throw the account out of balance with serious consequences and strong emotions of sadness, anger and fear. The key is not to close down the account immediately and send it off to collections. The balance can be rebuilt over time with steady deposits large and small.

Sometimes the account might start out with an overdraft, like during a divorce, and a few deposits need to be made to bring the account current. This process may take longer for some couples — the larger the overdraft, the more credits required. It is important for both individuals to make an effort to rebuild the account. Whereas the one in debt cannot assume that a few good deposits will render the debt paid, likewise the debtor must overcome the inclination to keep the offending party forever repaying with interest. As long as the accounting is fair and transparent, trust can be restored.

Mistrust is fear

Thinking of trust as an emotional bank account can help both co-parents see that rebuilding trust is not impossible or even impossibly complicated. It does not require a breakee to flip a switch and pretend like nothing happened. It does provide a positive image for a breaker to begin the process to restore the trust.

When trust has been broken in the past, the lasting emotion produced is fear; fear the trust will be broken again. The reliance on the person’s character or truth is not so assured anymore and the relationship’s footing is wobbly, which naturally produces more fear and anxiety.

But do not confuse emotions with the process. The definition of trust does not include any feeling words. Emotions, positive and negative, associated with trust are byproducts of the process. When deposits are being made, it feels good. When withdrawals are taken out, negative feelings — fear and guilt — sets in. By separating the emotions associated with trust from the process itself, it is easier to see the course for rebuilding trust, and the easier it is to stay on that forward-facing path when withdrawals are made due to mistakes.

Tips from the pro’s

When it comes to a divorce where children are involved, it is difficult to think of a goal more important than becoming effective co-parents. It is possible to restore trust and create a positive, working co-parent relationship based on clear communication and respect. To help you get started, here are some suggestions:

  • Be consistent.
  • Follow through.
  • Be considerate and respectful of each other’s requests, opinions, and time.
  • Listen: this requires refraining from comment/criticism.
  • Validate: verbalize the positive efforts made by each other.
  • Affirm each other’s relationships with your children.
  • Acknowledge when you have made a mistake, apologize if necessary, and keep trying.
  • Stay positive: visualize your new roles as co-parents who communicate effectively, clearly, and respectfully.

You now have the understanding and tools needed, so take the initiative, open that emotional bank account and start making deposits. Rebuild the trust; become the amazing co-parents your children need.