July 13, 2024

Wwhen we experience distress from physical pain or emotional turmoil, we often turn to our loved ones for support and understanding. However, when our partners fail to validate our emotions, we can feel isolated and resentful and may even question the strength of the relationship.

A generally mild-mannered person, Mary* sometimes shocked her partner, Susie, by yelling at other drivers. Susie thought Mary’s reactions were unnecessarily aggressive, and somewhat embarrassing when they were in the car together. However, Mary perceived Susie’s pleas to remain calm as critical and invalid.

Robert wanted his partner to comfort him when he came home from work with stories of difficult co-workers. Instead, Sally turned to problem solving: “You need to communicate more clearly, or raise it with your manager, or set some better expectations”. This left Robert feeling misunderstood and alone in his struggle.

While training for her first half marathon, Claudia contracted the flu and was bedridden for two weeks. A fiercely determined and energetic person, Claudia was upset at not being able to meet her running goals and frustrated at not being able to stay active. Instead of offering empathy and understanding, Mark dismissed her distress, saying, “It’s just the flu”. He then left on a work trip, leaving Claudia feeling alone with her illness and the emotional pain of his dismissal.

What is the common thread for these different couples? Mary, Robert and Claudia all wanted to be heard, understood and accepted by their partners rather than being judged or dismissed. Psychologists call this empathic understanding “emotional validation”.

Understand emotion validation

Emotion validation is the process of recognizing, understanding and accepting another person’s emotional experience. It involves empathizing with the other person and communicating that their emotions are valid, reasonable and understandable given the circumstances.

It is important that ratification does not necessarily mean agreeing; it’s confirmation of the emotional experience (“I totally understand why you would feel frustrated if you can’t run Claudia”), not necessarily the actions or behavior.

Done well, consistent research has found that emotion validation will defuse and reduce heightened emotional responses (like Mary’s angry outbursts while driving) and pave the way for healthy and strong relationships.

Some people are naturally good at validation, probably because they had good role models growing up. But many of us will need to learn how to validate, especially in intimate relationships. It is also a skill that takes practice; we can get rusty with it or sometimes become complacent with our loved ones.

So, for Claudia, Robert and Mary, what helped them improve this skill and engage their partners in the exercise?

Flex the emotional validation muscle

There are three main skills to strengthen emotional validation: empathy, open communication, and self-care.

To achieve the first two, we recommend these steps:

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  • Give your partner your full attention. Show you are listening through your body language, for example, lean forward, nod and maintain an open posture.

  • Maintain eye contact and use nods and verbal encouragements such as, “uh huh,” as you show your interest.

  • Acknowledge and verbalize the emotion being expressed. Name the emotion in a tentative, open-ended way. For Robert, it was listening to Sally suggest, “It sounds like you’re feeling really frustrated?” “And maybe also disappointed?”

  • Legitimize the emotion by noting why it makes sense given the circumstances. For Mary, it helped take the heat out of her anger to hear Susie admit “It’s understandable to feel annoyed at the way that person drove”.

  • Show you understand the depth of the emotion and its complexity, if appropriate. Claudia was comforted by Mark’s efforts towards this – “I can only imagine how painful and complicated it must be for you.”

  • Give the validation time to work! Reducing distress takes time; this is not a one-time exercise. Let the soothing soak in before you solve any problem or “move on”, and check in with each other – how are you feeling now? Do you feel understood? What else do you need from me?

When we’re stuck in distress, it can be hard to think of what to do to calm ourselves down. So, to facilitate the third emotion validation skill, future self-care, each person was asked to generate a list of things they find calming and comforting, some things they can do alone or some with someone else. For Mary it was pottering alone in their garden and cooking a meal together. Robert experienced a high level of self-care from his solo mountain biking and listening to classical music with Sally. For Claudia, reading on her own boosted her self-care, as did going to a yoga class with Mark.

To put it into practice

For future proof, our couples were asked to regularly practice emotional validation together, and to choose less emotionally charged experiences to test their skills and hone them before the next more challenging emotional upset!

Feeling connected to our loved ones provides us with a powerful protective buffer when we experience difficult times. These relationships, especially with our romantic partners, serve as a source of comfort, support, and emotional security. By validating each other’s feelings and experiences, we foster a deeper sense of understanding, trust and love – the very foundations upon which strong, healthy relationships are built.

*Names and details have been changed

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