If Only You Could See the Real Me: Validation in Couple Relationships

Without validation, communication breaks down and leads to power struggles about whose version of reality will win out.

Marie sat with her arms folded and jaw clenched on the couch. A steely look in her eyes told me she no longer felt like John was even trying to understand her.

She blurted out, “See, he doesn’t even hear me when I talk.” “All he wants to do is defend himself.” John looked frustrated, “She never even wants to hear my side of things, she’s only interested in attacking me.”

This brief dialogue explains the importance of validation in couple relationships. Without it, communication breaks down and leads to power struggles about whose version of reality will win out. Absent of the give and take of mutual perspectives and the resultant affirmation by their partners, couples end up locked in an attack/defend pattern of relating.

Our partners are indispensable in maintaining our sense of identity and self-esteem. From the time we are born, the close relationship between a mother and her infant creates an empathically attuned experience that allows the child to grow up into adulthood with a strong sense of cohesion, where we feel ourselves to be whole and complete.

This is maintained throughout adulthood in part because we seek out other relationships, first with friends, then intimate partners, that support and maintain this sense of wholeness. To put it simply, we want to be around other people who make us feel good about ourselves. Without it we begin to feel fragmented, like we’re coming apart.

According to emotion researcher Leslie Greenberg, validation consists in three parts: First, the listener must be able to use empathy to step into the shoes of the speaker – to listen from within the experience of the other.

What is my partner trying to communicate to me right now? How is my partner viewing this issue? What is my partner feeling that might help me understand him/her better?

Empathy is information gathering and it’s hard work. Being able to suspend our own perspective and ‘take on’ the perspective of our partner demands a level of development can be difficult for some.

Second, being able to communicate that you now understand your partner’s experience better is a key determinant in the de-escalation of arguments. “Oh, I see, even though you appear angry you are actually hurt. And when I only respond to the anger, you feel like I don’t understand and miss seeing the real you.”

Third, taking action on the new understanding creates an attuned response for the partner and can often fulfill an unmet need. “I’m sorry Marie, I didn’t realize you were hurt, all I saw was the anger. I can see how awful it would make you feel when I don’t respond to what you’re really feeling, which is hurt and sad.”

Part of what makes validation so difficult for some is suspending their own perspective long enough to ‘step into the shoes of the other.’ This often brings up feelings from the past when they were ignored, neglected, or invalidated themselves.

When this happens some partners will step into a defensive posture and end up treating their partner as they were treated through means of ignoring, criticizing, or twisting the topic to focus on their needs instead of their partners.

At this point there are a couple myths to clear up about empathy and validation. First, seeking to understand your partners perspective does not invalidate yours. More often than not, both views are correct.

Second, validating your partner only means you are willing to listen and seek to understand the issue from within their experience and perspective. It does not mean you will always agree with them or that you can’t express your views at a point and time as well.

A healthy relationship is one in which both partners feel they are a reliable source of comfort, soothing, and validation for each other when needed.

Finally, validation is the psychological glue that holds us together. From cradle to grave we seek out people that are attuned to our feelings and understand us, and through that experience we feel more whole, complete, and vitalized.

Depending on others for this deep psychological need is not weakness but a sign of strength. We need a sense of empathic attunement most from our partners, and when this is met it fulfills an emotional sustenance that creates a lasting bond.

Empathy and validation have the power to heal old wounds, integrate lost parts of our identity, and connect us to others like no other force on earth.

- Tom Philp, LPC, NCC

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