As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I spend many sessions working with couples on developing healthy conflict resolution skills. It seems that virtually all couples can improve in these areas. One of the more important factors in resolving conflict in a healthy manner is emotional validation. When we validate our partner’s feelings we acknowledge and accept the way that they feel without judgement or rejection. This type of response communicates a level of empathy to our partner, conveying that we are able to understand how and why they feel this way, even if we don’t totally agree with them. I often present this idea to couples in a “facts and feelings” conceptualization. All too often one partner will express their feelings of hurt and we respond to them with what we perceive as facts. I have found that these responses generally come from a good place and are intended to make the hurt partner feel better by attempting to solve the problem. However, when we respond to feelings with facts we often miss the opportunity to validate our partner’s feelings, in fact, we do just the opposite.
Imagine a wife expressing to her husband that she was upset about an exchange with her boss, “I can’t believe that he told me I need to re-do my report, that really upsets me!”
The husband, in an attempt to solve the problem, offers facts, “I am sure he wasn’t trying to upset you.”
The wife may continue, “He is just so unfair!”
The husband continues to offer solutions, “Maybe you need to talk to his boss.”
Although he is trying to help his wife feel better, the husband’s first response often unintentionally sends the message that she is wrong for being angry, since “he wasn’t trying to upset you.” The second response is then often perceived by her that if she is upset it is her fault for not doing something about it. Nowhere in this conversation is the wife allowed to feel that it is acceptable for her to be upset and hurt. I frequently encourage my clients to reflect feeling with feeling and hold off on the facts and problem solving until later. In that formula the husband may have responded with, “I am sorry you had to deal with that today, I would probably be upset too.” This type of response communicates that we understand her pain, she is allowed to have these feelings without judgement. When we respond to feelings with feelings we do several important things:
We deactivate our partner’s defenses: by allowing our partner to be hurt we do not put them in a position to have to justify their feelings.
We open up communication: when our defenses are down we are able to communicate in a more rational and healthy way.
We build safety in the relationship: emotional validation encourages honesty and fosters trust, helping us to feel safe and secure in our relationship.
We help them feel heard: validating our partner’s feelings helps them to feel that we are listening and care about them, everybody needs to feel like they have a voice.
Although the idea of validating the feelings of another may sound simple, it can be rather tricky at times, especially when our own defenses have been triggered. Dr. Marsha Linehan offers 6 levels of validation, understanding these is a good way to increase your ability to validate the feelings of your partner https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/pieces-mind/201204/understanding-validation-way-communicate-acceptance.
For a more comical portrayal of this skill, check out the brief video, “It’s not about the Nail” on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4EDhdAHrOg
About the Writer - Nicholas D'Amico, TLMFT
Nicholas is a Marriage and Family Therapist at Covenant Family Solutions. He has worked with families and youth for several years in a variety of settings. He has extensive experience supporting struggling families and individuals in crisis involving issues such as; abuse, anger, delinquency, trauma, depression, and relationship distress. Nicholas employs a strength-based, family systems approach that fosters hope and happiness by empowering clients. He is passionate about helping couples enrich and strengthen their attachments, guiding families towards harmony, and supporting youth as they overcome the impacts of trauma and dysfunction.