When I ask people to tell me what brings them to couples therapy the most common answer by far is “communication.” What they are usually saying is that during disagreements they end up feeling frustrated, misunderstood, angry, hurt, and overwhelmed. One of the most important tasks of therapy is to help improve couples communication, especially during conflict.
Most of my clients are smart people who communicate well with me and most everyone else they know. So how do two reasonable people end up in “Fight or Flight” when they disagree about simple issues? There are usually two major reasons:
- The presence of the Four Horsemen in their conflict conversations – Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling.
- The absence of something from their conflict that should be there – Validation.
Today I am going to focus on validation. If you learn to use validation it will be a game-changer for improving communication in your relationship.
Improve Communication In Your Relationship With Validation
Validation is conveying to your partner that something they are saying or feeling makes sense to you. You acknowledge that something, anything they are telling you is rational, true, makes sense, or is understandable.
Validation sounds like this:
- “You have a point there”
- “I can understand why you would feel that way”
- “That makes sense”
- “That part is definitely true”
- “You’re starting to convince me”
- “You’ve got me on that one.”
Why We Resist Validating in Conflict
Most of us mistakenly believe that when our spouse is upset with us we need to show them why they are wrong. We assume that once we do this our spouse will realize they don’t have a reason to be upset anymore and that should solve the problem. When they are still bothered we often conclude that they are just being unreasonable.
This approach is a form of defensiveness (one of the Four Horsemen). Defensiveness is the opposite of validation. It has never worked outside of a courtroom and yet we roll it out over and over in our couple conflict.
When To Use Validation
The most important time to validate your partner or spouse is when you are arguing. In the middle of your conflict you should be validating each other. John Gottman’s research has shown that what distinguishes the masters from the disasters of relationship is the presence of positivity in their conflict. The masters are validating each other all the time, especially when they are in a disagreement.
If you aren’t validating each other during your conflict conversations you are fighting-to-win, which means you are actually seeking to invalidate each other. Once an argument ensues couples tend to step into a virtual courtroom. Both sides present evidence and
both sides seek to discredit that evidence.
It’s unreasonable to act as if absolutely nothing your partner says to you during a conflict is true or rational or worthy of consideration or acknowledgement. If you choose the courtroom over validation you can bet that one or both of you will end up in fight or flight.
How Validation Improves Communication In Your Relationship
Validation reduces the threat-level of conflict conversations which makes it far less likely that you and your partner will experience the Fight or Flight response. When you validate your partner during conflict you are being reasonable, kind, and wise.
Validation enables your spouse to self-correct their over-the-top statements. For instance, a husband might say “You never do anything I want to do!” If his wife responds with a validation like “It’s true that you do a lot of things I want to do” instead of getting defensive, it is quite likely that the husband will eventually say something like “I guess it’s not fair to say you never do anything I want to do. You did watch the game with me last night.”
Couples who validate even find themselves genuinely laughing with each other in the midst of a real argument. That’s the gold standard.
You Can Validate Even When You Disagree
An objection that comes up often when I explain validation to a couple is “how can I validate my spouse when I think he/she is wrong?”
First, you don’t have to agree with everything your spouse says to validate something they are saying.
Second, validation is not the same thing as agreement. You can validate things you completely disagree with if you are able to try and see things from your spouse’s perspective. Ask yourself this question: “Is there any possibility I might feel the same way or have come to a similar conclusion if the shoe were on the other foot?”
An Example of Validation in Real Life
A vignette from one of my couples provides a great illustration of how to validate something when you disagree. The wife walked into the kitchen while the husband was texting their son. He put his phone face-down on the kitchen counter to show her that she had his full attention, and when he looked up his wife had a panic-stricken look on her face as if she had seen a ghost. He asked her “What’s wrong?” and she exclaimed “What are you hiding from me!?!”
The husband was about to get defensive but stopped himself. He told me “I had an attack of sanity at that moment and remembered what you taught us about validating in our counseling sessions.”
Instead of getting defensive and rolling out the evidence that he was innocent, the husband looked at his wife and said “So when I put my phone face-down on the kitchen counter, you thought I was hiding something from you?”
“Yes!” she replied.
“Well,” he said, “If I thought you were hiding something from me I’d be really upset too!”
His wife was completely disarmed by his response. She paused for a moment, then laughed and said “I can’t believe I thought you were hiding something from me.”
Here’s the thing. This husband wasn’t hiding anything from his wife. But is it unreasonable think someone may be hiding something if they put their phone face-down when you walk into a room? Not really. By validating instead of defending the husband in this example showed his wife that he cared about her. His validation reduced her sense of danger and enabled her to walk-back her harsh start-up by self-correcting (“I can’t believe I thought you were hiding something from me.”) He never had to argue his innocence at all.
Validation is a powerful way to improve communication in your relationship. When my couples do their validation homework they almost always come back and report an immediate change for the better. Try it yourself and see! If you think you may need some coaching to get started, reach out and schedule an appointment.