I once had a client who painfully resisted acknowledging his partner’s feelings. I finally asked him directly what the resistance was about. He said, “Well I don’t agree with what she is saying so I don’t know what else to say!” I responded, “You don’t have to agree to anything she says to validate her feelings. They are her feelings, and they are real to her, even if you see things differently.” To this, he said, “How can I validate without agreeing – that is what validation is, isn’t it?”
This client is among many people I work with who have misinformed notions about what validation is. I especially notice a strong resistance among couples to simply sit with and acknowledge their partner’s feelings. There is this mistaken belief that to validate means to agree. So instead of acknowledging how the other feels, I see couples become defensive, dismissive, or begin to offer solutions right out of the gate without understanding what is causing the feeling.
My theory is the defensive, dismissive, and pragmatic responses are due to an inherent misunderstanding that validation is agreement, and to agree would mean one partner has to assume blame for the way the other partner is feeling. Therefore, the best way to avoid blame is to defend yourself, minimize the other’s feelings as unsubstantiated or unimportant, or distract from the issue by suggesting a quick fix.
Unfortunately, without validation, the partner who is expressing vulnerably feels unseen, unheard, misunderstood, or not cared about. This can result in the vulnerable partner closing off and putting a wall around to protect them from being hurt again. Or, they can hold on to their vulnerable feelings more strongly and express them more loudly, resulting in angry, critical, or contemptuous behaviors. After enough failed attempts hoping to receive their partner’s validation, they begin to give up and stop expressing themselves. The negative feelings that develop as a result of this grow silently and deepen over time, eventually leading to a more withdrawn, stonewalling partner.
Some of you might be wondering, “If it isn’t agreement, then what is validation?”
Validation is acknowledging your partner’s experiences by responding in ways which make them feel seen, heard, understood, and/or cared about. When your partner shares how they feel about something, their feeling is their reality. And a person’s reality is often subjective, meaning, it’s different than yours. For healthy communication to take place, it is crucial to acknowledge your partner’s reality as being true for them. And just because it is true for them does not mean it needs to be true for you. You can continue to have your own perspective while acknowledging your partner’s perspective.
If you find it difficult to validate your partner’s feelings and/or experiences, the best way you can respond is by making a sincere attempt to understand your partner better. Asking questions non defensively and non argumentatively is a way of validating because it conveys, “I hear you, and I see this is important to you. Which makes it important for me to understand and know more about.” Validation can have a powerful impact in bringing two people closer together and deepening their connection.
To help you develop a better sense of how you can validate your partner without necessarily agreeing with their point of view, here are five examples:
“Go on. This sounds important, I’m listening.“
“What can I do right now to help you feel better?”
“I feel sad hearing how you feel. I had no idea that was your experience.”
“That sounds awful, I can’t believe that was your day!”
“Can you explain what you meant by XYZ? I am having trouble understanding.”
“I’m sorry for how my words/actions made you feel. If I was in your shoes, I might have felt the same way. How can I make this better?”
In summary, validation is not about agreement nor is it about accepting blame. It is about acknowledging your partner’s reality as being true for them and important to you. It is also about sitting with your partner’s feelings without defending yourself, dismissing them, or offering solutions. Finally, it is about increasing compassion, building connection, and bringing two people closer together.