Validation: How to Empathize with Your Spouse and Why It’s Important in a Marriage
Can you recall the last time you were working through something difficult, and all you wanted was for the person you count on the most to acknowledge your pain? When they did not, it was not only that you felt left to manage your feelings alone, but your spouse made you feel worse by attempting to minimize them. It is not that you wanted or needed them to agree with you – you only wanted to be validated.
What is validation?
Validating someone means that you recognize their opinions and feelings are worth acknowledging. So, when your spouse opens up about an experience they are having, validating them means believing that their experience is real for them.
When you validate someone, it communicates to them that you care and are doing your best to listen and understand what they are trying to say. Validation does not always mean being in agreement. You can still try to understand how a person feels even if you do not fully understand what they are going through or have the emotional capacity to share in their experience.
Situations like these are opportunities for you and your spouse to connect more deeply, not to mention a chance for them to feel less alone in their experience or feelings. But if, instead, you invalidate them, it will not be an opportunity to become closer to your spouse by attempting to understand their inner world. Often the only thing invalidation leads to is conflict, hurt, loneliness, and even divorce.
What is invalidation?
To invalidate a person is to deny, dismiss, judge, minimize or reject their feelings. When you invalidate your spouse, it conveys to them that their experience is wrong, unimportant, or unacceptable. Apart from the arguments and problems invalidation can cause in your relationship, it can be detrimental to your spouse’s psyche, contributing to psychological distress that makes them doubt themselves. Invalidation can be exceedingly hurtful to a spouse who is emotionally susceptible.
What are common ways of invalidating your spouse:
- A pattern in which one spouse either directly or indirectly puts down or questions the feelings of the other, done by:
- Ridiculing, denying, ignoring, judging, or minimizing the other’s feelings, opinions, or perceptions.
- Considering your spouse’s feelings as insignificant or wrong.
- Invalidating through a response:
- “I’m upset that you were late for our family dinner plans.” Invalidating response: “It didn’t bother anyone else. Why are you upset?”
- “I don’t like it when you pick on me like that.” Response: “Oh, chill out; I’m only joking. You need thicker skin.”
- Invaliding through a remark:
- “You’re overreacting.”
- “There’s nothing to cry about.”
- “You need to stop being a drama queen.”
- “Don’t worry.”
- “Don’t be so sensitive.”
- “It’s really not that bad.”
- “There’s nothing to be upset about.”
- Sarcastic: “Well, I’m sorry I’m not perfect like you.”
- Subtle: Ignoring your spouse’s feelings
- Invalidation with a cliché:
- “It’s not so bad. Just trust in the Lord.”
- Trusting in the Lord is great, but it can invalidate your spouse’s PAIN.
- “It’s not so bad. Just trust in the Lord.”
Why is validation so important?
Validation is the foundation for a healthy relationship. It is a vital tool for emotional intimacy and communication, which has many components. Communication can be complex, and in a marriage, each spouse might have a different idea of what they want it to look like or what good communication means to them. Communication can refer to both verbal and non-verbal and active listening, and poor communication in a marriage can contribute to lasting problems. When validation becomes part of the conversation, the impact it has is apparent and hurtful.
Even if the way you invalidate your spouse is subtle, once they realize that they are being invalidated or that you are trying to “fix” their feelings with your invalidating remarks, they may end up resenting you for making them feel unreasonable or foolish for feeling what they feel or thinking what they think. They may resent you for not putting forth any effort to empathize when all they wanted was for you to really listen to them and see and accept them for who they are.
When you invalidate your spouse, some other common emotions they may experience include feeling frustrated, angry, or hopeless. When your spouse feels unheard, they might begin to share less and less with you, causing the level of intimacy and closeness you share to diminish.
What makes it challenging to validate and empathize with your spouse?
Times of conflict is when empathy is the most difficult. For instance, if your spouse is expressing hurt feelings over something you said or did, it requires making the conscious choice to listen to your spouse and empathize with them even when there is the tendency and temptation to defend yourself. This is a communication skill that takes time to cultivate, but a little more empathy and validation can go a long way in resolving any conflict.
There is also the matter of it being more difficult to empathize with the people who are closest to us. You might know that the feelings your spouse is experiencing are challenging, but because you care about them, you choose sympathy over empathy. This is to say that even when your intentions are pure, your spouse will not always receive it that way.
Validation is an act of care that communicates respect to your spouse and fosters love and intimacy. Just as there are many ways to invalidate them, there are several ways you can validate them, too.
How to validate your spouse:
- Practice reflective listening:
- Reflective listening is like being a mirror to your spouse’s mind to help them sort through their emotions and thoughts. It is called reflective listening because it helps reflect your spouse’s thoughts onto them, giving them the opportunity and safe space for them to say what’s really on their mind.
- “It makes sense that you feel this way because….”
- The goal of reflective listening: seeking to enter your spouse’s experience. True empathy.
- Acknowledge and summarize their experience.
- Reflect back to them: “Here’s what I think you are saying,” “You’re right, that does sound difficult,” “Thanks for letting me know how you feel, I had no idea it was affecting you that much.”, “I can see why you feel the way you do.”, “How could you not feel that way?”
- The goal of acknowledging their experience is to ensure that they believe you really understand what they feel and that is makes sense.
- Look for emotions over rationality:
- When you are working through conflict with your spouse, more often than not, the conversation steers toward addressing the facts, arguing over who is right. What is important (and worth validating) is that each of your opinions, views, and emotions is valid. Listen to what your spouse needs by concentrating on what they feel.
- The goal of looking for emotions: to validate your spouse because choosing rationality and facts invalidates their feelings and inhibits empathy.
- Listen to them without judgment:
- If you want to be empathetic toward your spouse, you must try to remove all judgments about their feelings as well as preconceived ideas about why they might feel the way they do. Listening to your spouse without judgment does not just mean avoiding critical commentary; it also means not taking what they say personally or assuming responsibility for it.
- The goal of listening to them without judgment: genuinely listening to them speak rather than speaking with the intention of protecting yourself.
Romans 12:15 – Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.
In the matter of validation in marriage, a good rule of thumb is to put yourself in their shoes. Be the person you would want them to be for you if you were feeling the same way or going through a similar challenge. Validation in your marriage can be as simple as affirming to your spouse that you understand how they have been impacted and that it is important to you, even if you do not see eye-to-eye. Fostering a healthy and loving relationship based on more validation does not mean you must force yourself to feel things when you don’t – it just means that you care enough to try to understand.
Each spouse feeling understood in a marriage is essential to forging and maintaining a connection. The next time your spouse tries to express something to you, don’t respond by attempting to cover up their feelings by taking responsibility for them. It feels good for them to be seen and heard as they are. It feels good for them to be validated.
If you would like to work with a trained marriage counselor in Louisville, KY, I am available to help. Please contact me to schedule an appointment, and if you would like to learn more about my approach to marriage counseling, then check out my marriage counseling page.