Maybe you feel like your partner has overreacted to something, or they’re taking something a bit more seriously than you think they should. Trying to diffuse the situation, you turn to them and say, “You’re so sensitive.” Those three little words are offensive and, if not monitored, can be toxic to a relationship. Saying them or such phrases as “Don’t be ridiculous” or “You don’t know what you’re saying,” makes it seem like you reject and invalidate your partner’s feelings. They communicate that you don’t care about them or what they think and, if not worked at, can ruin a marriage.
What Is Emotional Invalidation?
Emotional invalidation occurs when you discount someone’s feelings, implying that, for them to be saying or doing something, they must be either crazy or stupid, or some combination of the two. This can happen in a quick, almost casual manner (“That’s ridiculous”), or it can even be done passive-aggressively, telling a partner how they should react before you even speak (“Don’t freak out, but I have to tell you something…”). In the worst-case scenarios, the invalidation can devolve into situations that can be humiliating and degrading (“Don’t listen to him, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about”).
Needless to say, doled out over time, invalidation can be incredibly destructive to a relationship. Marriages thrive on mutual trust, respect, and security, and if a partner doesn’t feel as though his or her feelings are being treated with respect, then the relationship will eventually corrode.
“When a person expresses a feeling about something to their partner, that partner gets to make a choice about how to react,” says Hanalei Vierra, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Diego. “That choice is to either connect with their partner or to push their partner away.” Yes, this is basic Communication 101, but, per Vierra, most people — especially men, to generalize — make the mistake of pushing that person away by commenting or judging the other person’s feeling rather than connecting with that person by displaying empathy.
How Can You Prevent Invalidating Your Spouse?
When invalidation threatens to weaken your marriage, here are some things you can do to try and right the ship.
Put Yourself in Your Partner’s Shoes
The root of a lot of invalidating behavior is a lack of empathy for your partner’s feelings. By putting your own feelings and reactions to the side and trying to see what your partner is saying, you can actually create a stronger bond between you. “Empathy creates a connection between two people because it happens as a result of two people having a shared emotional experience, rather than the distance that is created by one person judging the other person’s feelings.”
Listen. Really Listen.
Not all invalidation is verbal. If you’re scrolling through your phone or engaged in another activity while your partner is trying to talk to you, you are letting them know exactly where their feelings rank in terms of importance. “Don’t be dismissive,” says Sonya Schwartz, a relationship expert.“Listening without showing interest can hurt more than ignoring altogether, besides pointing to a total lack of respect.”
Talk About Value
Does your partner feel valued? Have you ever discussed it with them? This might be a good time to start. The more you and your partner can come to an understanding about how they feel they’re being treated by you and how much they feel their feelings are valued, the easier it will be to address when something does go out of sync. And, more importantly, the less inclined you’ll be to dismiss them outright. “Once each week, have a conversation with your partner about value,” says Juan Santos, a professional counselor and the author of Couples Workbook: Making Your Relationship Work. “Ask your partner if they feel valued in the relationship. This question will work to bring you and your partner together while addressing potential issues.”
Disagree, But Nicely
Validating your partner’s feelings doesn’t mean that you have to blindly go along with whatever they’re saying. You’re still free to have your own opinions, but when you express them, leave room for your partner’s as well. Saying things such as, “I can see why you’d feel that way, but I just don’t feel the same. Can we find a middle ground?” will not only validate what your partner is feeling, but also help you to see their side of the discussion. Try and watch their body language and gauge their reactions to what you’re saying. “You’re looking for what’s going on at a deeper level, not just on the surface and what’s being said,” says Heidi McBain, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Look at the nonverbal communication, what are they trying to tell you?”
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