Do you feel like you and your partner must come to an agreement in order to resolve an issue? Perhaps you’re feeling frustrated at how different the two of you are. I see couples all the time who think that their differences are why they’re having problems (when in fact, it’s most likely their differences that attracted them to each other in the first place). Being unable to agree, or being very different from your partner isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s an issue of wanting to be seen, heard, and have our feelings validated; but validation doesn’t always mean being in agreement.
When You Need to Be Right
It’s common for a couple to come see me with each holding tightly to the belief that they need to be right in a situation. Like all humans, they both deeply want to be understood. Yet they are mistaking that need as having to be seen as right. They come in, arms crossed, with the idea that “this is how I see things, and my way is right.”
On one hand, they are correct. They are right in how they feel. Our feelings belong to us, but they are also fleeting and can change based on our thoughts. When you change your thoughts, you can change your feelings, and ultimately change your behavior. But when in conflict, the last thing most people want to hear is “you can change”; rather, they want their partner to see that they are the ones who need to change. Holding on to the idea that the other person is the problem and needs to change, though, is destined to harm the relationship.
Connie & John
The perfect example of this common problem can be seen in the couple Connie and John. In the beginning, Connie was attracted to John’s independence and confidence, something she wished she had more of herself. But over their twenty years of marriage, she became resentful of his independence, feeling that he was distant and didn’t make her a priority.
From John’s point of view, he didn’t feel that he needed to share every little thing that was going on, and felt confidence in his ability to manage things. This hurt Connie, who wanted to feel more connected to him. She experienced his independence as a distance between them, leaving her feeling unimportant. John denied being distant, and that of course she mattered to him.
Still, Connie would try to get him to talk more with her, and again, he wouldn’t have much to say. She would get angry, and tell him he lacked emotions and needed to learn to talk about his feelings. John would get frustrated and pull further away, confirming Connie’s original thoughts. And when he would try to talk about things with her, it would often lead to an argument. This confirmed John’s perspective that it was better to keep things to himself.
They found themselves in a negative cycle, each playing a role in maintaining this “dance” between them, and both needing to be right.
No Room to Grow
When you are emotionally close to the problem, it can be difficult to see things from another perspective. If you’re hurt, your brain is going to warn you of a potentially threatening situation, and your stress response (fight or flight) kicks in. This ignites your need to protect yourself. Imagine yourself cloaked in armor with weapons in hand, ready to fight. Your partner sees this stance as an invitation to battle, which triggers their own fight or flight response. Both partners are ready to fight to the death.
It sounds awful, and if you’ve ever been in a situation like Connie and John’s, you know that it feels awful. It’s exhausting to be in a power struggle with your partner, battling over who is right or who’s way of doing things is better. There is no room for growth, and the resistance is palpable. The question is, how do you break free from this reactionary desire to feel validated? Consider this: what if validation didn’t mean you had to agree?
It’s Okay Not to Agree
The truth is that you may never agree with someone who isn’t you. We all come from different backgrounds, have unique beliefs, views, opinions, thoughts, and feelings. Also true is that we don’t have to agree with the other person to see their perspective. And that is what validation is; recognizing and affirming that the other person’s feelings or opinions are worthwhile.
In the case of Connie and John, that’s all that both of them wanted. They wanted their point of view acknowledged. If you don’t validate the other person, it sends a message to that person that they aren’t worthy of an opinion, or that their feelings don’t matter. This is sure to draw them into a protective reaction, and you’ll most likely work to defend yourself, becoming stuck again in a negative cycle of relating.
How to Validate Your Partner’s Feelings
We all have a need to feel loved, seen, and heard; so when we are not, it cuts deep and we understandably go into protection mode. Even though this mode serves us by protecting us from a potential threat, survival is the opposite of thriving. Survival mode doesn’t support the growth of a close, deepening relationship, nor growth of yourself. In order to grow, you must be willing to be courageous and show vulnerability.
Leaning into vulnerability is a great catalyst for growth, and becoming more open to seeing your partner’s perspective is a great place to start. You are opening something up, rather than closing yourself off. I want to invite you to be more open around conflict. Instead of needing to be right and demanding to be seen and heard, start by seeing and hearing your partner.
You don’t have to agree with anything. Instead, see the situation through your partner’s eyes, listen to their words, and hear how they feel. Validate them by letting them know their point of view makes sense. For John and Connie, John might say “I understand how you would feel alone when I walk away from our conversations.”
He is taking accountability for walking away and acknowledging how that feels for Connie, without explaining his actions. He isn’t seeking to be “right”, nor agreeing with Connie that he is “wrong”. She will feel heard and valued, which goes a long way in creating a happier relationship. This works both ways, of course, and preferably Connie would then validate John’s perspective.
Still, even if only one partner is making the effort at first, there will be benefits to healing and strengthening the relationship. And over time, through modelling validation and seeing the fight or flight response lessening, the other partner will ideally come on board. Creating a deep and connected relationship takes vulnerability and some work, and learning to validate each other is one piece of the puzzle.