Written by: Courtney Kershaw.
One of the most common things that we talk about in couples counseling is communication. What it looks like now, what the couple wants it to look like, and what good communication even means to them. And when we explore what communication means, it has a lot of components. How someone interacts physically, whether they are looking at the person and paying attention while they’re talking, if someone gets cut off…the list goes on. But something that gets brought up a lot is the feeling of being validated—most notably a partner can identify that they are feeling invalidated, and that’s a problem.
So this prompts the question: what does it mean to validate your partner, and why is it so important?
What does it mean to validate your partner?
At it’s most essential level, validating someone is a way of letting them know that you believe their experience is real for them. It communicates that you are listening and doing your best to understand both what the person is trying to say, and the experience they are having.
There’s an important clarification to make—validating your partner is not the same as agreeing with them. This can be a tricky difference to manage and it’s an easy place to get stuck.
Validating someone lets them know that, whether or not you are sharing in their experience, you see and are doing your best to understand what it might be like for them. It’s one of the many ways to show that you care.
The other important piece about being validated is that it provides an opportunity to feel less alone and more connected. If your partner shows that they can understand (to the best of their ability) what you are experiencing, then you are not as alone in that experience.
How do you validate your partner?
Now we know that the experience of being validated is important. The next step: how do we do it?
An important place to start is listening. And when I say listening, I mean actively paying attention and trying to gain understanding about what your partner is saying. This could look like making eye contact while your partner is talking, nodding along or giving some sort of physical signal that you are still engaged with what they are saying, or even asking follow-up questions to make sure you’re getting it right.
The next key piece is checking in with your partner to make sure you’ve understood. Again things like body language and tone of voice can do a lot to communicate that your intention is to really “get” them.
After you think you understand what your partner is trying to tell you, the next step is acknowledging their experience. This can look like reflecting back to them “here is what I think you are saying [tell them what you heard]” and then…. “you are right, that does sound really hard” or “I had no idea that affected you like that, thanks for letting me know what it was like for you. I understand why you feel the way you do”. If they believe you really understand what they are saying AND that you believe that what they are feeling makes sense, then they will feel validated.
If you understand your partner and still find yourself disagreeing, a useful way to still be validating is to let them know that even though you are not in the same place with your experience, understanding how they have been impacted is still important to you.
When someone feels validated, they often describe feeling “heard” or getting the sense that their partner truly understands what they are trying to say. We all know how frustrating it can be to try and explain something and the other person just doesn’t get it no matter how hard you try, so feeling understood plays an essential part in connecting. And in couples counseling, we are in the business of connecting.
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