Have you ever felt trapped in a conversation? Feeling like your are talking in circles to try to get the other person to simply UNDERSTAND what you are saying? If so, you are not alone. As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I spend many sessions with couples working to develop healthy communication skills. Frequently, one partner feels as though their feelings are rarely (if ever) understood by their significant other. This lack of emotional validation leaves both people frustrated and at a loss of how to “fix” the problem.
Luckily, communication and conflict resolution skills are something that can be learned with time and practice. Let’s dive in by watching the satirical example of a couple struggling to communicate below.
Chances are your spouse does not have a literal nail in their forehead (if they do, I might recommend a trip to the ER). In this video it is easy to visually see why the wife was frustrated. She did not want her husband to FIX the problem, she wanted him to VALIDATE how she was feeling.
Validate Your Partner’s Feelings.
One of the more important factors in resolving conflict in a healthy way is through 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” exercise. All too often one partner will express their feelings of hurt and we respond to them with what we perceive as facts. 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.
Don’t Try to Fix It.
Now, let’s look at another example. Imagine a wife expressing to her husband that she was upset about an exchange with her boss
Wife: “I can’t believe that he told me I need to re-do my report, that really upsets me!”
Husband: (attempting to solve the problem, offers facts) “I am sure he wasn’t trying to upset you.”
Wife: “He is just so unfair!”
Husband: “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 sends the message that if she is upset, it is her fault for not doing something about it.
Nowhere is the wife allowed to feel that it is ok for her to be upset and hurt. I frequently encourage couples to reflect feeling with feeling and hold off on the facts and problem solving until later. Instead of offering solutions, the husband could have instead responded with, “I am sorry you had to deal with that today, I would probably be upset too.” This communicates that he understands her pain and she is allowed to have these feelings without judgement.
Respond to Feelings with Feelings.
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. When our own defenses have been triggered it is especially difficult. 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.
You and your partner can overcome communication struggles if you can commit to working together. At times it can be helpful to have a neutral party, like a therapist, to help you on your path to strengthening your relationship. If you feel like you and your partner would benefit from assistance as you work to improve communication, please reach out to us today.