Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She's the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
How to Stop Invalidating Your Partner in Three
Hi there. Are you reading this article because your partner just forwarded it to you, as a way of saying they have been feeling invalidated by you and would like that to change? First of all, sorry, but second of all… never fear. I'm the couples therapist in your corner. This one is going to boomerang nicely, and wind up working out in your favor. Promise.
I'm going to let you in on a little secret that your partner — possibly not having read this article themselves before texting it to you on the headline alone — might not know yet: We all invalidate our partners accidentally. I'll bet you a cookie that you probably feel invalidated by them from time to time too. Am I right? Yes? Welcome to relationships.
How do I know this is happening to you, too? First of all, I've been a marriage counselor for a long time. It is extremely rare to find a couple where one person has *actually* been exclusively responsible for all the hurt feelings. (Except in the tiny percentage of couples counseling cases that I could count on one hand where the hurt-inducing partner has been a diagnosable sociopath. But I will save that tale for another day).
Secondly, I've also been married for a long time to someone I adore and would never want to hurt on purpose. And I'm a marriage counselor! I should know better! And To. This. day. I still do things that accidentally invalidate my husband and make him feel bad.
But I'm working on it, and it's better than it used to be. You can do the same. Here's how:
Step One: Understanding “Invalidation”
First of all, let's talk a little about what “invalidation” means. When you invalidate someone, you basically make them feel like you a) don't understand them or their feelings or b) if you do understand, you don't care.
In order to improve invalidation you need to be self-aware of when it's happening, and what you're doing to cause it. Invalidation comes in many flavors, and can happen in both subtle and dramatic ways. Let's review.
Types of Invalidating Behaviors
Inattentive Invalidators: These types of invalidators don't pay attention when their partner is talking about something important. (C'est moi!)
Example of Inattentive Invalidation in Action:
Them: “I had a really hard day at work today. I think I might be getting sick.”
You (And by “you” I mean “me”): “I was just thinking that it would be fun to go to Canada this summer. Or Newfoundland. What do you think?” [Picks up phone to start checking flight prices]
Belligerent Invalidators: Their M.O. is to rebuttal rather than listen, and put their energy into making their own case instead of seeing things from their partner's perspective.
Example of Belligerent Invalidation in Action:
Them: “I feel like you were rude to my friend.”
You: “Your friend is an annoying idiot who drinks too much and if you want to avoid these problems you should stop inviting him over.”
Controlling invalidators: These types of invalidators are extremely confident that their way of doing things is right and just, and will either intervene or undo things that their partner does in efforts to correct, (i.e. “help”) them. This happens in many situations including parenting, housekeeping, social situations, and more. (If I'm not careful, I actually have a tendency towards this one too).
Example of Controlling Invalidation in Action:
Them: “No, Timmy, you can't go out to play because you have to take a shower and clean your room.”
You: “Be back before dinner.”
Judgmental Invalidators: These types of invalidators minimize the importance of things that they do not personally feel are interesting or important to them, in a way that creates disconnection in their relationships.
Example of Judgmental Invalidation in Action:
Them: “What should we do this weekend? So many fun things! Do you want to go to the farmer's market / prepper expo / rv show / rodeo?”
You: “Pfft. NO. I have to spend the weekend finishing my Fortnite challenges. Wanna watch? No? Okay see you later.”
Emotional Invalidators: Then of course there is the stereotypical, garden-variety Emotional Invalidator, who feels entitled to “disagree” with other people's feelings, or argue that other's feelings are not reasonable, or to talk them out of their feelings.
Example of Emotional Invalidation in Action:
You: “You shouldn't be sad. At least we have one healthy child already….”
You some more: “….That's not what I meant. We can try again next month. You're overreacting.”
Fixit Invalidators: Lastly, there is the “Fixit” Invalidator, who would prefer to leap over messy feelings entirely and go straight to helpful solutions.
Example of Fixit invalidation in Action:
Them: “I am heartbroken about my argument with my sister. I feel really bad about what happened.”
You: “She's just a drama queen. Forget about it. You should make plans with some of your other friends. I'll see if Jenny and Phil want to come over on Friday.”
There are so, so many ways to invalidate someone. Not sure what kind of invalidator you might be? Ask your partner. I'm sure they'd be happy to tell you.
Step Two: Understand The Importance of Validation
While the first step in learning how to stop accidentally invalidating your partner is to figure out what kinds of invalidation you are prone to, the second step is to learn what it means to be validating and why it's so important.
So: What is “validation?” To validate someone means that you help them feel understood, accepted, and cared for by you. Like you really get how they see things, and that you support them in their perspective.
This is super important in relationships because validation is a cornerstone of emotional safety. And emotional safety — feeling like you are accepted and valued for who you are, like your thoughts, feelings, and preferences are important to your partner, and that your relationship is loving and supportive — is the foundation of a healthy, happy relationship.
Just consider how wonderful it feels to hear these words, “I can understand why you would feel that way.” No matter what's going on, when you hear that it feels like you're accepted by the person you're with and that it's okay for you to feel the way you feel. That right there is the strong foundation from which you can then find your own way forward. (And in your own time).
Also, if we were to dissect pretty much any basic argument that a couple can have, 98% of the time, arguments start with one person feeling invalidated by the other. When anyone feels invalidated the natural response is to then escalate their efforts to be understood. Which can sound like yelling. Then if the invalidator doubles down on defending their invalidating behaviors in response, it can get pretty ugly pretty quick. As I'm sure you know.
So if you work towards being more validating you will not just stop pretty much any argument in its tracks but your partner will feel emotionally safe and accepted by you, and you will have a much stronger, happier relationship. Win, win, win.
Step Three: Intentionally Practice Validating Behaviors
The real problem with changing your (our) tendency to be accidentally invalidating is that it can be really hard to wrap your (our) brains around the fact that we really are hurting the people we love without meaning to. In none of the examples of “types of invalidators” was I describing anyone who was trying to be hurtful. They were just failing to understand their partner's perspective or needs or feelings, and prioritizing their own instead.
Human beings are generally self-focused, unless they put purposeful effort into being other-focused. Sad but true.
The good news is that it's not hard to be more other-focused if you decide that it's important enough to make it a priority. It just takes intention and practice, and a genuine desire to want your partner to feel more cared for by you.
Here's what that looks like at my house:
My husband is telling me something but I'm not really connecting with what he is saying. He's talking about his day at work, and how he's not feeling great. And now he's going on and on about this guy he works with who's super annoying, and incompetent, and how he's thinking about taking the day off tomorrow, and…
….I've zoned out, and am now following the spark of ideas that whatever he just said to me has just ignited into being, through the chambers of my own mind. Day off… Netflix…. Nature documentary…. Camera lenses…. Majestic landscape photos…. I want to go somewhere beautiful… Catherine said good things about Quebec…. He's still talking but I'm now having an entirely internal experience. I know he's still there, but it's the muffled, “Wa-wa-wa” like the adult in the old Charlie Brown cartoons.
Sometimes he can tell when I'm not there anymore, but most of the time neither of us realize what is happening until I say something apparently out of the blue, like “I was just thinking that it would be fun to go to Canada this summer. Or Newfoundland. What do you think?” [Picks up phone to start researching flight prices]. Then I look up from my phone to see his shoulders slump a little and this look cross his face like, “Do you even care about what I'm saying?” He's annoyed. He should be.
Because in that moment, my lack of attention left him feeling invalidated in our conversation. He was left feeling like he wasn't important or interesting enough for me to pay attention to, or worse, like I just hijacked the conversation to talk about whatever I was thinking of instead of what he was bringing up. Which I totally did.
But like you, I didn't mean to hurt his feelings. It just happened because I wasn't making him a priority in that moment, but indulging my own self-absorption.
In contrast, when I remind myself of my intention to be a good friend to him, to help him feel cared for and validated by me, it's a totally different experience. I will myself to focus on what he is saying. I look in his eyes. When I feel my mind starting to slide towards something other than what he is talking about, I bring it back to him by very deliberately reflecting something I heard him say. Or I ask open-ended questions to help him say more about what is going on for him, but also as a strategy to keep myself engaged.
I try really hard to stay present, and stay on topic. Sometimes I am more successful than others, but I know he sees me trying. We know each other well enough now and we can even laugh about it, as we do when I glaze and he just stops talking and makes a face at me. Humor helps.
Every flavor of invalidation has a validating antidote that's a little different. I could go into great detail about what the antidote for each involves, but then this would be an actual self-help book rather than a blog post. But, briefly:
- Inattentive invalidators need to stay present and use mindfulness skills to focus.
- Belligerent invalidators need to find compromises that honor their partner's feelings, too.
- We controlling invalidators need to manage our anxiety, and trust in the competence of others.
- Judgmental invalidators need to work on acceptance and generosity.
- Emotional invalidators need to work on empathy and emotional intelligence skills.
- Fixit Invalidators must make peace with the fact that feelings are valuable, even dark ones.
I hope that this discussion of how you may be accidentally invalidating your partner was helpful to you, and gives you clarity about how to shift the emotional climate of your relationship just by making your partner's feelings and perspective as important to you as your own .
Now, please send this post back to your partner.
All the best,