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Sunday, October 23, 2022

What is Emotional Validation and Why Is It Such a Powerful Relationship Skill?

Emotional validation is seeing, understanding, respecting and accepting another person's emotional experience--even when you don't agree with them.  When you validate your partner's emotional experience, you show that you care and your partner feels heard and loved (see my article: Improve Communication in Your Relationship By Eliminating the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse and 10 Relationship Goals to Create a Stronger Relationship).

Emotional Validation is a Powerful Relationship Skill

What is the Difference Between Emotional Validation and Invalidation?
Emotional validation lets a partner know they are understood and cared about. Invalidation is the opposite (see my article: Having the Courage to Admit You Made a Mistake).

Emotional Validation vs Emotional Invalidation

Invalidation occurs when respond to your partner's emotional experience by
  • defending (as in acting defensive)
  • ignoring
  • dismissing 
  • rejecting or
  • criticizing
Most of the time when someone in a relationship invalidates a partner's emotions it's not intentional. They're not intentionally trying to hurt their partner.  

Invalidation occurs because someone hasn't developed emotional validation skills. Most likely, they grew up in a home where their emotional experiences weren't validated.  Instead of being validated, their emotions weren't seen or heard a lot of the time (see my article: Growing Up Feel Invisible and Emotionally Invalidated).

The good news is that emotional validation can be learned.  It takes a lot of motivation and practice, but it can be done.

Scenarios of Emotional Invalidation vs Validation
You might recognize some of the following scenarios of invalidation as examples of when you invalidated your partner's emotions or you were on the receiving end of invalidation.  

You can also learn from the examples how to change the way you respond to your partner.

Here are scenarios showing an invalidating response and then the validating response.

Scenario 1
Jane: I felt so embarrassed and angry today. My boss criticized me in front of my staff.  

    Invalidating Response
    Bob: You shouldn't feel that way. You know he's an idiot.

Emotional Invalidation

    Validating Response
    Bob: You look really upset. I can understand how you feel that way.

Scenario 2
Jim: When I showed my dad my second place award for my artwork, he said I should've gotten first place for all the money he spent on my art lessons when I was a kid. I felt so ashamed when he said that.

    Invalidating Response
    Linda: Just forget about it. He doesn't know what he's talking about.

   Validating Response
    Linda: Wow. I can see why that was so hurtful.

Scenario 3
Lynn: When I told my sister that I signed up for acting classes, she told me that was silly and I should just grow up. She's been criticizing me ever since we were kids.

    Invalidating Response
    Jack: Stop being so sensitive. 

Emotional Invalidation

    Validating Response
    Jack: I know you've been really looking forward to those lessons, so I can see why your sister's comment hurt you so much.

Scenario 4
Ina: You really hurt my feelings when you said you think I'm too old to take dance lessons.

    Invalidating Response
    Bill: Well, Ina, you are too old.  You're almost 40. You're going to be in that class with people much younger than you. 

    Validating Response
    Bill: I'm sorry I hurt your feelings. There's no reason you can't take those lessons. Maybe I'm the one who's feeling old and I took it out on you.

Scenario 5
Tania: I feel hurt that you forgot my birthday.

    Invalidating Response
    Tom: Don't make a big deal out of it! I'm not perfect. Are you perfect?

    Validating Response
    Tom: I understand why you're hurt and I'm sorry. 

Scenario 6
Mary: You don't care about me--you didn't even notice that I'm wearing a new outfit. 

    Invalidating Response
Jack: Why do you need so much praise? You're so needy.

    Validating Response
Jack: I can see how you feel that way. I need to get better at noticing these things. And I do love you.

Scenario 7
John: I felt so hurt when you flirted with my friend, Joe, last night.

    Invalidating Response
    Barbara: You're so clingy! Get over it! It's not like I slept with him!

Emotional Invalidation

    Validating Response
    Barbara: I can see why you felt that way. I'm sorry I hurt your feelings. I won't do it again.

Scenario 8
Ona: You kept staring at that attractive woman last night and ignoring me. I felt hurt.

    Invalidating Response
    Brad: I'm married to you--not her. Can't a guy even look at another woman without getting the third degree?

    Validating Response
    Brad: You're right. I shouldn't have stared like that. I'm sorry I hurt your feelings.

Scenario 9
Joe: Whenever you fly, I get so anxious.

    Invalidating Response
    Nick: There's nothing to be afraid of. You know flying is safer than driving. Get over it.

Emotional Invalidation

    Validating Response
    Nick: I get that you're anxious because your brother died in a plane crash. From now on, I'll call you as soon as the plane lands.

Scenario 10
Paula: You ignored me when I told you I wasn't feeling well.

    Invalidating Response
    Lance: You know I don't like talking when I'm watching the game. It's not like you were dying.

    Validating Response
    Lance: You're right. I did ignore you and I'm sorry. You're more important to me than the game.

Discussion About the Invalidating and Validating Responses
Do you recognize yourself or your partner in some of these invalidating responses?  

What do you notice about the invalidating responses?  
You can probably see that they are insensitive and lacking in empathy.  

As mentioned earlier in this article, these invalidating responses are also examples of behavior that is either:
  • defending (as in acting defensive)
  • ignoring
  • dismissing 
  • rejecting or
  • criticizing
In addition, some of these responses show contempt which, according to relationship expert, Dr. John Gottman, is very damaging to a relationship.  

In fact, Dr. Gottman, who has been doing research on relationships for decades and who has a 90%+ success rate at predicting when a relationship will fail, indicates that contempt, along with criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling, which he coined The 4 Horses of the Apocalypse, is one of the signs that a relationship in serious trouble.  

If you're accustomed to responding by invalidating your partner's feelings, you might not see it immediately, but take a look at Scenario 3 where Jack accuses Lynn of being "sensitive." His response goes beyond being invalidating--it shows contempt as well as being shaming.  

Scenario 6, where Jack responds to Mary with an accusation that she's being sensitive, is also a form of contempt.  Ditto for Scenario 7 where Barbara accuses Jack of being clingy.

What do you notice about the validating responses?
These statements are non-defensive so that the partners aren't trying to explain away or justify their behavior.  

They're also not ignoring, dismissing, rejecting or criticizing their partner's feelings.  And there are no signs of contempt.

The validating statements show that the partner understands what their partner is feeling--even if they don't completely agree with it  (see my article: Making and Receiving Loving Gestures to Repair an Argument).

For example, in Scenario 6, Mary concluded that Jack didn't care about her because he didn't notice her new outfit.  While Jack acknowledged he didn't notice her outfit and he understood her feelings, he also let her know that he does care about her.  So, he validated her feelings while he also told, tactfully, her how he really feels.

Emotional invalidation is hurtful.  

Unfortunately, it's also common, especially among people who were emotionally invalidated as children.  It becomes a learned response that people often have a hard time seeing when it's pointed out to them because it's so deeply ingrained in them since childhood.

Emotional validation is a powerful relationship skill because it allows your partner to feel seen, supported and cared about by you.

It's also a skill that can be learned.

I'll discuss how to learn and practice emotional validation in my next article: How to Develop and Use Emotional Validation Skills in Your Relationship.

Also see my article: What is Self Validation?.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.