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.”
“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!”
“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.”
“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)
“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.