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The Power of Validation in Marriage

If I could get one message across to every couple I come in contact with, it would be “validation always wins“.

Get good at saying “you’re right”, or “you have a point”, and avoiding the tendency to simply debate, and your life at home will get radically better.

Validation, as a communication tool, refers to acknowledging the validity of what another person is saying. This does not mean admitting that you are wrong, “rolling over”, or giving up…..but seeing their point, and verbally saying so. I believe that no matter how at odds you are with someone, there is ALWAYS some part of what you hear that you can validate. You may disagree with the logic, or even the content of what your spouse is saying, but you can always validate how they feel.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean (hypothetically). If my wife is trying to get a hold of me when I am in a meeting, and I don’t respond to any of her calls or texts, she may become really frustrated, not realizing that I am unavailable. If I call later, and she is upset at me for ignoring her, then FACTUALLY, she’s wrong. EMOTIONALLY, however, she’s upset based on what she thinks, and therefore her anger is valid…..feelings always are.

A validating statement would sound like “honey, if I thought you were ignoring me, I would be angry too.” I disagree with her assumption (I wasn’t ignoring her), but I can acknowledge the validity of why she is upset. If I can just say that, and keep my mouth shut regarding how wrong she was, she’ll become less angry. That’s tough to do when it’s me that she’s upset with.”Looking for a Marriage Counselor?”

Here’s the great part….. Validation = Reduced Anger

 

This is true nearly all of the time, as long as nothing is added (more on that shortly). So much so, that you know who trains in the art of validation on a regular basis? Cops…..and more specifically, hostage negotiators. Law Enforcement routinely trains officers in the art of validation, because it is the most effective way to calm someone down.

Now, they don’t call it that…..there are far more masculine terms used for this concept (my favorite is “verbal Judo”). The principle is the same…..if you can find some aspect of someone’s anger / frustration / rage that you can verbally identify with, the other person tends to calm down, become less defensive, and trust that you are trying to help.

I find something slightly amusing about hostage negotiators and couples in marital therapy being trained in the same techniques, but it works. The Pothole…..”But”.

It’s easy to validate someone that is not angry with you…..but is angry with something or someone else. There is a reason for that. When someone is critical of us, we naturally and reflexively defend ourselves, as a means to maintain our own validity. Most couples do this by taking turns arguing their point of view during a disagreement. If they  can learn to listen, and validate, this changes arguments in a dramatic way.

What we all tend to compulsively do is follow a validating statement with the word “But”, then explain why our spouse shouldn’t feel they way they do. Everything after the word “But” tends to be invalidating.

When you are both calmly discussing something, the word “but” is fine…..simply the word that marks the shift between validation and your own 2 cents. If you are in a fight…..drop the word “but”, and everything after it. You can pick that back up when your partner is calmer, and listening. Mark my words….it’s not easy. The word “but” will pry itself out of your mouth and onto the kitchen table during an argument. If you can avoid it, the argument will turn back into a discussion.

Improving Communication at Home

If you want to work on this, give each other permission to gently point out when you are saying a lot of invalidating things. We tend to be invalidating whenever we do things in a discussion like “playing devil’s advocate”, or debating everything our partner says. Even sometimes when we are trying to offer suggestions or solutions, our spouse can feel invalidated.

In my house, saying the phrase “I just need you to tell me I am right” is a perfectly ok thing to ask for. We’ll also ask things like “do you need ideas, or do you just need me to listen?” I have to fess up here…..my wife is a Psychologist too, so we’re cheating a little…..but these same things will work in your living room too, if you both work at it.

I get told in couples therapy all the time, “if he/she has to be told that, it doesn’t count”. My usual response is to very gently ask if they’s like to feel supported, or feel like they are married to a psychic, because you only get one. Most of us are terrible at knowing exactly what our spouse needs. I have about a 52% accuracy rating with knowing if my wife needs empathy or ideas….and I do this for a living. (She’s probably pulling about an 83% average, but she’s a she).

Is This Really Something You Can Improve?

Oh, goodness yes. It won’t solve everything, but it’s one thing that you can get in the habit of doing that helps in a lot of ways. If you haven’t had a tremendous amount of conflict in recent months, it’s fairly easy to work on. If you have been fighting a lot lately, it can be tougher to gain some traction with. If that’s the case, seeing a marriage counselor can help. We’re able to referee a bit, and help you implement this, and other tools to teach you to fight well, and support each other more effectively.

If you are from our area, give us a call….. if not, finding a good marital therapist in your area can really make life at home a lot better!

 

Jeremy Bidwell, Ph.D.

We offer marriage counseling services at the following locations:

Woodstock
McHenry
Hinsdale
Oak Park
Chicago

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