How to Move Beyond Hurt to Trust Again



9 minute read • by Elsa Moreck

“Love is not enough. Nor are attentiveness, romantic feelings, a charming personality, great competencies and skills, or promises to change. You need substance underneath the topping. Don’t sell yourself short. Character always wins over time.”

~ John Townsend

As a dating coach, the question I get the most often is: “How can I trust again after being hurt from a previous relationship?”

It makes sense that we’d want to answer this question before moving on to any other area of our dating life since there is no foundation for a relationship without trust. Investing in love when it has previously disappointed you requires courage. After multiple heart-aching conversations with people who’d been through it all, I decided it was time to blog about it.

I felt intuitively that it would be no simple feat. Trust is a risk, and our relationship with it impacts our sense of worth in all kinds of relationships, not just romantic. So I put on my F.B.I. cap and went to work. I stuck my nose in every book I could find on the topic: I read books about healing after an affair, setting clear boundaries, and regaining confidence after it’s been shattered by romantic love.

I gathered information for months and let it marinate in my mind long enough to embody it in my own experiences. I put to use all I’d learned about setting and honoring boundaries and observed with scrutiny what came from each attempt. You could say I was my own lab rat running experiments about trust in relationships of all kinds in my life.

Here’s what I found: real safety comes not from being suspicious and guarded, but from having the freedom to make choices, to trust your feelings and your ability to take care of yourself should things not work out. We are relational creatures with a drive to connect as strong as our drive to eat. Therefore, thinking we can fix our flawed relationship with trust by closing in on ourselves is not a sustainable solution. We need people, and we need to be able to be vulnerable with them.

“Trust is not a luxury. It’s a necessity for any relationship to function well.”

The misconception is that choosing the ‘right’ person will eliminate the possibility of being hurt. But that’s putting the cart before the horse. The reality is, if we strengthen our boundaries, we automatically attract higher quality people into our lives.

So how do we set boundaries that create a standard for how we want to be treated? First, let’s define boundaries. A boundary is simply where one person ends and another person begins. But there are two kinds of boundaries, and their distinction is crucial:

  1. Definitive boundaries

  2. Protective boundaries

A definitive boundary remains the same in every situation you encounter. For example, “I will not allow another person to steal from me.” Definitive boundaries are permanent, and they function like values, inflexible and concrete. Another example of a definitive boundary might be, “I will not allow anyone to physically assault me.”

Whereas a protective boundary is usually a measure we use temporarily to adjust someone’s bad behavior toward us. For example, let’s say you have a friend who shows up 30 minutes late every time you hang out. To adjust her tendency to be late, you might ask her to text you her estimated time arrival every time you plan to meet henceforth. If she gets better at managing her time, however, you can simply agree on the time and place and trust that she won’t leave you hanging.

It is important to get very clear about your definitive boundaries since they are permanent. The more clear your defining boundaries are, the less you will need protective boundaries.

That’s worth repeating: the more clear your definitive boundaries are, the less you will need protective boundaries.

But how do we know if we’ve set solid definitive boundaries?

Here are ten questions to ask yourself when setting up definitive boundaries:

  1. What are red flags I need to look out for? How will I proceed when they arise?

  2. How important is to me to receive timely responses from this person? What will I do when they are non-responsive?

  3. What will I do in the event that they do not keep their word?

  4. How will I determine that I’m being told the truth about who they are? Do they have friends who mirror the image they have of themselves?

  5. What will I need to feel like I’m a priority in their life?

  6. How long after we date should I expect a mention in their future? What does a mention in their future look like?

  7. What does support look like to me? How will I go about asking for it if I’m not getting it?

  8. What do I need to see to confirm they’re with me for more than just my looks and status?

  9. What actions show me that my safety and well-being are being taken into consideration?

  10. How will another person’s pattern in previous relationships factor into my decision to be with them?

Note that when we are operating from a wounded place, we are not in a position to set healthy boundaries. It is important to allow ourselves time and compassion to heal from the previous hurt we experienced. However, it is equally important not to get stuck in grief. The saying, ‘time heals all,’ is inaccurate when it comes to love. Just like you can’t heal a broken arm by waiting passively, you can’t heal an emotional wound with time alone.

Relational wounds require supportive relationships to heal them. This doesn’t mean you should build a bridge from the end of one romantic relationship to another, as many often do.

Rebounds are like addictive drugs; temporary fixes that leave you worse than you found them.

The kinds of relationships you need when you are healing are platonic and meaningful. You can create such connections by seeking the help of a professional, or by looking to people in your community, workplace, house of faith, etc…

Once you have assigned enough people with whom you can openly converse without fear of judgment, it is time to rebuild emotionally. To do this, you need to go through the following four stages:

  1. Confess that you have been hurt

  2. Acknowledge that you didn’t deserve the mistreatment

  3. Accept that it has happened to you

  4. Integrate the experience into your life by choosing to move on and learn from it

Until you have gone through each one of these stages, consider your attempt to move on shallow at best.

Once you feel like you have truly moved on and are ready to put yourself back out there, you can start thinking about your definitive boundaries. At this stage, you may still fear your longing to reconnect with people. You may worry that since you’ve been hurt, your desire to connect is somehow defective and destructive. In actuality, the force pulling you towards new relationships means you are alive inside, and that is worth celebrating!

This is a good time to trust that all the lessons you took away from the relationship made you wiser.

“You were a victim of another person’s misplaced internal conflict. But you are not a victim of life.”

It is also important not to judge yourself during this time. Feelings of self-blame can arise and make you feel deficient for your poor choices to remain with someone who mistreated you. But we do not intend to sabotage ourselves. We learn how to engage in relationships based on our experience with them early in life.

Sometimes, we act the way our parents did. This is called fusion. Other times we act opposite than they did. This is called opposition and taken to its extreme is also harmful.

Therefore, we do not enter and remain in abusive relationships because we’re foolish. We model earlier relationships with the people we choose--we choose our partners because they help us recreate familiar environments. Even when those environments were toxic for us.

Once we’re more aware of this tendency, we can detach from the need to do so moving forward.

“Once we heal our relational pain, we can stop choosing a parent and focus on finding a partner.”

A partner is an equal, a companion, willing to do life with us. They are not there to discipline or control us. Once we embody this idea, we can be wiser with who we date.

In order to have trust you must give it. There’s no way to know if you can trust someone until you actually do. This is true whether you’re seeking a new relationship or amending an existing one in which trust has been broken. Oprah infamously quotes, “once a cheater, always a cheater.” While I appreciate the preventative measure of this phrase, I'm an advocate of personal growth. As such, I firmly believe people can choose to show up better for their partners with the right guidance and support.

If you walk away with anything from this, let it be the following: set boundaries, honor them, then let go.

Love is only pure when it comes from freedom. Obliging or pressuring another person to be with you will not produce true feelings. Being together must be a mutual desire and an individual choice. We need to learn how to let go of our need to control our partner, and our obsession with knowing everything about them.

To love is to let go and let be.

Allow the person in front of you to unfold naturally. If you notice them crossing your definitive boundaries, make that clear from the start. Consistently letting someone have their way with you even when it interferes with your internal peace sets a destructive tone in the relationship. For example, if one of your definitive boundaries is “I do not accept being ignored,” yet you consistently dismiss it when the other person forgets to contact you back, then you need to acknowledge that your definitive boundary is not being upheld.

Way too many people look the other way when their definitive boundaries are being disregarded because they feel enthralled by the hopes of a relationship. But you won’t feel that enthusiastic when you’re crying to your friends about how your trust has been broken again. So avoid catching the virus by practicing healthy habits and seeking only those who share those healthy habits too. If you are a person of your word, only date people who are too, and distance from those who are not.

“One can be good, but still not good for you.”

In the end, your choice to be in a relationship will remain yours to make. However, your desire to connect will never go away because it is one of the most human traits about you.

Therefore, instead of trying to suppress a very natural and healthy desire, focus instead on what you can control: setting proper boundaries and honoring them, always.

If you are in an otherwise healthy situation with a partner who crosses a boundary, use what you know about protective boundaries to regulate their behavior. If that doesn’t work, you need to level with yourself and find the root of your willingness to accept less than you deserve.

Finally, remember that you are courageous for choosing to transcend your pain and take the risk to trust again. It is a human need to need--to be vulnerable with another person, and everything I’ve mentioned here should make that task more successful and enjoyable for you.