Relational Trust: A Survivor’s Guide

Here, I am going to provide you real-world, real-time guidance on how to navigate trust in your adult relationships after experiencing childhood betrayal trauma. 

Straight talk: As adult survivors of childhood trauma, mainstream advice can really lead us down a dark, dead end street. So, if you’re nearing desperation for your trust issues to be solved, take a deep breath my friend. 

This is a“Trust Tutorial” Survivors’ Edition. We are going to put mainstream relationship advice aside, and dive deep into trauma-aware guidance. I am going to show you five ways to know whether trust issues really are real or they are guideposts for your healing.  

What is trust? 

Such a basic question, but the truth is many adult survivors haven’t ever really relaxed into the security of fully letting down our guard with another human. 

For example, so many thoughts race through our brain each and every moment and most of them I bet you don’t share with anyone else. You may even not really know your own thoughts early on in recovery. 

Trust can be defined many, many ways, but here’s the most meaningful definitions for survivors:

The unwavering faith in another human being in two things. First, if I am vulnerable and share my truth with you, you’ll hold it with profound compassion and keep it in confidence. Second, your words and actions will align. You do what you say and say what you’ll do. 

But many survivors want to twist that last part around a bit. Into something like “You’ll do what I say.” 

That’s where your trauma starts to define trust. And that’s where things can get off-track in relationships. 

Let me give you five ways you can be on solid ground with how you think about trust in your relationships. 

Way 01 – Connect-The-Dots Between Past and Present

Understand the ways your trust was violated as a child. 

Children are incredibly vulnerable and rely on parents for critical experiences of safety. 

Important demonstrations of trust include

  • doing what you say you’ll do, 
  • allowing my experience of something to influence your future actions,
  • respecting my right to change my mind, 
  • giving second chances to repair relationship ruptures, 
  • not talking about me behind my back. 

Assess if your partner does these things. 

It might be the way you were treated as a child has distorted what you expect in your relationships. It might be that you expect too little or expect too much, or ping-pong between extremes depending on the situation. 

This takes some work, but through recovery from childhood trauma, you restore a connection to your wise, adult True Self. In the meantime, use the list above as a reference point. 

Way 02 – Mindfully Separate From Trauma Distortions

One of the most painful experiences as a survivor 

is to know that we are looping back through “old information” to interpret present-day interactions. 

This “looping back through old information” leads to what I call the “fun house” of complex trauma. When you’re in the fun house of complex trauma you don’t even trust yourself to make an interpretation of what is really going on. 

Next time, you sense a threat and fear flooding your body, do this quick check-in: 

“Is what my partner is doing a threat to my life, my health, or my wellbeing?” 

If yes, to what degree? 

Can ground you a bit more present-day reality and help you match your response to the severity and reality of the threat?

This lightning quick check-in isn’t complicated, but can be hard to remember when your trauma is triggered. 

Write it on a post it note, put it in your notes on your phone, frame it on your desk…until this becomes a second-nature check-in question, you’ll need some help remembering it.

Way 03 – Recognize Unresolved Pain From Childhood Compounds

When your partner’s trustworthiness is suddenly in question, it isn’t just about them, it is about your profound experiences of betrayal as a child. 

You likely have many wounded younger parts of you carrying around significant unresolved pain that is just below the surface…ready to burst through at any moment. 

When this hurt and pain accumulates over decades it can really flood your system and confuse you. 

Can you do some internal work to reparent these wounded younger parts of you and offer them some compassion and care? 

This is best done by recognizing you’ve been flooded by compounded pain and stepping away from any triggering situation to do some inner child healing work.

Way 04 – Show Up In Vulnerability With Your Partner

When wounded-younger-part energy shows up 

in our interactions – it is big, accusatory, angry, and demanding. 

Your partner may get immediately defensive because of this triggering wounded-younger-part energy and not because of any wrong-doing. 

Before launching into a tirade of grievances, take a few moments to gather your thoughts. Then, communicate with them as calmly as you can. 

I love the “non-violent communication” model developed by Marshall Rosenberg. 

The model has four steps:

  1. Observe without judging
  1. Express feelings
  1. Express and clarify your needs
  1. Express specific requests

The energetic signature of your communication really matters. Sadly, sometimes survivors have such desperate, demanding energy behind their requests and expressions of needs that our partners fail to hear the really important content of what we are saying. 

Then, we are stuck retreating to separate corners after  a fight instead of productive problem-solving in close connection with each other. 

I would encourage you to also share connections to your childhood experiences with your partner, so they have important context for your experiences.

Way 05 – Notice Your Partner’s Response and Your Experience

We can miss key clues about trustworthiness when we are “up in our own heads.” It is important to notice what your partner is doing and saying to contribute to your sense of safety. Here are some open-ended reflection prompts to fuel your noticing:

Do they pull you closer or do they push you away when trust issues are being discussed? 

Do you feel safer or more afraid? 

Are your experiences taken seriously? 

Do you come up with a shared understanding of what is going on? 

Are you able to agree on a plan going forward that builds or restores trust? 

Are they able to scaffold your relational healing?

Use these prompts to collect some observational data over several interactions. Having some external information about what is really going on, can provide you some concrete things to talk to your partner about. These conversations can happen outside of challenging, triggering situations. 

Trust issues destroy relationships. 

But they don’t have to when two adults are each doing their own healing work to tap into their wisest, adult. With this “Relational Trust: A Survivor’s Guide,” you don’t need to spend hours searching through mainstream relationship advice only to realize that you are on a dead end path. These five ways iluminate new territory to explore. 

As you saw in the guide, Relational Healing in real-time in the real-world offers an opportunity to recover from complex trauma while creating a life centered in health and wellbeing.

Now you have a solid resource to begin exploring trust in your relationships.

Before you start trying these things out in your relationships, leave me a quick comment and let me know what you think about “Relational Trust: A Survivor’s Guide.” 

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