3 Ways You Can Validate Your Partner’s Feelings

Wednesday, December 10, 2014 @ 3:18 PM

Validating one’s partner is an artful skill that is essential to creating and maintaining intimacy in committed relationships. When I discuss how partners can validate one another in my office, however, I have found that much of the time couples aren’t sure what it is or how to do it. Today, I’d like to take a break from exploring protective patterns in couple relationships and consider how couples can validate each other’s feelings.

So what is validation, anyway? When you validate your partner, you are essentially saying, “I see how you are feeling. Your feelings are important to me, and it’s okay that you feel that way.” Everyone has a different subjective experience, and partners in distress experience painful emotions for all sorts of reasons. What’s hurtful to one partner may not be to another. Although you may not feel hurt, your partner’s pain is very real to him. Validation is all about recognizing your partner’s feelings and valuing them as a part of his subjective experience.

“But I don’t agree with her. How can I validate her feelings?” Validating your partner is not the same as agreeing with her. Your partner’s perspective and emotions regarding the issue at hand will differ from yours, and that’s a good thing. If you can listen to each other with curiosity and openness, you may learn something new about each other and come closer to resolving your concern.

Couples (and families, for that matter) get into trouble when they invalidate each other’s feelings. Often, partners don’t mean to do it, but when arguments turn into conflicts, it’s common to hear statements like these:

  • “We haven’t spent much time together? How can you say that? We had date night last week and we went out for lunch over the weekend.”
  • “Come on, don’t cry. You’re always crying.”
  • “You’re overreacting. Why are you getting so angry about something so small?”
  • “How can you be angry that I’m late? I’ve been home on time every other night this week.”
  • “Why can’t you let this go?”

As you can see, there are many ways to invalidate your partner’s feelings. So what steps can you take toward validating your partner?

1) Recognize your partner’s feelings. When your partner says, for instance, “I wish we spent more time together,” or, “I’m concerned about our finances,” he’s really saying, “I feel alone in this relationship,” and, “I’m scared.” Look behind the complaint for the feelings. Your partner needs to know that you see his pain and that it matters to you. Instead of reacting defensively, which will probably invalidate your partner, try acknowledging his emotions. “I can see you miss me. It’s hard when we’re apart, isn’t it?”

2) Be empathically curious about your partner’s feelings. Put yourself in your partner’s shoes and ask questions. The goal here is to try to understand your partner’s emotional experience and why she is feeling that way. When you show genuine interest in your partner’s feelings, you show her that you truly value her and are present with her, which will go miles toward defusing conflict.

3) Normalize your partner’s feelings based on his history. Knowing that someone else would probably feel similarly in the same situation will likely ease your partner’s painful feelings. “I know you’re anxious that I was late and didn’t call. I think I would be anxious too.”

Don’t stop there, though. Find out why it makes sense that your partner feels the way he does based on his life experience, especially his relationships with his parents as a child. “Oh, I think I understand now. When I didn’t call, you felt alone and abandoned, just like you did when your Mom used to work such long hours when you were young? Is that it?”

Sound far-fetched? Trust me, it’s not. Couples are drawn to one another because they unconsciously want to resolve important emotional issues from childhood, and couple relationships have a way of evoking very familiar and very painful feelings.

Jeremy Mast