Connect then Direct by Sarah Diers, PhD, Licensed Psychologist

The following are a few examples of statements I commonly hear when I meet with couples who are experiencing conflict:

“I have already apologized more times than I can count.”

“I tried to explain to him that I don’t mean to be insensitive.”

“I told her how horrible I felt for doing that.”

“I keep saying I love you, but it doesn’t seem to help.”

Does this at all sound familiar? I wouldn’t be surprised if it does, as we all too often unintentionally fall into the “invalidation trap,” or find ourselves stuck in conflict without knowing what to say or do to make our partner feel better. Although your intentions may be to support your partner, these types of remarks fail to give your partner the support they are truly seeking and needing. I hope this post helps you understand ways we commonly invalidate our partner, which perpetuates and exacerbates conflict.

Couples often present to therapy defeated, exhausted, and helpless as they share the many ways they have tried to resolve conflict with little to no luck. It is common for us to apologize, express words of affection, or try to help our partner understand our perspective – all of which seem to be kind and helpful thingsto do, which then leaves us confused as to why our partner remains upset and defensive. Don’t get me wrong, these kinds of statements are VERY important to express, but there is an important step that must first be addressed to help give these statements more meaning and power. I want you to remember the phrase, first CONNECT and then DIRECT. We must first CONNECT with our partner’s feelings/pain (i.e., validating and empathizing with our partner’s subjective emotional experience) before we DIRECT towards resolve (e.g., apologize, explain our points of view, express affection, discuss what can be done differently next time, etc.). Once your partner can see that youunderstand, or can make sense of, their subjective emotional experience and how it impacts them, then two amazing things can happen: (1) they can feel safe, heard, and connected, which diffuses defensiveness and leads to a more heartfelt dialogue, and (2) it can give you the merit to then express a meaningfulapology, as you and your partner know what you are actually apologizing for. It is through validation and empathy that we defuse defensiveness, open connection and safety, and lead to positive change.

So, to help you CONNECT, there are a few important things to know. Firstly, it is important to understand what validation means, as this term is often misused and misunderstood. Secondly, you must learn the ways you commonly invalidate your partner. And thirdly, you must practice using validating and empathizing language. Refer to these concepts below.

1) Validation is simply acknowledging that your partner’s feelings (aka, their subjective emotional experience) make sense to you. You do not need to agree with or even like your partner’s emotional experience to validate them. You just need to express you can understand their experience. A helpful way I phrase this in my mind is, “it makes sense to me that a person who experienced this would feel and act this way.” Validation does not mean agreeing with or condoning your partner’s emotional experience. Again, I reiterate, it means acknowledging their experience makes sense to you.

2) Take a moment to review this article to see if you can identify with any of the five ways we often invalidate our partner:

3) To help you practice using validating and empathizing language, the following is derived from the Imago Dialogue Steps for Couples: mirroring, validation, and empathy:
Step 1: Mirroring
o Once your partner has finished expressing themselves, repeat back what you heard them say. For instance, “What I am hearing you say is…” or “If I understand correctly, you said…” Once you mirror back what you heard your partner say, always follow up with “did I get that right?”
Step 2: Validate
o Once your partner feels as if you mirrored them correctly, then attempt to validate what has been shared.For instance, “I can understand how you’d feel this way…” or “it makes sense to me how you’d feel this way…
Step 3: Empathize
o Once you validate, try to guess what your partner might be feeling. For instance, “I can imagine this makes you feel [insert a feeling word, such as hurt, lonely, disappointed, scared, etc.].”
To put it all together, an effective validating and empathizing response might look like this: “What I am hearing you say is that you are upset that I don’t greet you when I get home from work, and that it makes you feel unimportant and unloved. I can understand how and why you’d feel upset, and to be honest it would upset me too. I can imagine this makes you feel lonely and like I don’t care.”

Additional readings to understand effective ways to validate and empathize with your partner:

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