Professional Help: 5 Tips for Restoring Trust After Cheating

Trust expert and business professor Peter Kim explains the implications of various paths to forgiveness, from heartfelt apologies to denials.

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The path to reconciliation after a romantic indiscretion can be rocky. Most of the time, saying sorry isn't enough since victims of infidelity must deal with lingering feelings of betrayal, not just the fling.

This week on Professional Help, University of Southern California business professor and trust expert Peter Kim shares five lessons to aid repentant cheaters in restoring the faith they've lost. Culled from his new Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes paper, he offers useful insights about denials, excuses, and apologies, and the complicated mechanics of forgiveness.

Rebuilding trust is not about the price the guilty party pays. It can involve anything from a simple apology to a grand gesture because our assessments of a person's trustworthiness and his or her efforts to restore trust are susceptible to a host of social and cognitive factors. When figuring out how to apologize, therefore, consider the ability of the gesture to show that the kind of transgression at issue will not occur again, not the cost of those flowers or jewelry.

Weigh the dark side of your response. Trust-repair responses can be complicated, with each having more than one possible interpretation. Apologies, for example, can be beneficial because they convey regret and an intention to avoid similar violations in the future, but they are also harmful in the sense that they confirm guilt. In contrast, excuses and justifications have the potential to mitigate blame, but by doing so, also weaken signals of regret and repentance relative to efforts to accept full responsibility for the violation.

Think about how the violation has been framed. People are often willing to forgive an indiscretion if it's due to a lack of competence because they believe its causes can be corrected. But if it's thought to be intentional and a matter of integrity, people tend to have less faith that the problem will be addressed. Thus, apologies and other efforts to assume full blame tend to be less effective with incidents that involve infidelity, while denials or efforts to mitigate blame are less suited for problems where ineptitude is at issue. To be clear, though, one should not lie about one's culpability since that harms trust as well.

Consider your position in the relationship. People with relatively less power are more likely to perceive offenses by the powerful as more volitional and a matter of integrity because the powerful are thought to have greater control over their environments. Thus, apologies and efforts to assume full blame are less likely to be effective when more powerful violators offer them.

Do something. Due to the complexities described above, it might be tempting to offer no response at all as a safe middle ground, to neither confirm nor deny the veracity of an allegation. But avoid the silent treatment. The evidence we've obtained to date suggests that offering no response tends to be the least effective way of repairing trust regardless of the nature of the violation.

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