- Your allegedly reassuring messages may imply a “should”—that they should relinquish their negative feelings and think or behave differently.
- The main reason you might react critically to your partner’s adverse emotional state may be that it makes you feel a certain distress yourself.
- For your partner to feel validated and supported by you, they need assurance that whatever they're experiencing is inherently important to you.
- You want your partner to experience not only your empathy and compassion but your ability to accurately understand where they’re coming from.
To take something lightly implies not much caring about it. Or not giving it much weight. Or dismissing its significance. And when you take something “in stride,” it suggests it has little effect on you. By extension, you’d expect that it wouldn’t much affect anyone else either.
... But it very well might. And when it does, it will lead to a disconnect between you and the other person and, in ways you hadn’t anticipated, degrade the relationship.
This post will discuss the hazards of not taking your partner’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, and impulses as seriously as you need to. That is, if your partner is to feel validated, supported, and respected by you—which, frankly, all of us yearn for in an intimate relationship—they need to be assured that what’s going on with them is inherently meaningful to you. Which means that anything important to them is automatically important to you because you love and are sincerely devoted to them.
Why You May Not Be Able, Non-Judgmentally, to Listen to and Accept Your Partner’s Feelings
If you take your partner’s negative emotions personally, it will make you uncomfortable, especially if you think you’re getting blamed for them. That dissenting reaction will mobilize your psychological defenses—of rationalization, denial, minimization, and/or possibly counter-blame—and so, prompt you to talk your partner out of them. And it’s undeniable that whenever our buttons are getting pushed it’s extremely difficult to respond to our partner’s distress as, ideally, would most benefit them.
On the contrary, for example, telling your depressed partner to cheer up, to refocus their attention on the bright, sunny side of things; or to distract them by offering to take them out to dinner or see a movie with you, probably won’t comfort them. They’re more likely to feel not listened to, misunderstood, or even dismissed—that you’re not able or willing to resonate to their experience and empathically be with them as they’re going through it.
Moreover, underlying such allegedly reassuring messages is a misguided “should”—that they ought to relinquish their negative feelings and start thinking or behaving differently. And the main reason for your critical reaction may be that their adverse emotional state makes you feel a certain distress yourself. So directly challenging their negative emotions governs your decision to (glibly) “make light” of them.
However, because your motives are basically positive, you probably won’t realize that inadvertently you’re not helping but hurting your partner. And unless they can explain this to you, you may not learn what’s required, going forward, to become more sensitive to them. Consider, too, that if they’re in a particularly vulnerable state, they may be afraid to share their now increased frustration for fear it could result in an argument making them feel even more conflicted about or estranged from you.
What’s Required to Validate and Support Your Partner’s Feelings
Here are five things you can do to assist your partner in feeling you’re compassionately aligned with them, whether their distress is about themselves, their situation (at home or at work), or their possibly ambiguous relationship with you:
1. Listen to them in a caring, attentive manner they can’t help but recognize as empathic. You’re not attempting to alter their viewpoint or to fix their problem, just letting them know you’re concerned that they’re stuck in a bad place and (right now at least) can’t see their way out of it.
2. In your own words, articulate what they’ve shared, or hinted at, in speaking to you. You want them to experience not only your empathy but your ability to accurately understand where they’re coming from. Since they probably feel isolated and lonely in their agitated state of mind and feeling—or maybe believe they don’t have the right to feel the way they do—when you can identify what’s going on with them, it will help provide them with the reassurance they need.
3. If they’re unable to express why they’re feeling bad (or mad), try to do some productive mind-reading. That is, think about everything you know about their history, relationships (with family, relatives, friends, and enemies, etc.), as well as their personality, to infer what precipitated their current upset. And when you’re ready to suggest an interpretation of what may consciously elude them, do so tentatively. For your mind-reading, although it may well be on target, is nonetheless speculative and possibly erroneous.
Even if your assessment is correct, your partner may not be emotionally ready to go along with it. So if they don’t agree with what you’re describing, say you’re sorry, that you’re only trying to better connect with their distress but that, of course, they have final authority in determining its source. Note, too, that if the family they grew up in disallowed or rejected their feelings, they may actually have been conditioned to repress them. And that’s why in the present, they may still feel unconsciously obliged to disown them.
The bottom line here is that they receive from you the message that whatever their feelings, you perceive them as valid, as authentically related to the totality of their experience (not to mention, also their genetic makeup).
4. Remember that validating your partner’s experience doesn’t necessitate your having had a similar experience yourself. Rather, what it takes is using your imagination to “picture” yourself being exposed to what they were. Say they were molested as a child, and so unless they’re touched in exactly the right, mild-mannered way they can’t help but react with over-the-top anxiety.
Can you put yourself in their shoes and fantasize what it would feel like if someone forcibly appropriated your body for their lustful gratification? Imagine how you’d feel objectified, powerless and out of control, weak, scared, terrified, or humiliated. Yes, you’d need to be willing to make yourself uncomfortable to do this. But if you can, you can genuinely “join” them in what, vicariously, you created within yourself. And that may be precisely what they need to feel you’re honoring—and validating—their disturbed feelings.
5. Closely related to such validation is your giving them the message that their feelings aren’t neurotic but normal, that given what happened to them—which, doubtless, negatively sensitized them to particular stimuli—it’s only natural that they’d react this way.
Finally, if you find yourself ignoring, resisting, or offended by any of these suggestions, ask yourself: “Might I have unresolved issues of my own that I’m not yet ready to address, for fear they could overtake me?” For if this is the case, before you can open your heart and truly validate your partner, you may need to develop the same degree of compassion, understanding, or forgiveness toward yourself that you’d like to offer them.
© 2021 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All rights reserved.