A Challenge to Readers: Are You Validating Your Partner?

Conversations go all wrong when we inadvertently invalidate our partners (or worse, do so on purpose!)  Lots of people are confused about what “validating” means – they think it means “agree with” or “empathize with,” neither or which is accurate.  So I want to try to clarify what validation is, and why it’s important by sharing some examples.

An easy way to think about validation is “saying something that acknowledges the right of your partner to hold their opinion.”  It doesn’t matter if you agree with it, or whether they are factually right for the purposes of validating them.  (You can move to clearing up factual issues later!)  Validating your partner is important because it shows you value them and their opinion.

We often provide an invalidating response without intending to hurt our partner.  A recent forum post is a good example.  The couple was talking about a backpack that got left by their son at the husband’s father’s house some distance away.  In bringing it to her (non-ADHD) husband’s attention to ask him to pick it up, he responded negatively towards his father.  The wife’s response was to say “you shouldn’t be mad at your father” and “it’s no big deal.”  He got angry at her for “defending” her father instead of him.

This is invalidation at work.  Whether she thinks her husband should be mad isn’t relevant.  What is relevant is that he IS angry (and has been for quite some time.)  Furthermore, to tell him that “it’s no big deal,” even if she’s just talking about the act of going to get the backpack, is to forget the basic facts – it IS a big deal to HIM if he has to face his father to do this chore.  She has said, without meaning to, “your opinions and feelings don’t matter.”  He heard this message quite clearly, which is why he got angry at her for defending his father instead of him.

Now, she may well not wish to get in the middle of this argument between father and son, but here are some responses that would have been validating:

“I’m sorry, I had forgotten that you and your Dad are not on speaking terms right now – I’ll go get the backpack next time I’m there.”

“I know you’re not interested in seeing your father right now.  Could I ask him to leave the backpack on the porch so the two of you don’t need to talk?”

“Are you sure you don’t want to talk with your father?  This might be a good way to break the ice again…”

You can probably think of others.

Here are some other statements and examples of validating and invalidating responses:

Statement:  “I really think we should stop worrying so much about how the yard looks.”

Invalidating Responses:

“Well, that’s because you don’t care what anything looks like!”

“Someone has to think about it!”

“Don’t worry about it – I’ll take care of it.”

“Now you’re telling me yet one more thing that I should just give up on!  I actually CARE about this stuff!”

Validating Responses:

“Why is that?”

“Hmm.  We disagree on this topic – it matters me to that the yard look nice.  Are you concerned about the money it takes?”

“But you like the cut flowers!”

All three acknowledge that the partner has a right to his/her opinion, and open the conversation for negotiating what to do about the fact that they disagree.

Here’s a different one:

Statement:  “I feel completely alone in this relationship.”

Invalidating Responses:

“You shouldn’t, I’m here!”

"Don't worry, you're not alone."

“You’re always complaining about stuff.  Everything is fine!”

“How can that be?” (disbelief)

Validating responses:

“I suspect what you are about to say will be painful for me to hear, so can you explain what you mean carefully so I don’t get defensive?”

“I love you and don’t want you to feel that way.”


Notice in this last example, the first two invalidating responses are likely offered to try to “reassure” the speaker.  Unfortunately, what they do is make the speaker feel “unheard” and brushed off, rather than reassured.  In just a few words the respondent has said (perhaps without knowing it) “your perceptions are wrong.  There is no reason for you to feel alone.”  While there may be, in fact, no reason for the person to feel lonely – he or she DOES feel lonely.  The perception of the loneliness is what’s being talked about here, and as such the topic is worth exploring.  The conversation may not be “fun” but it will be MUCH more fun than dealing with the topic of continued loneliness in the future (which is what will happen as the speaker feels “unheard” in this invalidating exchange – just reinforcing his or her isolation and loneliness).

So here's the challenge I throw out to you:  Track your conversations for two days to see if you are validating each other or not.  Talk about it openly, so you can both learn from the exercise.  I think you’ll be unpleasantly surprised at the (initial) results.  The GOOD (very good) news is that once you are aware of this issue, you can overtly change how you interact.  As a rule of thumb, think to yourself “my partner has a right to his/her opinion.  What can I do to learn more about it, even if I disagree?”  That will keep you in “validation” territory most of the time.

Why is this so important?  Partners validate each other.  Adversaries generally do not.  And, not unimportantly, if you actively change your habits so that you are validating your partner's ideas, you will find him or her feeling more heard and less defensive.  This is good for YOU, as well as your spouse.  Validating is a critical component of a healthy relationship.


Validating but not feeling validated

As I read this, as the spouse with the ADHD, I see both examples of when I blow it and when I nail it in the above post. (Yea! I do nail it sometimes. Inconsistency exists, but YEA!). What I don't hear from my partner is validation of my feelings. It is as if because I have a diagnosis, my feelings don't count. They are dismissed as "reaction" and "habit" and I feel as if I am never permitted to have a true emotion or express it. Our last argument resulted from a misunderstanding about a trip he is taking and the details of when he was leaving. When he said,"I am going on Friday and taking off work," I did not think that meant that he was not taking our daughter to daycare like he normally does. I did think that he would be taking her because he knows that mornings are hard and this would take me an hour out of my way possibly making me late for work (as a teacher, I cannot be late with 30 kids waiting for my presence). Therefore, when he indirectly revealed to me that this meant he was leaving Thursday night, still never directly identifying the fact that this meant the hour trip and possible lateness to work, and I finally put all of the details together, I flipped out. Okay, I overreacted. But he was not forth coming with significant information that impacted my ADHD life in a MAJOR way! I feel as if I have every right in this situation to be pissed! I always ALWAYS am up front when something I want to do or have to do will change the routine for him or requires extra steps in his day. I never assume he will just "know it" and figure it out. I do this for him because I need it done for me. I see it as a matter of respect. I feel disrespected. But, because I have ADHD, my feelings don't matter in this situation. Only his. 

He has now decided that our marriage is one foot in the grave. The other foot is only out because we bought a house two years ago and would lose money by selling it in a divorce (again, not directly stated, but overtly implied, I was sure to validate it by saying, "It breaks my heart that the only thing keeping you from getting a divorce is the house.") He doesn't see why he has to be forthcoming with details like this and only sees that I am overreacting in order to make him feel guilty for leaving. I got yelled at, made to feel as if this poor communication is my fault, and because of my ADHD, his life is miserable. As I was blamed for his unhappiness, which I am sure is true for him, I made sure that I validated his feelings, remained open to listening, and did not deflect or defend. At what point does the non-add spouse get held accountable for their manipulation and misplaced blame? I feel that we are blamed more often than we deserve. I know I am. I accept the blame for every fight we get in. I just love him and want it to all get better. Being the peacemaker is and always has been my role in life. Now, I am a doormat with ADHD and no valid emotions.

Simply put, you didn't get

Simply put, you didn't get validation because you flipped out. You put him on the defensive. Once you put someone on the defensive, the only thing they can focus on is self-preservation. There was no way he was going to listen to you. This was definitely a case of poor communication, but why did you react so strongly? I think the answer lies in your post. You feel disrespected. That is really what you are pissed about. If you generally felt respected by your husband, your reaction would not have been as strong.

As for your assertion that you validated his feelings by saying "it breaks my heart that the only thing keeping you from getting a divorce is the house" , I'm sorry, but that is not validation. You were talking about your feelings, not his.

communication is a two way street. You assumed Friday morning would be business as usual. He assumed you understood that a trip meant he wouldn't be around. 

I hope this helps!

Thanks for showing my the

Thanks for showing my the error of my ways re the divorce thing. Perhaps it is better described as "I heard you loud and clear despite your avoidance of direct communication."  

Legit question (remember, I wouldn't intuitively know this answer), even 24 to 48 hours after the flip out, when all is calm and I apologize, I still cannot expect a conversation and expect to be heard w/o being dismissed for the reaction? Do I lose all rights to respect (that wasn't given to me prior to that moment) after I flip out? (Honestly, if this is true, it hardly seems fair.) 

After more reflection, I notice a pattern to his behavior around such trips. This is a common occurrence. I am beginning to expect his guilt for leaving me with the kids in a position like this is better handled by him if he can blow up at me for something first and make me the "bad guy"- deserving to be left alone. I mean he blew off Valentine's Day in order to get ready for the trip, he missed his daughter's dance performance at school in order to go on Thursday night, then there is the 4 hours of driving I get to do tomorrow to get kids to daycare and school and me to work. It is a lot he would have had to "own up" to and "justify" (in his mind, not a reality, I would have been okay with it all, I love him for goodness sake!). To me, just "prepare me" with the details so that I can plan for the change in the routine. Such routines are CRITICAL to my/our sanity and success. I can handle change if I am prepared for it (full disclosure). 

Again, I am pathologized. It is my fault because I have a diagnosis. (He's just like my dad who cannot handle his emotions and therefore blows up about innocuous things instead of express himself in a healthy way.) 

I would flip out in the

I would flip out in the situation you described (and I am the nonADHD spouse).  I agree that your husband wanted to do what he wanted to do and he set up the situation so that he could blame you by having it seem that the fault in the situation lay in your response, not in his hiding of information and miscommunication.  Everyone has the right to their feelings, EVEN IF THEY'RE NOT WHAT WE WOULD FEEL UNDER THE CIRCUMSTANCES. 

You do deserve some grace, we

You do deserve some grace, we all do. Did you apologize for flipping out? Let me be clear, you have the right to be upset! You also have the right to be heard. It sounds like the two of you are stuck in a very unproductive pattern of communication. Will he consider counseling?  

You also have a right to be loved. Some couples don't give Valentine's Day a second thought, but if it is important to you, he should address your needs. 

I don't think either one of you are blowing up at innocuous things. The anger is about something much deeper. When you feel loved, appreciated, and valued in your marriage, you don't blow up over dumb things. It sounds like you both are in pain. Hope this helps!

Travel plan problems

I agree with the posters below that this isn't an issue of validation - you got angry and put him on the defensive and, from his response, sounds as if this isn't the first time this has happened.  Since this is a repeated area of conflict between the two of you, I suggest that you create a routine that you use every time the topic of a trip comes up.  Sit down and ask the following questions:

  • what time, exactly, are you leaving and returning?
  • am I involved in your trip (i.e. providing a ride to the airport)?
  • do you have commitments that you will need to miss due to this trip (and who is responsible for covering for them - it doesn't always have to be you who is left holding the bag)?

Make it clear that for coordination purposes (not control purposes) if he changes his plans he needs to let you know immediately.

If he genuinely must leave early for these trips, then your best bet is coordinating with as little conflict as possible.  If he's leaving early in order to avoid problems at home, to hang out with friends or, heaven forbid, see another woman, then whether or not he should leave then should be on the table, too.

As for your own feelings that you don't count in the relationship - this isn't a good place to be (not surprisingly!).  Take the time with him to explain what you need (as things come up) and to point out when his responses to you make you feel unwanted or small.  It's great that you are listening - you also need to express your opinions openly and constructively.

Hard for me to tell whether or not you have fully acknowledged the role that your ADHD symptoms are probably playing in his life - if you haven't had a serious conversation about this, you should.  Acknowledgement that you hear him on this topic is important - as well as an open discussion about what your specific plan is to manage your symptoms so they get out of your mutual way.  You should be setting a list of target symptoms, have a plan in place to optimize treatment across all three legs of treatment (see my book if you don't know what I'm talking about) and be able to review with him the specific changes that are being put in place.  THis, in turn, will help him realize he has work to do, too.

Hope this helps.

Oh man I feel you

I'm just going to be sexist and um profession-ist: dudes sometimes just don't get it. They think we can read their minds. I bet he just assumed you'd figure out the "daycare thing" cos dudes, I think, have some difficulties with seeing the trees through the forest, to put a spin on that phrase. And NO ONE understands the demands of being a teacher and the many facets and politics of the profession. I don't know you or your backstory, that's just my observation from having two failed marriages, finding the love of my life, and realizing (crap) he's just like the other two sometimes. Men are just different which is both awesome and incredibly frustrating. And from being a teacher. Oh and I'm the non ADD or ADHD spouse and kicking myself for not being more understanding of the many facets of ADD/ADHD when I was a teacher. Ps, when I was a teacher, I swear I sounded more intelligent! I hope things work out the way they should. Honestly, I've just learned to laugh and be like, yup, that's my guy being a guy. I don't want you to think I'm glossing over your feelings (oh my gods I would be LIVID. Being late and a teacher? Totally unacceptable you know?! F$&K!!!) I'm just saying use this as a learning curve. People with 9 to 5's just don't get teaching. I'd probably be like "hey, that sucked. Big time. Please remember that I am not allowed to be late. equate me being late to me getting fired. No it won't happen, but that's how sacred me being on time to work is and sorry, your plans need to revolve around that. Me being late is like me sending you ten strippers to your work. To your boss. And She is your mother."

Validating doesnt work for us

No matter how I approach a situation with my ADHD spouse I lose. When he is upset I make a conscious effort to let him know it would be awful to feel that way and ask what it is he needs from me to help improve whatever the situation may be, even if I completely disagree with what he's saying. He just tells me I should know or to figure it out myself. If I ask questions it makes things worse. If I tell him I will try harder next time if he could just help me understand what it was about the situation I did wrong or didn't understand, he gets angry and frustrated. I'm tired of feeling like i'm doing all the work and I know from what I've researched that he is working too but wouldn't there be some sign? He doesn't ever acknowledge that this affects me too. It's all about how he feels and what he needs and that he should be the one who is validated because he is the one suffering. How do you go anywhere from there?

Validation vs. Empathy

Don't confuse validation with empathy - they aren't the same.  The glitch in what you are describing is that you are playing peacemaker at the cost of giving up your own needs.  This isn't what I'm suggesting.  I'm suggesting that your husband has the right to his opinions - and that you have the right to YOUR opinions.  I think I would approach it quite directly next time.  Something like "I hear you saying you feel XXX.  Since I don't feel that same way, it would be helpful if you would help me better understand why you feel that way.  But even if you don't wish to help me understand it, I still have the following Y needs and somehow the two of us need to figure out a compromise.  Compromises are easier when both parties clearly understand each other.  What questions do you have for me so you can understand my position better and that will better help us creatively meet in the middle?"

Furthermore, his responses as you write about them here, suggest he is still firmly in denial.  The "figure it out yourself" thing is unreasonable (you need to know where he is coming from and don't, currently) and his lack of acknowledgement of how ADHD impacts you suggests he is in denial, too.  One issue might be that he expects a difficult response from you if he opens up (criticism, too many questions to handle, etc.)  Ask him why he won't speak more openly with you and LISTEN to his answer.  If he says you're too critical, for example, tell him that it's important to you that the two of you be able to talk more openly and so you would like to fix that.  (That's validation - showing him that you are listening to his comments and taking them seriously.)  As you improve your side of your conversations, you can also reasonably request that he be equally open (fair's fair!)

As far as a sign of doing work - start working together on figuring out WHAT exactly you are both working on and how you are going to MEASURE your mutual progress.  Perhaps weekly meetings or some such.

I am very direct with him,

I am very direct with him, but I do think it would be awful to feel how he does so I acknowledge that too. I agree everyone, including myself has the right to their own opinions and that they dont always work together and you need to find some sort of middle ground. What I was trying to say was that no matter what I do on my end there is no compromise on his. He feels that its me who needs to do all the adjusting because he has the illness and I have to work around him. We have talked about what I am doing on my end but he wont say what he is doing, he just feels it is obvious. I do validate him, I do listen to him and I do make the changes he needs me too however he will not at this point change anything on his end, so compromise on his end is the issue. I go with him to his therapist regularly unless he requests otherwise, I have even met alone with his therapist at his(my husbands) request which did go very well. I was just needing something to go on as to how to go forward from here. I am doing the things you have suggested maybe not perfectly, but in the best manner I can at this point.

My husband is in a bit of

My husband is in a bit of denial as well. He knows he has ADHD, but he doesn't want to face the truth about what ADHD has done to me, to us. He doesn't want to be responsible for anything. I tell him I don't hold him responsible in the same way I would hold someone who did the things he's done purposely. I talk about his ADHD like it is almost a separate entity we must deal with. HE is not a selfish person, ADHD makes him look like a selfish person. I think the fact that your husband refers to ADHD as an illness is telling. He sees himself as a victim. My husband can play the victim like an Oscar winner, and it isn't easy to deal with. As long as they are victims, they bear no responsibility for their actions or choices. I mean, how can you ask anything of someone who is sick? My husband is an expert at turning every situation in which he may actually have had some culpability into a state of victimhood. If he lies to me, it's because he HAD to lie to me because he KNEW I would get angry. See, he's a victim. If he doesn't do something he promised he'd do, it's because I ask too much of him and he just can't handle my demands. If he says something insensitive and I start to cry, he gets pissed about the way I act and the way I treat HIM. It's always about him.

when I try to attribute some of his behavior to ADHD, he gets defensive. There is NOTHING wrong with him, he doesn't want to be "defective" ( his word). Sometimes I think he will never let go of his victim status. He would rather be seen as a selfish jerk than a man with a problem. I have to wonder how much the male ego plays a role in delaying acceptance and treatment.

Truth is, you probably can't win when he's in denial. That's how I feel. I've tried everything. I will kiss his backside day in and day out, but if he has to deal with the slightest of confrontations, he shuts down and blames me.

I appreciate hearing some of

I appreciate hearing some of your situation, it does help in the feeling all alone aspect at times. Its hard when the word illness can mean victim so easily, I guess its all in how you choose to view it. I did mention this issue to his therapist so hopefully it will be addressed in a way that might bring some light onto the situations at hand that I am unable to do at this time. Keeping my fingers crossed and praying fro the best. This is definitely a hard hurdle and some days I dont know if its something I can keep trying to jump over alone.

MagicSandwich's picture

Selfish denial

Sometimes I ask myself – does it matter? When a person behaves selfishly for decades, does it really matter that I chose to blame the ADHD rather than the person behaving selfishly?

I think I do it to comfort myself. I don’t want to believe what I am seeing.

Totally forgot!!

I told him I'm not as smart as he is and never will be. I said "you get from A to Z when I'm only at maybe M if I'm lucky. I just don't think like you. I need more time." this was astounding to him cos he thought I was smart. And I am really intelligent actually i just sound like a doofus on paper, but the ADHD brain moves so quick we'll never ever get there at the same time!!! Or in the same way. It sounds placating, but it was a revelation for both of us. I ask him to clarify a lot now. "what? Dude clarify that. youre way ahead of me and im confused" he gets frustrated with me sometimes, and shuts down and all that, but mostly it works. i feel us non ADD/ADHD spouses DO need to do a lot of the adjusting just cos we got different brains! And our brains are better wired for facilitating discussion maybe? Like our ADD/ADHD partner's brains go so fast they leave us in the dust but we can slow them down enough to be kind and take the time to communicate? I just think in terms of easiest path. I'm better at facilitating ADD to non ADD thinking so why waste both our time training him to do it? I don't want to be taught how to vacuum like an ADD person (oh my god he is the master! He'll vacuum for hours and our place (and our clients places, we clean) look amazing!!!) strengths and weaknesses you know? And sometimes? If he won't "clarify" I'm like okay but don't get mad at me later if it don't work out and I won't say I told you so, and I mean it. And sometimes he's right and sometimes I'm right and no harm no foul? Or we totally blow something. Learning curve! And when we blow it, I emphasize WE blew it. That's helped too.

Well this worked for me...

Totally exact same situation. He even said once "well you feeling like that is stupid, and you're stupid, we don't have any problems it's all fine!" and of course you were probably like "you dirty rat bastard." I told him, "look I'm crying and upset. I am not fine. If I was fine I wouldn't be bawling and driving you nuts. I FEEL like there is a problem. I FEEL like something is wrong. Can you help me feel better? I love you, I'm not trying to be bad, but I'm lost and confused and hurt" And he was all snarky and mean so I stayed in our room and a few hours later he was like "ok I'm calmed down. So what exactly is wrong?" My point is, my ADD guy hates any kind of pressure, totally rebels, against it, and by pressure i mean he thinks you're upset with/at him but he doesnt know why and he csn probably sense the impending doom of getting yelled at or whatever. he hates any accusations; he hates being wrong; he gets really mad really fast, gets frustrated because he's mad, says stuff he regrets cos he's already "off" and his tenuous filter for saying mean things is out the window, then he regrets what he says, Embarassment, bruised ego, more mad, and removes himself to calm down. Which can take a while. Sometimes a day. This is pretty much his description of his process of processing "shit I don't want to hear" But once the initial explosion is over, he's ready to try. Cos he loves me. He can see there's something wrong, but he doesn't know why and it's frustrating. I emphasized my ignorance about ADHD and it's emotional components, how I feel damned if I do and damned if I don't when I try to be helpful, how I'm coming from love and just trying to do my best and guess what? He felt the exact same way! Also, my man grew up being told he and his opinions/decisions/way of thinking were stupid, lazy, idiotic etc. So he comes to bat during arguments with this mentality and built in defensiveness. I always tell him how intelligent and successful and kind and compassionate he is and how that old thinking doesn't apply to me and our relationship. It took a long time to sink in, but he gets it now. I don't know your exact situation, but ive learned it's up to me to "be the better man" and admit there's fault on my part (cos hey, there usually is, I don't have ADD, I don't get it all the time but man I can learn) and let him come to me and go from there. From a guy who tempertantrums like a toddler, he can be really accurate about his feelings if you give him time and space to collect himself Admitting my own ignorance of what it's like to have ADD and the emotional components of it really got me far. Also reaffirming my frustrations with my own lack of ability to be what he needs (cos man I'm trying to help and Im just failing right and left, he said he felt the EXACT same way) was a huge breakthrough for us. If he's anything like my husband, he was told he was stupid and lazy his whole life and hd confronts all confrontations with that kind of thinking. I always reassure him he is intelligent and capable and I never think if him that way, except when he leaves the toilet seat up. Humor works a lot for us.

I am still just lurking and

I am still just lurking and getting a feel for the site; I only joined yesterday.  But I wanted to thank you guys for this discussion, because it helps me realize how hard it must be on my ADHD spouse that he doesn't know what I've scheduled often until the last minute.  I am the recreation and activities director in the family, pretty much exclusively.  Planning is an area he feels very inadequate in, and I doubt I have validated those feelings at all.  I'm going to send him a message right away with the details of our plans for the next week.  Thanks again, and keep on trucking!