The Single, Most Powerful Way to Resolve Couple Conflicts

Why is invalidating your spouse’s views much worse than disagreeing with them?

Posted Sep 26, 2018

Source: Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

This post is specifically geared toward couples. But its key points apply equally well to virtually all conflicts that revolve around contrary impressions and viewpoints.

Focusing primarily on couples discord, however, it’s crucial to note that it’s one thing to disagree with your partner’s perspective, but quite another to invalidate it — and, by extension, them as well. Obviously, disagreements between you and your partner are inevitable, if only because in any intimate relationship there are so many things to disagree on. Moreover, to fake agreement just to prevent a mutually antagonizing argument doesn’t really reflect a viable solution. For over time, such a keep-the-peace strategy only culminates in disaffection and alienation. In fact, endeavoring to avoid conflict at all costs ultimately works no better than approaching such conflicts adversarially.

So, can you disagree with your partner’s position or viewpoint, yet at the same time validate it? As counterintuitive as this alternative may seem, the answer is an emphatic yes.

Think about it: All viewpoints on a topic must be seen as having validity if the subjective logic underlying them is accurately understood. Here we’re not talking about indisputable facts (like 2 + 2 = 4), but a particular individual’s assessment of these facts. It’s analogous to a person’s having a particular impression of someone. As an actual impression, its authenticity can’t be questioned since, by definition, all impressions are subjective. And so it is with one’s viewpoint — also a matter of personal evaluation and bias.

If you want to avoid arguing over something, the task is to listen carefully to your partner’s differing viewpoint, seek to understand what it’s based on, and strive to appreciate its “person-centered” validity. For what your partner is saying can’t be deemed right or wrong as such, but as making sense from their point of view. After all, their perspective will have firmly implanted roots not only in their genetic heritage (i.e., their biology), but also in all the formal and informal learnings they were subject to growing up — and beyond (i.e., their biography). What engendered their present-day viewpoint may be quite different from what influenced your own. Still, both your perspectives deserve to be seen as genuine, and therefore personally reasonable.

Nonetheless, the problem with validating your partner’s contrasting perspective is that if doing so feels as though you must invalidate your own, you won’t be able to listen to them with an open mind. If only subconsciously, such receptiveness will make you feel much too vulnerable. The fact is that when a person’s perspective clashes with ours, many (if not most) of us tend to dig in our heels, somehow identifying our very integrity — indeed, our whole being — with vindicating our (now threatened) viewpoint.

Still, there’s no compelling reason why we can’t accept our partner’s position as being every bit as valid to them as ours is to us. We’re hardly required to relinquish our point of view simply because they hold a contrary one. Moreover, if we’re self-validating (which, ideally, is what all of us should strive to be), then our partner’s inability to validate us is nothing we’re obliged to defend against, or take personally.

If you and your partner can transform your, frankly, out-of-date defensive programming, the two of you can both be right (i.e., from your respective viewpoint), regardless of how much, or little, you agree with one another. In short, your partner can disagree with you without your feeling invalidated, and vice versa. If you remember something one way, and they recall it another, then although your viewpoints aren’t in alignment, you can still both feel justified, and without having to insist that, “rightfully,” your viewpoint ought to be theirs, too. And even though one of your recollections is probably more accurate than the other’s, if you can just say to your partner, “Okay, you remember it differently from the way I do, but it’s just not worth arguing about,” you can maintain the harmony between you despite such disunity.

The way this arrangement typically operates is that if the two of you disagree, but are willing to validate the other’s divergent perspective as legitimate or true for them, your partner is far more likely to return the favor. Contrast this with your adamantly proclaiming that they’re wrong (or wrong-headed), and that what they’re saying is illogical, irrational, or just flat-out crazy. And even with the most contentious couples, such an approach, although more complicated or intricate, is likely to lead to a positive resolution.

For example, in The High-Conflict Couple: A Dialectical Behavior Therapy Guide to Finding Peace, Intimacy and Validation (2006), the author, Alan E. Fruzzetti, talks of “The Validation Rule of Three”:

     "Clearly, being invalidated is painful, and breaking the invalidation cycle is difficult. Not only does validation work, but it works rather quickly. You can think of it as the validation rule of three. That is, if you can find the willingness, the courage, to validate three consecutive times in the face of invalidation, the other person almost always will stop the attack, and his or her own negative reaction (invalidating responses) to you will begin to subside."

What is equally important here, and which must precede validation, is that you non-confrontationally  ask your partner questions to better grasp where they’re coming from. Your ability to do so will help you accept — as personally warranted — the “experiential truth” of their ideas and opinions. On the contrary, doing your best to prove them wrong when what they’re saying feels completely valid to them is simply an exercise in futility. So even before requesting additional information, it’s wise to ask yourself whether your true objective is to win an argument or restore the harmony lost between you. After all, what brings couples closer together is fundamentally related to their willingness to better understand — and accept — the inevitable differences between them.

Consider, too — and this can be really challenging — that if your partner obviously misunderstood your motives in reaching their antagonistic conclusion toward you, maybe because of unresolved trauma or abuse in their history, that their negatively distorted interpretation will yet feel completely justified to them. So, while it’s still prudent to validate them, it’s also important that you take the opportunity to further explain your intentions. And you might also want to examine the possibility that your communication may not have been crystal-clear to them. Or, however inadvertently, that you unwittingly activated their defenses, so that the ego mechanisms unconsciously “designed” to protect them from further psychic damage couldn’t accurately take in what you said.

One final factor deserving emphasis here is that it’s imperative whatever understanding and acceptance you offer your partner is done empathically. The authentic, heartfelt support that restores trust and emotional intimacy to relationships is unlikely to occur unless your partner experiences your willingness to put yourself in their shoes. And once they encounter your not just cognitively, but emotionally, identifying with their experience, whatever gulf that may have developed between you can at last be bridged.

So, see whether you can triumph over your own defenses and come from the highest, noblest part of your being.  For such magnanimity of spirit may be exactly what you most need to model for your partner.  

© 2018 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.