When hearing people discuss the tenets of good relationships, the word “validation” is often thrown around. And for good reason: “People have a biological need to be needed or valued,” says Dr. Terri Orbuch, a relationship professor at Oakland University, and author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great. When validation doesn’t occur, people tend to look for it elsewhere, which rarely falls into the Good Decision category.
One aspect of validation is being there in a problem with your spouse, which calls for: Not talking. Not saying how you did it or would do it. And, and, and, not giving unsolicited advice. It’s about listening and offering a well-placed, “I’m with you.” But you knew that. When you’re in a conversation, the cues are pretty obvious.
But validation doesn’t always take a recognizable form, because more than listening, it’s about recognizing.
“It’s for being seen for what you’re contributing, even if it’s mundane and routine,” says Dr. Emily Upshur, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. Check that. Especially when it’s mundane and routine. Parenting is a never-ending game of Did I Just Do Anything Right? It’s easy to feel doubt, let alone any sense of confidence. As the supportive spouse, it’s your job to step in and provide, yes, validation. The words can vary but the subtext remains: I saw that and I’m not keeping it to myself.
The hard part is starting. People don’t feel appreciated for all the stuff they’re doing, so they dig in and say nothing. That’s a game without a winner. The unavoidable truth is that someone needs to be first. It might as well be you. The good news is that goodwill is contagious. Give some and chances are high it will be returned, and then, “It snowballs,” Upshur says.
There are scores of opportunities for this. They happen early in the day, at night, and on the weekends. They even happen when you’re not together. None of them take extra time, but they provide a big return, and they look something like these:
In the morning. Whether it’s during the commute or once you’re at work, text your partner, “Great job getting the kids out the door.” Even with the best routine and most calm demeanor, mornings can switch to pure chaos and survival mode. This simple message can give a jumpstart to the person’s day, because, “maybe I’m doing a pretty decent job.” Upshur says. It also involves a basic rule of validation: You give it without expecting or needing a reply.
With the meltdown. Or getting them into the bath or holding firm to a “No”. In these and really any situation, the same four words work. “You handled that well.” But here’s where things can break down and why no words get said. You don’t agree with every step your partner took. Fine. You don’t have to in order to speak, Upshur says. You have two other options. “I wouldn’t have done it that way, but that was a good way.” Or, “You really tried hard. That was impressive.” Recognizing effort is agnostic and usually well-received.
In the middle of the day. When the two of you are apart, text, “I’m getting takeout. After the kids are asleep, we’re having dinner. Just the two of us.” Any words that say, “I’m thinking about you” are validating. But with jobs and children, it’s easy to put the relationship into a perpetual holding pattern. A comment like this puts it on the front burner and sends the message, “I don’t take you for granted. I see you. I notice you,” Orbuch says.
In the evening. Speak such words as, “You’re so beautiful when you’re reading to the kids.” You hit two topics. You’re calling your spouse beautiful, which sees them as a person beyond a parent and is always appreciated, and you’re complimenting them as a parent, Orbuch says.
Before a birthday party. It’s your turn to go. When you’re handed the present say, “When were you able to do this? Amazing.” No gift is a one-step process. It has to be thought about, possibly researched, selected, purchased, wrapped, and also come with a card. It’s another example of something that can be assumed, but mentioning it acknowledges the time and energy, and that, “It’s not just magic,” Upshur says.
After the homework. The solid, basic one would be, “You did a great job getting him to do it.” But here’s a twist: “I can’t believe you pulled that off. I would have been lost.” Parenting is loaded with tension. Any chance for levity can be a welcomed and needed stress release, Upshur says. One more possibility? “You handled that way better than your mom would have.” That kind of comparison can be delicate, but a lot of parenting is an attempt to outdo who raised you, so if you know what drives your partner, those are good words to hear, she says.
By considering these scenarios, you’ll create more opportunity to use such language elsewhere. Validation is a powerful tool: used correctly, you’re showing your partner not only that you recognize how hard he or she is working, but that you express this appreciation in small, obvious ways. As often, it’s the simplest things that have the biggest results.