- Validating others' thoughts and feelings is a foundational part of effective relationships.
- Validation is critical to all kinds relationship partners, including spouses, friends, family members, and beyond.
- Mutual validation, when both partners take steps to validate the other, is a core feature of any truly loving and healthy relationship.
Social interactions aren't always peaches and cream. Often, people disagree with one another. Or lie to one another. Or betray one another. Or dismiss one another's feelings. Or belittle one another. etc.
An unfortunate feature of the human social experience is the fact that people have a broad suite of ways to hurt one another emotionally.
Speaking to this point, consider the following examples that might characterize everyday life for any number of us:
- An aspiring adolescent songwriter plays a new song for his family at a holiday gathering. At the end of the performance, an older relative chimes in loudly and says this: Keep practicing, kid. And don't quit your day job.
- You come home with a special surprise for your spouse: You just made reservations for two at a place that is often considered the best restaurant in town. Upon hearing the news, your partner kind of frowns and simply says, "Do you actually like that place!? I think it is so over-rated!"
- You present an idea for a new program that you've been working on for months to your colleagues at work. As you see it, after thinking about things carefully for quite a while, this new program is sure to help everyone on the team and will provide a fun and positive way to increase productivity. After you give a 15-minute slide presentation on this idea, one of your colleagues immediately chimes in and says that your idea seems both self-serving and poorly thought-out. Ouch!
- A four-year old boy at the playground excitedly proposes to a bunch of other kids that they should all play hide-and-go-seek. An outspoken member of the group immediately shoots the kid down by saying this: "That game's stupid and is for babies!" The other kids all seem to immediately agree, sending off our enthusiastic little four-year-old with his tail between his legs, crying to his mom.
And so forth.
Across all kinds of relationship types, including romantic relationships, friendships, work relationships, and more, people have a keen capacity to take the wind out of the sails of others.
Validation as a Foundational Feature of Successful Relationships
Importantly, no two people see the world in the same way.1 A core issue that emerges when conflicts arise pertains to this important fact. Often, when two people argue over some point, it turns out that (a) they are seeing the situation very differently from one another and (b) they fail to recognize the possibility that the other literally sees things differently. In other words, we often see things differently from how others do and, as a compounding factor, we often fail to recognize the fact that people vary wildly in how they see the world. When someone seems to disagree with our viewpoint, it is often the result of them not appreciating exactly where we are coming from. And vice versa.
A core feature of psychological functioning is found in emotion-based abilities such as emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and empathy.2 And a basic element of each of these general abilities pertains to skills associated with truly understanding how others are feeling and how others are seeing the world. With such empathic abilities comes the capacity to validate others' thoughts, feelings, and actions—the capacity to make others feel understood and heard.
When you think about it, the tendency to validate the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others sits near the core of our abilities to get along with others and to build strong social bonds. Making someone feel validated is, in many ways, quite the opposite of making someone feel belittled, insulted, or dismissed. Validating another's thoughts, feelings, or emotions has the capacity to make someone feel truly understood, seen, and heard. And making someone experience true understanding ultimately is a key to building strong, genuine, and trusting relationships with others.
Validation and Love
While validation is critical in any kind of relationship, it is particularly critical in all kinds of loving relationships, including romantic relationships.
Building on the idea that a primary feature that we all need in relationships is to be understood and seen, we can think of taking a validating approach to romantic relationships as a true catalyst for love. If you are in a relationship, think about how much it matters to feel heard, valued, and understood by your partner. Having a partner who understands and validates your feelings can be nothing short of fulfilling. Such validation builds one's self-esteem and one's confidence in a broader sense. Feeling validated, across all kinds of issues has the capacity to make one feel valued, appreciated, and loved.
In fact, it may well be the case that mutual validation is a core feature of any truly loving relationship. If you effectively take steps to make your partner's voice, feelings, and actions valid in their mind, you are showing your partner that you understand and value them and that they can trust you and count on you to share thoughts and feelings with moving forward.
When two partners naturally and regularly validate one another in this way, genuine love has potential to permeate the relationship. And as so many songwriters, from John Lennon and Paul McCartney (All You Need is Love) to Willie Nelson (You Were Always on my Mind), Huey Lewis (The Power of Love), Bob Dylan (Make You Feel my Love), etc., have been expressing for years, few experiences in life rival that of true love. In short: Mutual validation can be thought of as a foundational feature of any truly loving relationship.
Mutual Invalidation as Relationship Toxicity
Of course, as you likely know by now if you are old enough to read this article, not all relationships are characterized by mutual validation. Human relationships are often riddled with conflict and difficulties.
In light of the current conversation, perhaps it is useful to think of problematic relationships as relationships that are markedly devoid of validation. This idea opens the door for us to consider relationships that are marked by mutual invalidation, a state in which the relationship partners regularly dismiss, ignore, or otherwise invalidate the other's thoughts, feelings, or actions.
In a pattern of mutual invalidation, communication within the relationship is marked by dismissive, insulting, or otherwise non-empathic kinds of responses.
Such a state may be a way for us to think about bickering. Did you ever wonder what bickering actually is? Perhaps bickering is characterized by interactions that are riddled with mutual invalidation. Think about the following example, which might typify a conversation between any two spouses.
"I really can't stand when you leave the dirty dishes in the sink. That is just disgusting! Why do you do that?!?!"
"Well you seem to have no idea how much work I had to do shuttling the kids around town for their after-school activities. How do you not see that!?"
"You don't seem to appreciate how much work I have this time of year. I'd gladly chauffeur the kids instead of working on this stupid report that's due tomorrow, You never seem to care about my work at all!"
"Well you clearly don't care about my work in the slightest! And by the way, I can't stand how you fold the kitchen towels. Can't you just fold them neatly? Is that too much to ask?!"
And so forth.
This example, which was designed to characterize the kind of bickering that might be found in any household, can be understood in terms of a pattern of mutual invalidation. In this example, each partner is criticizing the other, an act that starts things on invalidating footing. From there, each response is both defensive and, to the point at hand, similarly invalidating. Instead of moving toward mutual understanding, which is a hallmark of mutual validation, the example presented here is marked by quite the opposite.
And when you think about the connection between validation and love, you can easily see how such a mutually invalidating pattern is light years away from what you might find in a truly loving interaction.
Count Your Validating and Invalidating Acts
If you are in a relationship that you'd potentially like to improve a bit, perhaps this validation-based framework might be helpful. It allows us to think about any actions within a relationship simply in terms of if they are neutral, validating, or invalidating.
With this in mind, here's a simple activity that might help you and your partner assess your relationship in terms of the validation model presented here.
- First, talk with your partner about the importance of validation in a relationship, along with its connection to love and relationship harmony.
- Next, either explicitly or implicitly, make some kind of record of your own validating and invalidating acts within the confines of your interactions with your partner. This might be done in a simple informal way, via making mental notes, for instance.
- Finally, perhaps do this in a few different contexts to get a sense of whether some contexts facilitate validating acts more so than do other contexts.
If you engage in this activity and it seems like your validating acts clearly outweigh your invalidating acts, then take that as a plus. On the other hand, if it is clear that invalidating acts outweigh validating acts when it comes to how you treat your partner, you and your partner may well have a problem on your hands. (and of course this activity can help each individual get a sense of the ratio of validating and invalidating acts manifest by their partner as well)
If you and your partner are both committed to making things improve in the future, then you can use this validation framework to help understand where communication problems exist. Further, this model provides a very straightforward way to help push such communication in a positive direction: Work to replace invalidating acts with validating acts.
Given the central role that validation plays in cultivating successful relationships, such changes may sit at the core of relationship growth.
In so many ways, the story of the human experience is a story of relationships between people. And when it comes to all kinds of relationships, validating a partner's thoughts, feelings, and actions is a central factor associated with relationship success and satisfaction. On the flip side, patterns of invalidation in relationships have the capacity to foster exactly the opposite: bitterness, resentment, and self-doubt.
Want to foster positive and loving relationships in your life? You'd be wise to consider the central role of validation in shaping positive relationship-based outcomes. Want to be loved and appreciated by others? Then make your partners in all kinds of relationships feel truly understood, seen, and validated.
Note: Thanks to my long-standing friend Myles Derieg for thoughtful conversations over the years that helped to inspire this post.
Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock
1: Ross, L., & Nisbett, R.E. (1991). The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology. New York: McGraw Hill.
2: Mayer, J.D., & Geher, G. (1996). Emotional intelligence and the identification of emotion. Intelligence, 22, 89-113.