PART II: The Ingredients of VALIDATION
As I have continued to work with human relationships—both as a couples therapist and in my personal life—the importance of our differences, all the rich, unique attributes and aspects that make us who we are, has become fundamental to my approach to connecting with others.
In part 1 of this series, I wrote about the importance of accepting differences and expressing disagreements when cultivating mature relationships. However, moving from rupture to repair, from repair to communion, requires meaningful engagement and communication. These steps cannot just remain ideas in our heads; we have to take action—even when that action is simply choosing to be quiet and really listen to our partner.
Here, I am going to add a new ingredient to our recipe for sustainable relationships. While Part One’s introduction to rupture and repair did not require much more than understanding the origin of our ingredients and the benefits of using them, this post will have step-by-step guidance to implementing validation in healthy relationships.
VALIDATION IS ABOUT THE ONE INJURED, NOT ABOUT YOU
This sounds simple, I know. However, it can be extremely challenging to set aside our own feelings to recognize another’s complaints and difficulties, especially when we have helped cause that pain or injury.
Egos are innately defensive and protective; they protect our self-image and sense of belonging. It makes sense that our egos try to help us feel safe, but they are me-centric and can be selfish and prevent us from validating others when they are hurt. It is ironically counterproductive! When I choose to protect my sense of right because I do not want to be considered “bad” or wrong it can impede the harmony between myself and others that I care about. My defensiveness can be experienced as a lack of care for my partner’s experience.
When we validate and apologize well, there is little that stands in the way of harmonious relating. Validation is formulaic, but that does not mean it is easy—at least not when you are first getting used to it. The more that we can incorporate validation into our relating with one another, the easier it becomes. We can learn to instinctively respond with validation rather than defensiveness when we see it improve our relationship with others.
VALIDATION RESTS ON APPRECIATING EACH OTHER’S SUBJECTIVITY
As I mentioned in Part One of this series, it is important to recognize that we are all unique people with different bodies, experiences, positions, and perspectives. No one person, nor any group of people, has special insight into the “objective truth.” We only have our own subjective experiences to learn from, even as we also find ways to share our experiences with others.
When our partners say we have hurt them, our job is not to determine the objective “truth” of that statement—to prove it “right” or “wrong.” We have to meet them at that place and validate those feelings of pain and hurt. Validation does not mean accepting everything into your perspective as the truth; it means letting the other person experience being seen, being listened to, and being understood without questioning or denying their felt experience.
Validation is necessary, not only because it is a precursor to apology, but because it is a deep need that we experience as social beings. Sometimes it is all that is needed.
WHAT IF BOTH PARTNERS NEED VALIDATION AND APOLOGY?
It is a very generous, kind, and magnanimous gesture to validate another. It requires emotional maturity and bravery to set aside your ego and subjective experiences to listen to someone’s experiences. Painful experiences rarely go in one direction. Even learning that we have inflicted pain can itself be painful and difficult to navigate. When we are in relationships, ruptures often affect both parties.
Because both parties often require validation, apology, and repair, and because rupture makes us feel emotional and protective, both may find it hard to validate another when we feel like we need to be validated as well. That is why it is so generous to show up and validate our partners with the trust that we will be validated in return.
There is a general expectation, a golden rule for when both partners need validation: the less injured party validates first because they have a little more ground and stability while navigating relatively less pain. Then when the freshly validated party is capacious enough they hold space for the other party.
WHAT DOES A GOOD VALIDATION SOUND LIKE?
A good validation sounds like listening to the complaint(s) of your partner, repeating back what you heard, checking for accuracy, asking/inviting your partner to elaborate, or tell you more. Showing: 1) that you understand, and 2) that it makes sense to you.
Clear, meaningful validation is as straightforward as this sentence:
“I hear that I hurt your feelings when I ____, I hear that it made you feel ____, and ____, is that right?… Is there more?… I hear you; it makes sense to me that when I ____, you felt ____. I understand that.”
Nowhere in this statement is there a judgment about the validity of the complaint. Nor is it about agreeing or disagreeing with the perspective. It is simply affirming that the injuring party is present, listening, and understanding the injured party. This approach diffuses defensiveness and aggressiveness, softening adversarial postures. We can assume a collaborative stance without erasing or ignoring differences, finding win-win outcomes together.
SOMETIMES REPAIR REQUIRES MORE THAN VALIDATION; IT REQUIRES APOLOGY
As mentioned above, it might be the case that an understanding and affirmative validation is enough to repair a rupture, but sometimes we need more. While validation takes the step of showing that we are willing to listen and appreciate another’s perspective, it does not claim responsibility for causing pain or discomfort to others. That responsibility might be necessary for repairing the relationship. Like validation, apology does not require that you agree with everything from someone’s perspective, but you do not have to agree to accept responsibility for injuring them with your actions.
I will be going into the step-by-step process of meaningful apology in Part 3 of this series; if you can apply this guide to validation in your relationships, you are already on your way to expressing a good apology. Accepting responsibility for injury is always difficult, but validating other perspectives makes it easier to put our actions in relation to someone else’s viewpoint and see how we impact them.
Validating others’ perspectives and feelings is a universal skill and one that I continue to learn myself. Sometimes, validating those we have only just met, or only encountered in passing, can be harder than validating those we are close to. Sometimes its most difficult to validate those we love the most because of the vulnerability required. I invite you to practice the skill of validation in all your relationships, and even in relation to yourself. I believe that we can make the world a more harmonious place by doing this important work.
It means very much to me that you have taken the time and effort to read what I have written, that you find my perspective here valuable. This approach is grounded in my experiences and perspectives, and it has evolved through engaging with others and finding mutually supportive engagement alongside others. The guidelines I have developed continue to evolve as I encounter and learn from new subjective experiences. It means the world to me to enter into new conversations with people motivated to communicate skillfully and responsibly and share their own experiences, thoughts, and feelings with me.
Any feedback—whether it be questions, disagreements, or relating your own experiences to this blog post—is valid and welcome. I invite you to share your thoughts and experiences with me at [email protected].