Validating Your Partner’s Viewpoint: The Amazing Payoffs
Most couples’ arguments stem from opposing outlooks that can’t be altered.
Posted February 2, 2021
It can hardly be emphasized enough that all viewpoints are subjective. Here we’re not talking about a closed, delimited mathematical system not open to debate. For 2 + 2 will always equal 4, regardless of whether anyone (for who knows what reason) might wish—or will—it to be otherwise.
When, however, it comes to humans, an objective, irrefutable point of view doesn’t exist. For all viewpoints relate not to incontrovertible facts but to variable and diverse perspectives. On one level, these apprehensions derive from differing emotional proclivities; on another, from personal opinion and interpretation.
Moreover, from this vantage point, no invalid sentiment or attitude is even possible, since they all embody subjective truth. If a schizophrenic believes a pink elephant is stalking them, that hallucination is absolutely “real” for them. They actually experience this weird anomaly, which is why they can’t logically be talked out of it. If only to themselves, their admittedly false impression must nonetheless be understood as genuine and authentic.
So, as relates specifically to couples, insisting on your point of view—particularly when it’s detrimental to your partner’s—only leads to a battle neither of you can win.
Irresolvably conflicting viewpoints are unavoidable.
They’re irresolvable because all viewpoints are wired to one’s genetic predispositions and environmental history. No matter how much you may have in common with your partner, they’re still not your clone. So inevitably your biology and biography will at times diverge from theirs, causing disharmony between you.
What makes validating your partner’s viewpoint so challenging is that, if you’re like most people, you assume that validating them is tantamount to agreeing with them. But that’s inaccurate. Rather, validating them is an acknowledgment that you’re able to understand and sympathize with their viewpoint. And—far more important—given what you know about their history and the influence it’s had on them, their viewpoint makes sense to you.
So the fact that your partner’s reality isn’t identical to your own doesn’t mean you can’t validate it. All the same, such validation requires a certain thoughtfulness, empathy, and courage: the ability not to let the validity of your experience be threatened by a reality contrasting with it.
When you haven’t yet learned very much about your partner’s past (say, that they were abused, bullied, or betrayed), or you haven’t identified the emotions stemming from their past, you’ll be handicapped in responding to them as compassionately at you might wish—and how, doubtless, they want and need you to.
Regrettably, when you don’t comprehend your partner’s reactions, you’ll probably invalidate them—as in “you’re too sensitive,” “that’s nothing to cry about,” or “that shouldn’t make you angry.” And such derogatory responses will immediately cause a rift in your relationship because they minimize or disconfirm the felt pain, frustration, or irritation your partner is experiencing.
Moreover, if their emotions make you uneasy, you might find yourself constantly talking over them, or interrupting them. Or trying to talk them out of what they’re feeling. Or harshly judging what they're expressing. Or telling them that they’re not really feeling what they just professed they were. It should be obvious that all these responses (sadly, not that uncommon) will probably alienate them, subverting the crucial bond between you. For your words can hardly help but make them feel weak, blamed, misunderstood, lied to, attacked or put down.
Think about what it would be like if you turned to your partner to validate your perspective on something because it left you feeling hurt or humiliated. What if they made light of your experience, suggesting you were overreacting, or that you should just get over it? Or they commented critically that you were looking at the situation all wrong? In all probability that would have added insult to injury, making you feel even worse than before you confided in them.
Conflicts with your partner that aren’t fully resolvable can yet be remediable.
So, short of (pseudo-) agreeing with your partner, how can you offer the validation necessary for them to feel reassuringly comforted by you?
The concept of couples’ “mindreading” is frequently employed pejoratively by mental health professionals, as interpreting your partner’s behaviors in a belittling way to safeguard your self-consoling sense of righteousness. But in line with the founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Marsha Linehan, it doesn’t have to reflect either a negative self-bias or an adverse bias toward one’s partner, but a deliberate attempt to confirm the legitimacy of another’s thoughts and feelings. Here you’re keenly listening to them and then sympathetically hypothesizing how their past experience may have impacted them.
In such instances, your partner may not themselves be in touch with their feelings because they were told in growing up that their feelings were wrong and to renounce them. Or that they didn’t actually have the feelings they told their family they did. Those invalidating reactions might well have led them to shut down these emotions or mask them by demonstrating sham but safer feelings much less likely to provoke their parents' disapproval.
If your educated guess—or mindreading—is correct, then simultaneous with your validating these family-forbidden emotions, you’ll be facilitating a healing experience for them. Your compassionate understanding will make them feel better about themselves—and unquestionably a lot safer with you than they ever could with their family.
Plus, if you’re off target and graciously accept their disagreeing with you and allow them to have final authority on their experience, you’ll still be joining them—vs. disappointing or disaffiliating from them.
Making an effort to normalize your partner’s experience can also strengthen your relationship. Here you’re letting them know that their emotions are typical of others who’ve endured such situations. And such an amicable, normalizing intervention will likely lessen whatever negative feelings were precipitated by the situation that so distressed them.
Paraphrasing—not parroting—your partner’s thoughts and feelings will also make them feel heard. The main reason not to repeat verbatim what they’ve shared is that such replication doesn’t assure them you really “got” what they wanted you to.
Instead, eyeing their reality through your own particular lens helps convince them that you can appreciate and validate them from your own autonomous, distinct reality. If you’re to be a risk-free confidant and foster their feeling of your presence as nurturing, you want to do more than regurgitate back to them what they just confided in you.
In the end, validating your partner is affording them the opportunity to see themselves as your equal. And many researchers have pointed out the advantages of consciously cultivating an egalitarian relationship, which they view as pivotal to developing a stable, satisfying union. Confirming the authenticity of your partner’s position, without correcting or debating it, gives them the message that, however differing their viewpoint, it’s as (subjectively) valid as your own.
It’s wise—and eminently practical—to validate your partner.
Your willingness to confirm your partner’s conflicting reality will dramatically cut down on the frustrations and friction that till now may have compromised your relationship. And that’s of course more likely if you can gently persuade them to do the same with you.
Succeeding at this challenging marital endeavor should help both of you feel more secure in this vital union. For you’ll be more open and trusting of one another.
Even if your partner shares their motivation to, say, do something retaliatory and you regard this inclination as extreme, self-defeating, or dangerous, if you share your concerns after you’ve validated the “reasonableness” of this impulse, they’ll probably be a lot more receptive to your influencing them not to.
However you play it, no longer letting disapproval or critical evaluation be central to your response to them, and instead being as accommodating and accepting as possible, will breathe new life into your relationship.
Recall how much more positively you beheld your partner during courtship. If you can get back to this more blissful period, viewing their motives far more benevolently than you may have since then, you may be able to recapture much of what now has been lost between you.
© 2021 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Hall, K. (2012, Apr 26). Understanding validation: A way to communicate acceptance. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/pieces-mind/201204/understandin…
Linehan, M. M. (1997). Validation and psychotherapy. https://content.apa.org/record/1997-08439-016
Seltzer, L. F. (2010, Sept 23). Can you and your partner agree to disagree? https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201009/can-y…
Seltzer, L. F. (2018, Sep 12). Working on your relationship during courtship? Really? https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201809/worki…
Thieda, Kate (2013, Jul 10). Easing partner pain: Six levels of validation. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/partnering-in-mental-health/201…