On externalizing distrust

My boyfriend of 5 years cheated on me. I found out because he video taped the whole ordeal. We’ve decided to try and work it out, and he’s agreed to do whatever it takes to regain my trust.

But here’s the thing, all of the ‘cheating experts’ on the internet recommend full access to passwords and phones as a way to help rebuild trust, and that shit is not working for me. I know my boyfriend is technologically savvy enough to keep a secret email or google voice number. Checking his Facebook messages just stokes my anxiety that he is just keeping it squeaky clean for my eyes. And to be completely honest, I don’t have the energy for all of the (condoned) snooping and the worry that accompanies it.

What can I do to start trusting him again?


Yeah, the password access thing is bullshit. It doesn’t rebuild trust. It’s an emergency stopgap measure to keep the relationship from exploding in the immediate aftermath of infidelity. If you’re already past that initial “should I stay or should I go” moment, give him back all his passwords. You will feel better, and honestly, you won’t trust him any less than you already do.

As for the process of beginning to trust him more, that will simply take time. There’s no quick fix when it comes to trust. That shit has to be rebuilt brick by brick, and it’s different for every couple.

What I recommend for you right now is to first accept the fact that you don’t trust him. (It’s pretty clear that you don’t.) That’s okay. You’re entitled not to trust him. I know it sucks to be in a relationship without any trust, but you’ve chosen to stay, so now it’s your burden to bear. Make that burden a shared experience. He should feel it too, but try and make it so that he feels it with you instead of from you.

Start by separating yourselves from the distrust. Let the distrust become a third party in your relationship, one that the two of you team up against to defeat. Recognize that you both experience the distrust in different ways, and do your best not to identify with it.

In other words, you are not “untrusting,” and he is not “untrustworthy.” Instead, you experience negative emotions as a result of the distrust, and he experiences negative consequences as a result of the distrust. You both acknowledge the distrust as a source of negativity, but you don’t let it define either of you.

Once you’ve both successfully externalized the distrust, you can start chipping away at it together. You can be on the same side, which in itself will help rebuild trust. After that, it’s really just a waiting game made of time and good behavior.


35 thoughts on “On externalizing distrust

  1. Angie says:

    This doesn’t help, but the thing that jumps out was that he filmed it. Did he intend for you to find it? And if so, what was he trying to achieve? (Was he bored? Was he angry and trying to throw this in your face? Was he crazy drunk/drugged?) Are you guys going to therapy? Has he cut ties with that other girl?

    Yeah, there’s no point in monitoring, except to make you more crazy. Don’t ask questions that will make you crazy (does he think she’s pretty/awesome in bed, etc?), they don’t matter and will upset you. Just ask questions that lead to healing and bring in a pro.

    • PolicyChick says:

      That detail bothered me too, though my first thought was, “Did the other girl consent to being filmed?”
      But yeah, why in the world would he do that?


      The video taping detail threw me off too. I used to feel similarly to most of the posters here– cheating is a complete and total deal-breaker, no exceptions– but I have changed my mind as I’ve gotten older. I do not think there is a clear-cut rule. I too think it differs from couple to couple.

      I think most Americans tend to be up in arms very quickly when something as personal as cheating comes up, and the general public consensus largely mirrors most of the comments here, all of which can cast a cloud on your decision to stay or go. But ultimately it is up to you to determine what this breach of trust means to your relationship.

      The brevity and straightforwardness of the question makes me think that the asker has processed some of this and chosen to stay. She is obviously intelligent. Of course it will be difficult and they could choose to break up. It will require a ton of strength, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence, but I wish them the best of luck.

      (I used “she” because it’s the default pronoun, not because I assumed it was a girl being cheated on by a guy, before anyone comments.)

  2. Camille says:

    The distrust and pain becomes a chore. It’ll hurt like absolute hell but cheaters cheat and torturing yourself with trying to save a relationship damaged by something like that isn’t worth it. Best thing to do is cut your losses, hang out with friends, be single for while and avoid him like the plague.

    • Anna says:

      Ditto on this. If it wasn’t for that detail, I’d say your chances were 50/50. But think to yourself if you really want to stay with him, if you’re sure he won’t do it again, and if you’re not just stuck in a sunk cost fallacy after 5 years. If any of those questions give you pause, get out.

  3. Hurt by a cheater says:

    My gf of over 3yrs cheated on me … agonized over it for a few months, then I straight up ghosted (completely) her mean untrustworthy ass.

  4. I get the general consensus in the comments on the strangeness of filming it, but we also don’t know the circumstances. I think the filming part could be completely irrelevant in the grander scheme of things, and find the advice very mature and thoughtful. At the end of the day, Coquette’s responses are often about offering general principles for dealing with difficult situations. It might not help this couple, but it sure could be helpful to someone else.

  5. Emma says:

    Regardless of what I would do in this situation, I want to point out that this is some of the best written advice I have ever seen. Love ya coke!

  6. GB says:

    100% agree that the passwords advice is 100% bullshit. Like at least the NSA pays itself for surveilling phones. Why should you have to give yourself more heartbreak and headache by monitoring someone else like that? That’s so fucking demeaning and invalidating. Every time you feel a twinge of panic before you check his texts, it just causes you so much more pain and stress on top of the pain and stress of his infidelity. It’s a horrible cycle, and, anyway, I don’t think any relationship where monitoring is required is healthy. You deserve better.

    Coke once said that the distrust is what matters, with or without proof. The fact that you distrust someone is enough to end things, whether or not you have any “proof”.

    Also, I totally agree with Timea about the general applicability of Coke’s advice. What I love about her is that she gives great advice that is often snarky as fuck but doesn’t invalidate your emotions. She shows you how to deal with them with strength, grace, intelligence, and integrity. I don’t know how this turned into a personal thank you letter, but thank you Coke. I feel like people write in they want so badly just simple validation, because other people, including some advice columnists, really won’t give them even that. That’s certainly why I am so deeply, deeply grateful for this blog.

  7. Margaux says:

    My boyfriend cheated on me after 4 years together; I always thought I’d walk away immediately after infidelity but I stuck around and determined that cheating doesn’t always have to mean it’s over.

    However, I want to acknowledge that often times hope is blinding and the wish for a better future together can obscure the reality of the situation. After over a year of things dying on the vine, and the blatant ignorance of this because I hoped it would get better in time, I left him and feel 10000% better. I give kudos to people who can repair distrust but if you really are not tied to the person financially or in any other serious way, cut your losses.

    • Lin says:

      This is the story of everyone I know who tried to salvage a relationship post-infidelity. They stagger on for a month or two or a year or two and then break up anyways. Everyone thinks their relationship will be here exception. I struggle to understand why anyone stays with a cheater.

      • Veronykah says:

        YES! I thought it was a deal breaker too, until I was in DEEP with a guy with borderline personality disorder. He cheated, I broke up with him, he weaseled his way back. Eventually about a year later he pulled some other stupid shit and I was just DONE. I have a great bf now and look back and realize how hard I was trying to make shit that was never going to work, work.
        I never trusted him again and there was nothing he could have done that would have been able to fix that.
        Cheaters have to go, there is no fixing that shit.

  8. VeryOff says:

    Totally grounds for straight up dumping this guy.
    Please don’t stay if your self esteem is undermined in any way.
    Staying has gotta be like a punch in the gut every day; I do not envy you.

  9. Lily says:

    CQ – You used to say something along the lines of, if he cheated, he’ll cheat again. Your advice here seems to indicate a shift in your opinions on cheating. Care to give your thoughts or your change of?

    • says:

      I’m curious as well! I seem to recall Coke’s previous stance being that cheating = a lack of integrity and that’s the real reason not to stay in a relationship with someone who’s cheated on you, so although this is fantastic advice I’d be interested to know where it came from.

    • WhoAmI says:

      It’s not contradicting at all. You’re working on the premices that a cheater is unworthy of any kind of trust and undateable. Once a cheater, always a cheater ; but that doesn’t mean that once a cheater, always unworthy of your time. The longer your relationships and the older you get, the harder it is to end up in a relationship with someone who never cheated on someone. Doesn’t mean you should stop dating altogether.

    • Morgan says:

      Well, for one thing, the OP has already made her own decision to keep working at it. She asked advice on rebuilding trust, and that’s what she received.

    • The Coquette says:

      I think the Q&A you’re referring to is “Once a cheater, always a cheater? No. Once a cheater, you always cheated.”

      This doesn’t reflect a shift in my opinion on cheating. She didn’t ask, “What should I do? or What would you do?” She asked, “What can I do to start trusting him again?”

      She decided to stay and work it out, and so I started from there. She has her reasons, and she strikes me as an adult capable of rational decision-making, so I respected her choice to stay and gave her what she needed.

      • Kittyninja says:

        Woah, woah… you respect our autonomy?

        It was great advice, CT. I got a bit out of it myself (distrust of any sort can wreck a relationship). I respect everyone’s desire to drop the cheater’s ass since that’s my response with no emotional connection, but I just start thinking about how many people are dating former cheaters. I’m one myself, and there was quite a bit of character development along the way to learn that relationships are about choices.

  10. Face Squirmer says:

    Additionally, “a person that has cheated” and “a cheater” are not the same (… I have a feeling Coq agrees with me on this one…).

  11. Nat says:

    I am definitely on team zero tolerance in theory (I’ve never been tested). Even so, I feel like there’s an unfair cultural consensus that it’s weak to stay if you’ve been cheated on. Either you’re being a doormat or you’re just so desperate that you’re clinging to something that will never work. It’s not necessarily true.

    As an aside, the taping it bit only begets one question to me, and that’s if he did it because he wanted you to see.

  12. Jessica Sen says:

    A guy I fucked secretly filmed me. I have great peripheral vision and I’m highly sensitive to the presence of cameras. But, I was gracious enough to let it go because I secretly audio-recorded him talking about his family for research purposes. Also, I knew he had the honour to restrict the video to his personal viewing.

    I know you are a rational adult and I think you should dump him. There are plenty of cool integrous fish in the cosmos and it’s just bad luck that you spent five years loving a child who proceeded to treat you with blatant disrespect.

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