man and woman talking

5 Steps to Rebuilding Trust after a Relationship has been Traumatized

I'm Not Okay, You're Not Okay, but That's Okay book cover

[The following article is one of many principles needed as part of the Marriage Repair process.  For more, read (free) “I’m Not Okay, You’re Not Okay, But That’s Okay”]

More effective than Full Disclosures

1. Black Box Review

2. Blueprinting

3. Building

4. The Walk-Through

5. The Simulator

When a relationship experiences trauma, it is like an airplane crash. 

The one who does the betraying is like the pilot and engineer of the plane, and the injured party is like the passenger.  In many cases, the passenger was just relaxing in the relationship when it takes a dive, outside of their control. This is very scary.

What might come as a surprise, is that the crash is equally surprising to the pilot/engineer.  After 17 years of interviewing devastated couples, I have yet to meet someone who wanted their plane to crash.  I have yet to meet someone who knew what was wrong with their plane or their flying techniques in advance. 

When asked by their spouse, “Why did you do that!?!?!?”, the answers are rarely useful and rarely accurate.  It takes careful review to find out what went wrong way up in the sky, way before the plane hit the ground. 

For trust to be rebuilt, for a passenger to trust a pilot/engineer again, the focus needs to be on the new airplane, not the blood and guts of the crash on the ground.  This includes a careful review of the past, but one that is quite different from the traditional full disclosure. 

The process is worked through in 5 stages:

1. Black Box Review

The airline industry learned many years ago to put what they call a “black box” in all of their airplanes. This is a protected computer that records everything that happens inside the workings of the airplane.

airplane instrument panel

When an airplane crashes (or almost crashes) the specialists and engineers carefully go over details in the black box.  It is just as important for them to see what was going right as it is to see what went wrong. 

  • Did the plane lack the mechanisms (i.e. flashing lights, alarms) needed to be adequately sensitive to the problems?
  • Did the instruments in the airplane even detect that there was a problem?
  • What went wrong that led to the crash – the scary and/or painful – values breaching behavior?
  • Other:

Contrary to popular belief, when people behave in “bad” ways, they almost always DON”T actually know the answer to the question, “Why did you do that!?!?” 

There is a lot going on under the hood and inside the wings of each of us as we work to “fly” through life.  We do not understand, nor can we explain, what is going on within our own psychology. Even those who come in to see me as a therapist, with full sincerity, do not understand what is going on inside of themselves. 

If you are in a relationship with someone who is behaving in ways that are scary or hurtful to you, please be aware:  an urgent desire to have the answer to “Why did you do that?” will often NOT produce information that is accurately useful to you or the person who has crashed.  It may be necessary to consult a specialist who can help bring the needed information to the surface.

If we overlap this process with the Pattern for Growth tool, Black Box Review is part of the Discover step (see diagram below).

This process, as you might guess, may take a long time.  It is unlikely you will find everything that matters the first time you go through this Discovery process, but one must strive to be thorough anyway. 

Unfortunately, for both, the pleasure of healthy connection will not be available to either person, until this and the following steps are taken.  

When you have found useful information during your Black Box Review, you can feel confidence in moving to step 2.

2. Blueprinting

It can be assumed that airplanes, since the Wright brothers, have crashed a lot!  It can be assumed that there has been plenty to learn from each crash.  There is a lot you can learn from your crashes as well.

You need to allow the other person not to trust you while you do your work. 

After airplane engineers sort out, the best they can, what went wrong, they then design and describe – very specifically – the new and improved airplane.  

I see many clients who are unaware of the need to write up, on paper, electronic or hard copy, in as much detail as possible, the description of the New Self.  This is vital if they hope to rebuild trust with a loved one. 

man writing a blueprint

Part of this error is the idea that once someone knows what they did wrong by completing the Black box review, and once they confess it, the behavior will change and improve. 

Unfortunately, behavior can deteriorate without effort, but it is highly unlikely to improve without intentional work.  Intentional work requires Blueprinting.

If we overlap this process with the Pattern for Growth tool, Blueprinting is part of the Plan step (see diagram below).

It is not uncommon for many of us to do this step most accurately with the help of a skilled and trusted mentor, coach or therapist. 

Reading carefully chosen books, listening to quality audios, and/or watching videos on ideal or improved ways of thinking, feeling and acting, can help with the Blueprinting process.

You need not be limited to your own ideas for this.  In fact, it will be wise to gather more ideas beyond your past self in order to become a trustworthy New Self

If you are the one that has been scared or hurt – don’t feel any obligation to increase or show trust in your partner until he or she has brought a WRITTEN Black Box Review and new Blueprint for the New Self.

3. Building

It is all well and good to know what went wrong, and draw up a plan to build a New Self. 

We all want to feel trusted again, as soon as possible. 

It is painful to experience the distance of one who we wish was closer.  There is a temptation to skip or speed up the Black Box Review, the Blueprinting and the Building phases. 

But – a loved one cannot “fly” with you in your new “airplane” until you actually build that new airplane. This process will probably take time.

person writing in journal

To complete the Building process, break your Blueprint into Long Term and Short Term Goals as well as New Habits.  Map these out on a calendar, as you would with a project at the office or for your yard.

Actually WRITE these into a calendar or notebook where your loved one can review it when it is convenient for them.  

Then follow the Plan with Action!  Actually follow through on the Long Term and Short Term goals and New Habits.  If we overlap this process with the Pattern for Growth tool, the Building process is part of the Act step (see diagram).

Vital: Don’t ask your person to trust you, or connect with you until you have your airplane built.  

If you are the one who has been hurt or scared, if you are invited “onto the airplane” before it is built, politely decline with something like, “Let me know when you feel like you are done with your Black Box Review, your Blueprinting and you have completed the building process (by sending me the write ups) and I will come take a look, and you can provide me with a Walk-Through.  I look forward to it.  Until then, I will need to keep my feet on the ground.”

4. The Walk-Through

If you experience an airplane crash while being a passenger, you are going to need a lot of reassurance before you get in an airplane made by that same manufacturer again.  In fact, you would have a RIGHT to never trust him or her ever again. 

But, if you choose to have and use hope and mercy, you will need to do a Walk-Through before you trust again.  You should not have to beg for a Walk-Through.  You should not have to pester or nag for it.  You can live life without ever getting on that brand of airplane ever again, if necessary.

If you are the one who has scared or hurt a loved one, it is your responsibility, if you want your loved one to trust you again, to invite them to join you for a Walk-Through.

You must do this with a warm, inviting and confident voice tone.  If you invite with frustration, tension or gaslighting, it will backfire on you and you will have more work to do.  Practice this invitation with your therapist and/or coach, if necessary.

airplane in hanger

To prepare for this experience, imagine an airplane engineer doing a walk through of his new airplane with a scared passenger who has previously been through a crash.  With tenderness and confidence, you would speak with kindness and compassion. 

To complete a walk-through, start by showing things that went wrong – clarifying and/or elaborating on what was Discovered in the Black Box Review. 

Review the process used to Blueprint the new airplane, including things that did or didn’t work based on experimentation. 

Finally, show the evidence of completing Long term and Short term goals and demonstrating consistency with the new habits for an extended period of time – usually at least 3 months.

The “passenger” is allowed and encouraged to take notes during the Walk-Through. 

Resist the temptation to ask questions confrontationally during the Walk-Through.  Write down your questions.  Write down things that bring you concern. 

As it might be with listening to an actual airplane engineer describing the workings of an airplane, you may not fully understand the words being used, or the concepts being discussed. 

You may need more clarification, or you may need things broken down into terms that make sense to you. 

Give the “engineer” time and space to complete the Walk-Through.  Even if the tension inside of you really pushes you to ask or confront at this time, use paper, not your mouth. 

You might use the 4 Square Listening tool if that helps.  Don’t worry, you will not be expected to trust the “engineer” until you feel safe. 

The next section will teach you how to ask questions that will provide you with the information you need.

If you are the “engineer” providing the walk-through, you are invited to refer to your notes, your write ups of the Black Box Review, your Blueprint, and your records of Building.  Pause and allow for your loved one to write down their questions and concerns.  Don’t pry into them.  You may already have answers for them later in your Walk-Through. 

When you feel like you have completed your Walk-Through, perhaps suggest a break for emotional rejuvenation for both of you, then invite your partner to “The Simulator” step.

If we overlap this process with the Pattern for Growth tool, The Walk-Through is part of the Act step.

5. The Simulator

This might be the hardest part of the trust re-building process. 

This is where you, the trust rebuilder, have to demonstrate that your “airplane” can handle the winds, the storms, the lightning, the geese flying into the propellers, or anything else. 

If you are confident that you are ready, invite your loved one to bring their list of “What-Abouts”!  Say something like, “I am guessing you have some questions.  I invite you to ask them now.”

If you are the one that has been hurt or scared, now is the time to ask your questions.  Now is the time to discover if the “airplane” can be trusted. 

Please, do not get on the “airplane” before you go through this process.  Keep your feet on the ground as you ask your questions. 

Only ask one question at a time. 

There is no need to ask a lot of questions all at once. 

If you find one thing that the airplane engineer did not find in the Black Box Review, and/or did not write into the Blueprint, and/or did not Build into his or her airplane, and/or did not include in the discussion during the Walk-Through, then you need not continue going down the list of concerns.

If this happens, return to Pioneer Woman Mode with soberness and dignity.  Pleasantly share your sadness that you will not be able to join them on the airplane yet.  Have some compassion for the airplane engineer who thought they were ready, but now they have to go back to the drawing board. 

As you know, it can be very agonizing to think you are ready, and then discover you are not.  Save the rest of your list of concerns for next time.

If we overlap this process with the Pattern for Growth tool, the Walk-Through is part of the Reflect step.

If you are able to find any degree of success through the 5 steps as described above, celebrate it.  Enjoy the portions that you can, at the level that is appropriate for the work that has been done by both of you.   

As with many other elements of growth with living things, the trust building process will go through these steps, this cycle, over and over and over again.  Trust will grow line upon line (if it is not “crashed” again along the way).  

I'm Not Okay, You're Not Okay, but That's Okay book cover

These are just some of principles needed as part of the Marriage Repair process.  For more information download the free ebook “I’m Not Okay, You’re Not Okay, But That’s Okay”]

Limitations of Full Disclosures

Full Disclosures usually revolve around a discussion of the crash – the broken metal, blood, guts and body parts of human misbehavior.  Being transparent about hurtful behavior can give a passenger scope of how bad things could get if they offered trust again, but it does not give the passenger any reason to have confidence that the next flight will be any better.  Both the passenger and the engineer need to have confidence that the glitches in functioning – errant thoughts and feelings behind the errant actions have been Discovered through the Black Box Review.  

Both the passenger and the engineer need to have confidence that the new Blueprint will have:

  • Better sensory systems – so problems can be Discovered before they become serious.
  • Better alarm systems – so the pilot can make the necessary adjustments
  • Stronger and more aerodynamically compliant structure
  • Reaction training to surprises – lightning, ice, geese, etc.

Traditional Full Disclosures do not bring a Blueprint for the new airplane.

Both the “passenger” and the “pilot/engineer” need to have confidence that the New Self is built to match the new Blueprint. 

This is not the focus of a traditional Full Disclosure.  Same with the Walk-Through and the Simulator.

It has been very edifying, as a Marriage Counselor of traumatized marriages, to watch and be a part of helping “engineers” build a New Self in which they have great confidence. It has been a joy to watch trust grow, line upon line, with couples who love each other, but have hurts to overcome.

The above “5 steps to rebuilding trust” is just one of 40 principles and tools taught in the Marriage Repair Workshops.  For Details and Registration, go to:

The Marriage Repair Workshops

Men's and Women's Marriage Repair Workshop

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