Should You Ever Reconnect With Your Ex to Be Friends?
As a marriage counselor, it is one of the great joys of my life to help people reconnect with their love for each other and repair their relationships. But not every damaged relationship can (or should) be repaired. When the bond that holds a couple together has deteriorated to a certain point, even the world’s greatest marriage counselor can’t help them, because there is simply no relationship to fix
And when this happens, couples counseling often transitions into breakup or divorce recovery work. I’m left with one heartbroken partner, struggling to make peace with the loss of the person they love, and what their new reality will be going forward.
And the one question I reliably hear from people in this emotionally shattered place is… Should I be friends with my ex?
Look, I get it. Losing the person you’re attached to is one of the most painful things any of us can experience, and it makes sense that you would want to hold onto your ex in some capacity, to avoid the pain of losing them all together.
But, many of the things that can make good sense when we’re feeling heightened emotions aren’t actually that good for us in the long run, and being friends with your ex, unfortunately, can fall into that category. There are some yawning relational pitfalls to avoid, at the very least. And even in situations where being friends with your ex is indeed what’s best for all involved , it’s in your best interest to navigate this new friendship with clear eyes and a heaping dose of intention.
That’s what we’re talking about on today’s episode of the podcast: what happens in the brain when we lose an attachment, and how it can make you feel desperate to keep your ex in your life; the drawbacks of maintaining that connection, as tempting as it can feel; and the scenarios where creating a friendship with your ex really is an excellent idea — and some advice for doing that in a healthy way.
That’s because you have lost an attachment bond, which is akin to entering a chemical withdrawal process. [I actually wrote about a book about this called “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to an Ex Love]. In this state, your brain will do what addicts’ brains do: send signals that something is very wrong, and that contact with your ex is the only way to rectify it.
The part of the brain that maintains our attachment bonds is ancient, and it doesn’t always communicate with the newer parts of the brain where conscious thought, long-term planning, or self-control happen. As you begin to release your attachment, you will experience powerful emotional flare ups that can make you feel desperate to hold onto your ex, and your thinking mind will come up with all kinds of reasons why those feelings need to be acted upon.
If this is what’s happening to you, my advice is to endure this (incredibly painful) withdrawal process so that you can release your attachment to your ex and move forward. In the short term, maintaining a friendship can bring you some temporary relief from heartbreak, by helping you avoid the pain of loss and withdrawal. But in the long term, avoiding this process only prolongs the inevitable, and causes you more pain than necessary along the way. Being friends with your ex for the wrong reasons can keep you bonded to them for years, and can prevent you from moving on with your life and your other relationships.
Benefits of Being Friends With an Ex
All of that said, there are some scenarios where trying to have a friendly or at least civil relationship with your ex is essential.
Admittedly, after a nasty divorce, getting to that place can feel impossible. But by grieving your lost relationship, healing from the pain, and working through feelings of anger and resentment toward your ex, you can establish a relationship that is at least civil, if not quite friendly. An individual therapist can help you get there. Many divorcing couples even opt to work with a marriage counselor, not to repair their relationship, but to build a new relationship.
It can also be a good idea to maintain a friendly relationship with your ex if you will have to see each other socially, or if you work together. You don’t have to be close, but it will feel better for you both if you can forgive your ex and reconnect with your positive feelings for who they are as a person. I’m sure those feelings existed at some point.
The Drawbacks of Being Friends with an Ex
BUT! There are some major drawbacks to being friends with an ex that I want you to be fully aware of before you proceed.
First, being friends with an ex can keep you attached for much longer than you need to be after the relationship ends. Maintaining your attachment to a dead relationship keeps you in limbo, where you’re still emotionally invested in your ex, and, often, unable to move forward with someone new. And, imagine how your friendship with your ex could impact any budding new relationships once you do move on. How will your new partner feel about you grabbing lunch with someone you used to cuddle up with every night? They may feel a bit threatened, and they may have some very valid concerns about your true availability.
And, relatedly, imagine how you will feel when your ex moves on into a new relationship. If you’re like most people, that will be difficult for you. Is paying that emotional price down the road worth it, if it means you get to stay in contact with your ex for now?
Finally, know that maintaining a friendship with your ex can be fine for you, while being incredibly damaging to your ex. This is especially true if you were the one who ended the relationship, and released some of your attachment to your ex beforehand (if you had it at all).
Your ex might be hurting, and searching for signs that there is still hope for your relationship. If this is how your ex is feeling, the caring thing for you to do is to help them get clarity that your relationship is indeed over, and that they need to grieve it and move on. Getting an innocent, friendly message from you can derail their entire healing process.
Should You Be Friends With Your Ex?
Only you can decide if being friends with your ex is right for you — there is no universal answer that will fit every person and every relationship. So, get really honest with yourself about why you want a friendship with your ex. Is there a real benefit? Or is it a way to stay bonded to someone who you can’t be with anymore?
Before you can be friends with an ex, something needs to happen first. We cannot move from a deep attachment to a casual friendship overnight. Our brains just don’t work that way. To get there, we have to move through the difficult process of releasing our attachment, and that can take many months, if not years. Before you try to reconnect with your ex as friends, give yourself time to get there, and understand that your ex might not be “getting over it” at the same pace as you are.
How will you know you’re ready? When you’ve released your attachment, you will have pretty neutral feelings about your ex and about the relationship. Not longing, pining, obsessive feelings, and not anger, resentment, hurt, or sadness. You will be able to think about seeing them without having a panic attack. You will be able to imagine meeting their new partner and thinking “good for them!”
The absence of feelings — true emotional neutrality — is what you’re aiming for. And that may or may not ever happen for you, or for your ex.
Boundaries with an Ex
If you do decide to be friends with your ex, no matter the reasons, tread carefully. Even decades down the road, our attachment bonds can be reawakened through exposure to your former person. An ex reaching out just to say “hi” is the beginning of so many stories about marriage-destroying Facebook affairs. If you are connecting with an ex, and you notice old feelings roaring back to life, that is a danger signal you don’t want to ignore.
It can also be tempting to enter a “friends with benefits” scenario or situationship with people you used to date. Avoid sex with your ex — even in normal circumstances, sex is rarely casual, and that is doubly true when you’re “hooking up” with someone you used to have a deeper relationship with.
Get clear with yourself about what a healthy relationship with your ex would look like, and then move forward with intention. How often would you see each other? What are the conversational boundaries you don’t want to cross? What about physical boundaries? How will you know if it’s working out, and how will you know if it’s getting out of hand?
If I could leave you with one piece of advice, it would be to not stumble forward into a friendship with your ex without being deliberate about what you’re doing and why, how you’re going to do it, and what a positive, healthy outcome would look like.
Episode Highlights: Can You Be Friends With Your Ex?
[8:43] Becoming Friends With Your Ex
The desire to stay friends with your ex comes from our human instinct to bond with each other. It is programmed in a part of the brain underneath consciousness and reason.
Attachment bonds can be unilateral, meaning that your ex may still be attached to YOU, even when you’ve moved forward. Be respectful of that.
[18:17] Boundaries for Being Friends With an Ex
Be honest with yourself about whether being friends with your ex is necessary and healthy for you. If you decide to be friends, make your intentions clear to your ex.
Letting go can be similar to withdrawal from an addiction, and it can be your best interest to go cold turkey with this past relationship.
Don’t fall into a “friends with benefits” situation. It can be harmful to yourself and your ex.
[32:15] Is It Okay to Be Friends With Your Ex?
There are circumstances where it is ideal to be friends with your ex, like when you have children together.
The opposite of love is not hatred. Instead, it is neutrality.
If it has come to a point where either party thinks the other is the worst person in the world, work with a competent therapist to resolve the issues between you and your ex.
[38:14] Staying Friends With Your Ex During Divorce
Do not villainize each other in the process of divorce. Keep a collaborative atmosphere with your ex all throughout for the best interest of both parties.
Consult a marriage counselor to figure out the new and different relationship you'll have with your ex post-divorce.
It takes a lot of emotional processing to have a healthy friendship with your ex, so you must put in the work.
Music in this episode is by Lord Huron with their song “Mine Forever.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://lordhuron.bandcamp.com. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast.
We are listening to the legendary Lord Huron together. This is the coolest song. It's from their new album. The album is called Long Lost. The song is Mine Forever, which is very appropriate for our subject today.
Today we are going to be talking about one of the most difficult aspects of a breakup or divorce for many people, which is the conundrum of being friends with your ex. Is it possible? Is it a good idea? If so, how does one achieve it and maintain their sanity? All will be revealed over the course of today's podcast.
Last note about Lord Huron. I feel obligated to mention: this amazing band is currently on tour as I'm recording this. For my friends in Colorado, they're coming to Red Rocks, so get your tickets now. You can learn more about Lord Huron and their travel plans on their website, lordhuron.com.
Okay, now on with our show. If you've listened to this podcast before, you have probably heard me mention the various things that I do, right? I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist; I'm a licensed psychologist; I'm a board-certified coach. I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching. But in my heart of hearts, I have a very special warm place for people struggling in the aftermath of breakups and divorces.
It's really like, if I do have a specialty, I mean, I do a lot of couples counseling and therapy and all the things, but I love working with people around this issue in particular. I always feel a little funny to tell people what I do. I'm a marriage counselor, but I really specialize in breakups and divorces because they're like, “What? Are you like the worst marriage counselor in the history of the world?” Like, no.
Just to be clear, I first and foremost love helping people repair their relationships—often work with people coming in the door who are sometimes feeling legitimately hopeless about their relationship. Like, “How can we ever fix this?” It is the joy of my life to be able to help people find their way back together again, and do a lot of deep important work, and come out the other side of that stronger, happier, and healthier than ever before.
Both their marriages, their relationships, but also, like, personal growth. A lot of personal growth happens in that process, and it's wonderful. I love it. Particularly when it works well, which it often does. It's just so cool to be a part of. It is also true that not all relationships can be repaired. Not all relationships should be repaired.
Sometimes when people come in to the best marriage counselor in the world, if one of them even has gotten sort of past this point of no return emotionally, it's just there's nothing left to put back together. Like, the motivation to be in a relationship just isn't there anymore. Certainly, I've also worked with people that—it is the right thing for everybody involved, it is, like, slow to stop. So, in these situations, what I have then been left with is one person, usually sitting on my couch who is often devastated—they didn't want the relationship to end.
Then, how do they work through it? I think personally, I have such a soft place in my heart for this is because I went through the most horrible breakup experience, as so many of us have, right? When it happened to me, I was in high school. I was still very young. But even, like, I've had a fairly long and interesting life, and I've had a lot of things happen to me, and to this day, that is still one of the worst life experiences I've ever had because of how devastating it was emotionally.
Also, I think combined with this is that there is this mythology in our culture that you should just be able to get over it and move on and, “What's wrong with you?” if you're still crying six months later. What I have learned since is that human beings do not work that way. We cannot flip our attachment to somebody else off like a switch, even if we really, really want to. Like, we just don't work like that.
Also, to be going through a period of intense devastation, it really is all you can think about. It's awful. That is actually the normal experience, it is not abnormal. But especially at the time when I was younger, that was not discussed at all in our culture. In addition to going through this terrible rejection and the pain and everything that went along with it, there's also this awful feeling of like, “What is wrong with me for failing the way that I do?”, right?
Anyway, it has been a real pleasure for me to be able to connect some of those dots and figure out some of the reasons why those things are true for everyone. It turned into a lot of research that I did because prior to that, even as a therapist, and as a marriage counselor, and as a psychologist, and all the things, none of that is taught in counseling school at all. There was nothing around the psychology of a breakup or broken attachment.
I had to go figure that out—did a lot of research. It turned into a book, Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to an Ex Love, but also really turned into a passion of mine. I love using the podcast to talk about all kinds of things and love and happiness and success and helping people repair their relationships, but also dealing with the real stuff like how to cope with a relationship that ended. Anyway, that is why we are here today.
I wanted to talk about a particular facet of this experience that really is difficult and messes people up routinely, which is around how to maintain a friendship with your ex. The reason why this is so complex and worth discussing is that it really has a lot of different variables. I wanted to give you truly helpful and meaningful information about all of this so that you can make informed decisions about what you want to do.
There are many compelling reasons to want to maintain a relationship or a friendship with your ex, right? I mean, one of them could be that you have a reason to. If you have children together, for example, it is really in everybody's best interest to try to have a positive, functional relationship. On the other side of that, if you're running a business together, I mean, if you have other kind of practical things that require you to maintain a relationship on the other side, that's possible. Sometimes it's really necessary.
I'll be providing information about how to achieve that. But the thing that is really tricky about this is that there are a lot of other situations where people really want to maintain a relationship with their ex. They want to be friends with their ex. Sometimes this is possible and healthy and good. People do it, and everybody's happy. But there can be a lot of complex stuff inside of this that can be like, even subconscious or non-conscious, and that's really worthy of discussion, too.
Becoming Friends With Your Ex
Let's just start by talking about that last piece first, right? That many people, when a relationship ends, even if they don't have a good “reason to”, really want to maintain that attachment. The reason why is relating back to the science of attachment, and I've talked about this on previous episodes of the podcast. Human beings are built to bond to each other. It is part of our survival drive system.
It is vital to our survival as a species to have very strong and powerful attachment bonds to other people. When these bonds form, they are biologically based as well as emotional and psychological. Like, there are mechanisms in your brain that exist for the purpose of bonding to other humans. They are operating at a level of your brain that is like pre-human, so they're in a part of your brain that our human minds, our neocortex, like, that newest layer of the brain.
The one that allows for language through rational thought, creativity, envisioning things. It is so far down underneath that that language can't touch it. Reason can't touch it. It is nonverbal. It is non-conscious in many ways. This is why so many weird things happen to humans in the context of attachment stuff, and particularly lost relationships. Because there are—you can't think your way through it.
You're like, “Why am I doing this? Why am I feeling this way? What is wrong with me? You're trying to, like, figure your way out of it. It just exists at a totally different level of our brains. I just wanted to throw that out there to help you understand why this is such a uniquely weird experience for many people because, it's like, neurologically, it's happening at a different level than most other things that impact us to the same degree emotionally. Anyway, there's that.
Because of this phenomenon, we develop these attachment bonds, and the desire to remain friends with your ex can be an artifact of that. That attachment does not turn off like a faucet. Somebody says, “I think we should probably see other people. I don't want to do this anymore.” The attachment doesn't cease to be just because that gauntlet has been thrown down or whatever, right?
You don't work that way. It's not a cut off. It is like a fading kind of thing. If it existed at all, I mean, people can be in relationships and not have that depth of attachment. Frequently, what can happen is that somebody who is initiating the breakup did not impulsively decide to do that. They have been on the off-ramp for a while. Their partner didn't know about it, but they have kind of worked their way through it, and largely released that attachment, if they had it at all.
That might be one of the reasons why they don't want to be in a relationship anymore is because they didn't feel that bond, and that's okay, too. That is not a judgment or a statement of anything about you. If that's the case, it's just—you can't force this to happen. If it wasn't there, it is a good idea to end a relationship because you deserve to have somebody who is really bonded to you.
For somebody to have the wisdom to say, “I'm not feeling it.” They're doing the right thing. Even if it is hurtful to hear that because you wanted it to be different, you are bonded to them. Understanding that these attachment bonds can be unilateral, I think, is really important. But when this happens, our desire to remain attached persists after the relationship is technically over, after the papers have been signed, after we're not seeing each other anymore, right?
This is important to know because it can be exceptionally hard to sort through whether or not your desire to maintain a friendship with someone is due to reasons that are actually healthy, and that make sense for you and that would be a positive thing, or are you essentially in the grips of something that is very analogous to, like, a withdrawal process from a substance?
The thing that I've found through the research I mentioned to be so interesting about attachment and love is that the parts of our brain that exist for the purpose of attaching to other humans are the exact same parts of our brain that can get addicted to, actually, addictive substances. So, heroin, cocaine, those kinds of things.
There are receptors in your brain that when you take those drugs become stimulated, right? That through that repeated process, you get addicted to those drugs. Those exact same parts of your brain are the parts of your brain that get stimulated by romantic love, which uses the same receptors and neurotransmitters that cocaine likes to flare up inside people.
Then, the attachment process uses the same parts of your brain—receptors, neurotransmitters—as an opiate addiction, so it's quiet. It's calm, but man when it gets threatened or broken, it flares up into, like, really intense, intense cravings, obsessive feelings. It's like every part of your being wants to reconnect in order to feel better again. It is very real and is biologically based.
Again, because the stuff is happening in such deep areas of your brain, that your non-conscious, this emotional part of your brain can be sending signals to you that is like, “I need this. I need this. I need this. Where's my person? Where's my person? Where's my person?” Essentially, kind of freaking out.
Your conscious mind, which has only a very loose relationship to this more powerful brain structure, right, is very helpfully sort of interpreting this as, “Yeah. I probably should go pick up my toothbrush from their house and start a conversation.” They begin—your conscious brain can begin rationalizing all the reasons why this makes sense and can be kind of twisting itself into pretzels to bargain, right?
There's stages of loss, stages of withdrawal, and for both people who are going through grieving and other losses and people in recovery from substances, often visit this bargaining stage, right? Where they're like, “Well, if I only have a beer after 5 p.m., and it's only three, then I'm not an alcoholic,” right? It's trying to, like, thread this needle, figuring out some intellectually plausible way to maintain their attachment to something that they really don't want to release.
Consciously, they know it does not have a benefit that should, so your brain can do very interesting things in these moments. When you're having lots of ideas about maintaining friendships with people that you're no longer with, it can be an artifact of that kind of process. It's important to be suspicious of your own thoughts in moments like these, first of all.
Also, I mean, we need to acknowledge the fact that it is more difficult, I think, to actually not be in contact with somebody than it used to be. I mean, you used to have to, like, go to somebody's house, or go through the trouble of writing a letter right to, like, maintain contact. But these days, I mean, with social media, you can see all kinds of things or know all sorts of information about an ex that you didn't ask for, right, but it's just sort of in your face.
That can be very difficult. We can also, I think, feel obligated to maintain friendships with people. Like, again, going back to that mythology, well, we're mature. We're like Gwyneth and Chris, we should be able to be friends on the other side, right? Kind of, sort of self-judgments about what you should do that may or may not be in alignment with what's really helpful or appropriate to you—for you, rather.
Boundaries for Being Friends With an Ex
Again, that maintaining of connection through social media, and maybe, too, if you work together, if you have a social circle that you're both part of, there can be other potential losses or weird things to have to mitigate if you decide to end friendship altogether, right, and avoid seeing somebody—avoid any contact. Well, in some ways, that can be much healthier for you emotionally as you're going through this—the process of releasing an attachment.
It can create other issues, social awkwardness, particularly if you work together. I mean, that can create an objectively difficult situation. Again, there are a lot of reasons why you might try to figure out a way to do this, but my first piece of advice is to really try to get honest with yourself around whether or not this is actually a good idea, or, if this is—what you're experiencing is what it feels like to have an attachment breaking and feeling something very much like withdrawal—a very intense desire to maintain a connection.
Your attachment part of your brain is telling you that, “You're in danger. It's a terrible idea to let go of this person, so you have to stay connected to them no matter what,” and your intellectual brain is trying to rationalize all the reasons why. If that is what is happening, it is probably in your best interest to understand that and to just go cold turkey, and here's why.
Even though, in the short-term, you will be essentially protecting yourself from the pain of withdrawal, because as soon as you say, “Okay. That's it. I'm actually never talking to this person again. They're no longer part of my life.” Once you decide that for yourself, you're going to feel really bad. You're going to have this intense emotion. You're probably going to be crying. You're like, “No!”
If you go to, like, block them from your social app, or block their number, if you feel this, like, huge surge of anxiety and pain, it might even feel like terror, right? That is a good indication that your desire to maintain a friendship with this person is actually your—it's an avoidance mechanism. It's like methadone, basically. You're not feeling the fullness of the withdrawal experience, if you're still kind of in contact with them.
The problem is that if you do that, you will essentially maintain this attachment that is no longer a positive thing for you. I mean, objectively, right? If somebody doesn't want to be in a relationship with you anymore, or if you know intellectually that you should not be in a relationship with this person, if you try to maintain that attachment, you can stay in this weird purgatory place for a long, long time.
I know people. I have worked with people, and I mean, it's been a decade or more that they're still hurting about this past relationship. Because they just could not bring themselves to rip off this Band-Aid, and just decide for themselves that it was over. They're protecting themselves, but they're also harming themselves in the long run.
This can get even more difficult, and I think toxic for you to do, because it's also very commonly true that some people are like, “Why? I still want to be friends.” When you really start to get honest and crack into it and unpack all that, there's still this fantasy that you could get back together again.
That if you maintain this attachment, they'll decide—they'll realize what a terrible mistake they made and come running back to you, or if you—they'll remember or realize how great you are, if you can remind them through your friendship. So, what it can turn into is a lot of pursuing a lot of fantasy.
It's easy to even get into these situationships with people where one person still really kind of wants to get back together. Maybe you're still having sex sometimes. You're kind of in this “friends with benefits” situation that is very convenient for your ex, by the way, but it's really torturing you. It can be hard to work through all this and try to sort through what is good for you and what's, also, you sort of playing games with yourself intellectually in order to maintain this attachment bond.
If you suspect that this is going on in you, my advice would be to connect with a good therapist who understands the biology of attachment. Most don't. I mean, to be complete, like, nobody taught me this stuff, I had to figure it out. I had to do all this research, right? I think that there has been more done since. I think it's more in the consciousness of psychologists and therapists now than it was 10 or 20 years ago.
Ask questions for a prospective therapist before you get involved with one, because if you get connected to a therapist who doesn't understand the things that you and I are talking about today, it can very easily turn into, essentially, your psychopathology. “You have attachment issues. You never got over your parents’ divorce.” It kind of turns into being about you. It is not just not helpful and a waste of time and a waste of your money.
I mean, I don't know, maybe there are old attachment issues that are worth talking about. But, if your therapist doesn't understand the biological basis for this stuff, they're going to try to come up with reasons why it makes sense to them. Psychodynamics, other things that may have nothing to do with the actual path of healing from these kinds of things, which is much more analogous to a recovery process than it is to other things that psychotherapy is very useful for.
Just know that. Anyway, but try to get connected to a good therapist who knows about this stuff, who can help you really get clear around what is going on. “Is it actually helpful, positive in my best interest to try to maintain a relationship with this person, or am I just telling myself stuff to avoid pain?” Anyway, that's kind of option one. Please explore that.
Another situation that does come up related to being friends with one's ex is kind of like on the other side of this equation. Because another thing that is true is that if you are the one that has initiated the breakup, it may be that you would like to maintain a friendship with your ex, right? It's important to know that your ex may be feeling very, very differently than you are.
Like, if you broke up with this person, you released all this attachment stuff before you did that, or, at least, big, big parts of it. Cognitively, you got clarity that you didn't want to do this anymore, and you might feel guilty about that. It's very common to break up with people that you really like—you enjoy. You don't hate them. They're not bad people. You don't want anything bad for them. You would totally be friends with them. They just weren't the right, like, life partner for you, right?
In that case, you might love the idea of being friends with them. You'd feel less guilty. You'd be able to keep the good parts of your relationship but also be free to develop a romantic attachment with somebody else, right? This might be a positive thing for you. But it is important to understand that this may be incredibly toxic and damaging for your ex. I hope that wasn't too blunt. That's okay. It's like we need to be talking about this stuff.
Because if you are wanting to be friends with your ex, and you're reaching out, like, “Hi. How’s work? What are you doing?” and they are still in that terribly painful withdrawal place. Like, they're interpreting your efforts to reach out and and maintain contact probably as your interest in still having a relationship with them, which it is. Just not the kind of relationship that they want to have with you, right?
It's really not fair for them. They need boundaries. They need time to heal. They need clarity. Like, if you're sort of sending mixed signals to them, even if you're saying, “I think we can just be friends,” like, somebody who is in that brokenhearted place does not hear that. They're hearing you say, “Well, yeah. I mean, I still love you, maybe,” right?, which it isn't good for them to be in that space.
Leave them alone, and help them achieve clarity around, “This is over. This is over. This is over.” Work through that withdrawal. Work through all those feelings. Kind of mentally wrap their minds around that. If they're still in contact with you, it will be much, much, much harder for them to do that. So, please have respect for their process. Understand that this idea of being friends is very, very difficult to do for the biological reasons that I have explained to you.
Now, it may also be true that, well, on the other side of this, like once that healing has thoroughly been achieved on both sides. That takes time, like this is often measured in years for people, but at the very least, many, many months, right? We're talking about a much longer timeline than you might realize, so give people room.
Then, sometimes on the other side of it, you can legitimately reconnect on a different level in a different way. The signal that that would be possible is if there aren't feelings anymore. Like, if you can imagine your ex being with somebody else and then think, “Oh, that's awesome for them. I'm so happy for them, like such a great—yeah, that's wonderful.” Right? That if that feels either happy for you, or at the very least neutral, that's a good sign that you may be able to cultivate a friendship with an ex that is fully platonic and and also that has boundaries.
The other thing that is important to understand is that being friends with an ex, cognitively, we can have boundaries, right? We're just friends. We are not sleeping together. We are not XYZ. I can't tell you how many times I have had a front row seat to people getting into affairs many years later with an old flame that they reconnected with on social media, or they're still friends with, right?
Because those attachment bonds are so old and so powerful that they can sort of be like subterranean and then flare back up again, whether or not you want them to. If you have decided to maintain a friendship with an ex, and now one or both of you are securely partnered in different relationships, just keep an eye on that. It's like something simmering on the stove, like don't walk away from it. Don't leave the house.
Just notice that if you start to have feelings again that come up, that is a good indication that you need to really stop that altogether. Because if you don't, it can be a waterslide. Like, whoosh back into the pool of these romantic attachment kinds of feelings that are very powerful, and that have just been the death of many a marriage.
You can check out a podcast called Married With a Crush? for more on this subject. If any of what I'm saying right now feels familiar to you, please, please check it out, so that you don't have the terrible experience of arriving in the office of a therapist like me, a couple years later, like, “I ruined my life. What did I do?” It sneaks up on you, people. Anyway, check that out. Those are all reasons, cautionary tales about being friends with an ex—do's and don'ts.
Is It Okay to Be Friends With Your Ex?
I also promised you some information on situations where you might—it might be a good idea to attempt to cultivate a friendship with an ex, even if you don't really want to. I mean, we've been talking about people who have been going through breakups or situations where there were still positive feelings. For many people, and not all, but a lot of people going through a divorce, one or both of them is well past that, right?
I mean, there are many regrettable things that happen between two people before they get divorced, right? It is not uncommon if people are divorced or divorcing for one of them to have come to the conclusion over the course of many years that their ex is actually the worst human being that has ever lived. They actually feel trapped by the bonds of children, of business—working together.
They despise their ex—don't want anything to do with them, right? They're just so angry. They're so hurt. They have an emotional scroll that when unfurled is about 1000 feet long, and on it is written all of the terrible, horrible, stupid, insensitive, disgusting, maddening things their ex has ever done. It's like, “Why would I possibly want to be friends with somebody like that?” Right? It's a heavy lift.
If you are in a situation where you hate your ex more than anything in the universe, and you have children together, and you have to have an at least civil, functional relationship, just to make it as easy as possible, but also for your kids, it can be incredibly valuable to figure out a way to find your way back to some kind of positive feelings. Some shred of compassion, gratitude, appreciation, to hold on to and, also, quite frankly, to let go of some other stuff.
We think of hate as being the opposite of love, right? It is actually not true. Love and hate are two sides of the same coin. Again, going back to our neurological meaning-making here. The deep regions of your brain from which feelings of intense love emanate are pretty much exactly the same feelings of your brain that radiate feelings of hatred. It's the same thing. It's like two sides of the same thing.
If you have very intense negative feelings towards your ex, that is also an indication, to me at least, that you have not processed nearly all the things that you need to in order to arrive at true healing, which is not hatred, which can be protective in some ways, but it's not hatred. It is, honestly, the absence of any feeling at all, right? I know it's hard to think about, but the opposite of love is not hate. It is neutrality.
In order to get to this space, it is well worth your time to invest in working through this stuff. Again, usually with the help of a very competent therapist, because it's difficult to crack into on your own. It's very easy to stay in hatred and anger. Finding forgiveness is very difficult. Forgiveness for your acts, maybe even forgiveness for yourself. There can be a lot of grief underneath that.
The first layer might feel like anger, but when people start to work into it, you can discover that there's actually quite a bit of sadness, hurt, fear—that anger has actually been protecting you from. It's weird to think of anger as being protective, but it really is. But, being able to kind of dig into that other stuff in a safe place, process it, do the work will help you cultivate that true neutrality.
That will allow you to then begin to rebuild positive aspects of your relationship with this person because they’re there. They are. Even if the person that you are with wound up being very different than what you hoped, I don't think I've ever met a single human that was completely irredeemable. I'm sure they're out there, and it may be the case that is true with your ex, but might be like one thing, okay?
Now, other situations here. In the absence of intense hatred, you may be in a situation where you have an ex that you work with, you co-parent with, you have a business with, and you do not have the luxury of time and space to really process all this stuff, resolve the attachment, and you keep getting, like, triggered by your interactions with them in the here and now. That is just to acknowledge it's incredibly difficult.
I think, when I was—what I understand now, like, I had such a terrible experience with my own breakup in high school, and largely, I think, now I know, that was due to the fact that I had to see these people every day at school, right? Friends in common lived in the neighborhood; it's like, when you can't get away, it's very difficult to heal.
Staying Friends With Your Ex During Divorce
A couple of pieces of advice: if this is a divorce situation that you're heading into, do everything in your power to not burn it all down in the process of getting divorced. What I mean by that is to avoid divorce lawyers if you can. I've met a few and very nice people, well-meaning, and just the way that the legal system works and the way that lawyers kind of work, it so quickly descends into an adversarial, very like yucky, angry—it's like a war and it is also harrowingly expensive.
If there's any way that you can get through this with a mediator to help you create agreements together throughout this process, and that is focused on, “How can we collaborate? How can we build a bridge to the center? How can we each give a little bit and to go into this whole process with as much—as collaborative intentions as you can?”, will truly be in the best interests of you, them, and your shared children, or your shared business for the next several decades.
If there's any way to do that, try to do that if you're able to, or barring that, if you do have to get lawyers involved, do a lot of careful vetting around which one you choose and make a conscious decision to find one that has a collaborative stance, and that understands some of the psychology involved in all of this, and who is committed to helping you not create a mortal enemy through the divorce process.
Let’s not do “scorched earth”, unless you absolutely have to. So, there's one thing. But the other piece of this is that it can be really, really helpful to have conversations with your ex about creating a different kind of relationship together. In order for these to be productive, you will both probably have had to do at least some personal growth work on each side to just kind of work through some of the big feelings that get triggered otherwise during these conversations.
Because when people are getting all flared up and activated, it's really hard to have a productive conversation. You can do this individually. We also even have people coming into our practice who have decided to get divorced or separate, and who now are working with a marriage counselor, essentially, but in a different role, which is, “Please help us figure out how to create a different kind of relationship together.”
It is talking not—it's no longer appropriate to be, like, processing feelings, or, “You did this,” and all that stuff. We're going to set that aside. You have to do that with individual therapists, but then together, you can come into these meetings with new intentions.
To have mediated conversations with somebody who can be like, “Okay, what is your vision for your relationship 15 years from now on your daughter's wedding day? You're both there. You're both so happy for her. What would you like that to look like for yourselves, and for each other, and for your children?” Coming in it with different sets of goals.
Also, having somebody to help you talk through, like, “What should the boundaries be?” I think accountability can be really important, and also clarity. Even when people are trying really hard to be friends with each other, there are conflicts around visitation or something changed. How do we resolve problems?
The issue here is that if you had been able to resolve conflict together well as a couple, you would probably not have gotten divorced in the first place in most circumstances. This is not a strength of this relationship to begin with. In kind of post-divorce counseling or growth work, it is actually an opportunity to learn how to do this together in a constructive way, not just for your friendship, or co-parenting relationship, or business partnership now.
It will certainly make that easier to do, but it will also probably be to each of your benefit. I mean, to figure out some of these conflict management or emotional intelligence skills that maybe you didn't have the opportunity to do when you were together as a couple, you can still do it on the other side. It's still really valuable work that you can take with you. Apply it to another relationship that you might be in.
There's a lot of growth that can happen—really, really positive things when people can sit down and be like, “Okay. What happened? Why was that so hard? Why did—let's kind of talk about this. What do we need to do now in order to have better experiences with each other?” It's very, very positive and constructive. Certainly, that's also an investment, right?
If it is a more casual situation, and somebody that you just work with or see around where it would be weird to, like, have an official sit down and get a mediator to figure out like, “Okay, how do we be friends?” It can be helpful to get very just clear for yourself around, “What would me being friendly, appropriately friendly with this person, actually look like in a work context? What would be healthy for me?”
Then, really, almost like through a coaching process, figure out, “What are the behaviors that I need to do in order to create that? What are the things I need to tell myself in order to create that? How will I know if it's working or not? What are the obstacles in my path?” and really kind of going through a coaching process in that regard.
There's a lot here, and if nothing else, if you've gotten nothing else from this conversation today, I hope I have imparted some degree of understanding of the very real complexity involved with maintaining a friendship with an ex. In any of the circumstances that I've described, it takes a lot of self-awareness and a high degree of intentionality in order to create a friendship with an ex that is genuinely healthy and positive.
If you are wanting to maintain an attachment and it's like, “Well, we can be friends,” got to get real honest about that. Make sure that it's healthy. If it is, do a lot of very strategic work around making sure, like, damn sure that it is healthy. If it is a need to have a friendship with an ex that you would rather not have, there's also a lot of emotional processing work.
Then lastly, if it's—you have to sort of build a new kind of friendship with somebody in the absence of a lot of hatred, it's still very complex, and it has to be an intentional process. The thing to avoid in any of these cases is maintaining a relationship or “friendship” with an ex without being very, very deliberate about why you're doing it, how you're going to do it.
What a positive outcome, a healthy outcome looks like, if you just sort of like, stay connected and like text with each other, and like their stuff on social media, and get together once in a while, you're not doing what we talked about today. That's also the easiest thing to do. Then, that is just to validate it. That is what most people do, is just kind of maintain an attachment without reflecting on it too much. It is to their detriment because it creates a different set of problems long-term.
Anyway, so much to share. I hope that this discussion was helpful for you. Thank you so much for spending this time with me today. I always like talking about breakup and divorce recovery, so thanks for giving me the opportunity to share some of the things I have learned along the way. That's all for today, but if you would like more on the subject of breakup and divorce recovery, because it is such an interest of mine, there is so much stuff that I have for you.
Of those, I think the one episode, How to Leave a Toxic Relationship with Dignity, is probably one of my favorites, and not least because it gave me an excuse to play The Gun Club on this podcast, but has a lot more information about the nature of attachment there for you, and in particular, why it can be so hard to release an attachment to a toxic relationship.
Interestingly, the worse a relationship actually is, the harder it can be to get out of. If that sounds interesting to you, I hope you check out that episode, How to Leave a Toxic Relationship With Dignity.
Then, of course, on the blog at growingself.com, there is so much more. In addition to these podcasts, we have all kinds of articles that I have written. You can learn about my own horrible breakup story. I'll be sure to link to it in the post for this podcast.
Then, of course, are tons of articles that the therapists that I work with here at Growing Self have written, who are excellent therapists, who are in the trenches of this breakup recovery work every day, divorce recovery work, and they have so much great advice. Parenting after divorce, dealing with divorce after affairs, I mean, there's so much good stuff.
Also, you might want to check out a podcast episode that I did with a really great divorce lawyer, Stephanie Randall. It's called amicable divorce. If you are looking down the barrel of that particular gun, you’ll want to check that out for sure.
Then, of course, the book,Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to an Ex Love. Although I should add, because this came up recently, I wrote this book years ago from my research but also, at the time, did it in a partnership with another organization that goes by the name Exaholics. I do not have any business relationship with that organization. That is not my practice. It is not my website. I do growingself.com, and somebody actually reached out to me the other day asking about that, and I was like, “Oh, no. That is not my thing. I just wrote the book.”
Anyway, so there's that. But anyway, so much for you on this subject. It is all for you—lots of good stuff. Check it out, growingself.com. Thanks for spending this time with me today, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to share this amazing Lord Huron song with you.
Again, you can learn more about Lord Huron on their website, lordhuron.com. You can get albums, concert tickets. They have t-shirts that are super cool to have. All kinds of great stuff, so check that out. Otherwise, I will be back here next week with more love, happiness, and success for you.
Secret bank accounts. Illicit rendezvous with the babysitter. Biweekly fights that end in split lips and phone calls to the police.
We’ve all heard about “those” relationships, haven’t we? And maybe we’ve even witnessed something close to them playing out between people we know. It’s no surprise when unions with such obvious markers of pain and dysfunction go down in flames. They may even make us feel a little better about our own relationships, or the kind of partners we are. Sure, we’re imperfect, but we would never do that.
But, as a longtime marriage counselor and couples therapist, trust me when I say that most relationships that fail don’t go down in a big, dramatic burst of flames that everyone sees coming from a hundred miles away. To paraphrase Hemingway, they tend to end gradually, and then all at once. The little injuries that add up to a divorce or a breakup usually seem insignificant while they’re happening, until their cumulative damage is too much for the couple to bear.
When two people who love each other aren’t able to make their relationship work, it’s sad. Because “making it work” is usually a matter of building certain skills, which anyone can do with knowledge and practice. I created this podcast to illustrate that for you. My hope is that, after this conversation, you’ll have a clear understanding of what really tanks relationships, and how you can avoid that outcome in your own.
My guest is Matthew Fray, a talented writer with some hard-won knowledge in this area. In his new book, “This is How Your Marriage Ends,” Matthew discusses his own marriage’s demise, and the lessons he wishes he’d learned before it was too late. We’re sharing those important lessons with you today, so you can keep your relationship alive for the long haul.
I hope you’ll tune in to hear Matt’s heartfelt relationship advice. Listen here on this page, on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
Many of the moments that destroy relationships look like no big deal while they’re happening. They can take the shape of “petty” disagreements, too insignificant to pose a real threat to something as important as your marriage.
But over time, these minor disagreements certainly can pose a threat. They can carry more emotional weight than you might expect, bringing up questions about love, safety, trust, and respect between yourself and your partner. If they’re not handled with care, these “petty” disagreements will undermine your connection, and can eventually cause you to lose what you value the most in the world.
Here are some hallmarks of the destructive conflict cycle that causes relationships to fail. By breaking these common patterns, you and your partner can begin to navigate conflict in a way that helps you grow together, not apart.
Why Relationships Fail: Defensiveness
Imagine that your partner is furious about something that doesn’t seem particularly important to you. Maybe you wore your shoes in the house when they’ve repeatedly asked you not to, or you were ten minutes late meeting them for dinner.
What’s your reaction to their anger? Do you feel like you’re being punished harshly for something that doesn’t mean much, considering how much you do for your partner every day? Do you remind them of all the sacrifices you’ve made for them or for the relationship, or of all the things they do that you don’t like?
That’s defensiveness, which is a totally normal reaction to feeling criticized or under attack. Unfortunately, when we get defensive, we can’t really hear our partners. We’re too busy arguing them out of their perspective to hear the hurt or the pain underneath their complaints, because what they’re saying feels like a threat to us.
When one partner is angry and the other is defensive, you get stuck. You can’t move forward into repairing the rift that’s opened up between you and deepening your understanding of each other, because you’re locked in a stalemate of “attack” and “counterattack.” Your partner gets the message that, when they’re upset, their feelings will be met with hostility. Eventually, they’ll stop bringing problems to you, and resentments will build.
So, what’s the antidote to defensiveness? Responsibility. When your partner is upset with you, try to take responsibility for your part in the conflict. That doesn’t mean you have to assume blame that isn’t yours, or always let them “win.” But admit where you’re wrong, and take an interest in their feelings about the situation. You’ll find that you’re able to have a real conversation at that point, and to resolve small problems before they grow into something more serious.
Why Relationships Fail: Emotional Invalidation
Emotional invalidation is another common cause in failing relationships. When we emotionally invalidate our partners, we might agree with their perceptions — that we were late, that we did wear our shoes in the house — but disagree with their emotional reaction to what happened. We might tell them they’re overreacting, or that we can’t understand what they’re so upset about.
Invalidation happens all the time. I would bet that, at some point in your relationship, you have invalidated your partner, and that your partner has invalidated you. Invalidation doesn’t make you a terrible person (or a gaslighter, for that matter). Most of us don’t even realize when we’re being invalidating; we usually think we’re being helpful, encouraging our partners to let go of bad feelings or see things from another, more positive perspective.
But chronic emotional invalidation leaves your partner with the impression that you don’t care about their experience, that you don’t take their emotions seriously, and that there’s no point in trying to resolve problems with you, because they’ll only be dismissed. If your partner comes to expect invalidation from you, they’ll likely begin to withdraw from the relationship. Eventually, this will destroy your connection.
To avoid invalidating your partner, practice listening to them, without trying to “fix” their problems or argue them out of their perspective. Practice accepting their emotional reality for what it is, rather than trying to convince them that the way they feel isn’t reasonable. I use the word practice deliberately here — validating is a habit that we all must build with intention.
Why Relationships Fail: Broken Trust
Minor conflicts that spin out into defensiveness and invalidation have a damaging effect on your bond to your partner. That’s because they lead to broken trust, which is enough to take down even the most loving relationships.
Over time, if you dismiss your partner’s feelings and concerns as unimportant or overblown, they will stop trusting you. I’m not being dramatic when I say that — they will learn that you’re not an emotionally safe person who will treat their needs, feelings, and perspective as valid and important. And that’s what we need from our partners, more than from anyone else in the world.
What happens when your partner stops trusting you? They stop being vulnerable with you, and they stop leaning on you in times of need. They might give up on trying to connect with you on a deep emotional level, and settle for a superficial relationship that begins to feel lonely and hollow to you both. They won’t assume that your intentions are good, and conflicts in your relationship will become more bitter and more damaging as time goes on. Eventually, if something doesn’t change, your relationship will disintegrate.
So how do you repair broken trust, once it’s been damaged? You can start by listening to your partner, validating their feelings, empathizing with them, and taking responsibility for your part in conflicts, rather than reacting with defensiveness.
This all might sound like I’m telling you to let your partner have their way, or to disregard your own needs, rights, and feelings in favor of your partner’s. That’s not the case — you also deserve to be heard, and to have empathy and validation when you’re upset. But you won’t get that by “winning” the argument or by being the most correct. You’ll get it by extending generosity and kindness toward your partner, which will make them more willing to reciprocate with kindness and generosity in return.
Why Marriages Succeed or Fail
If I could impart one bit of wisdom to every couple, from my many years as both a married person and as a marriage counselor, it would be this: When marriages fail, it’s usually not in a high-drama, crash and burn scenario. The kind of dissolution that makes for an intriguing TV plot line is rarely what I see play out between actual couples who arrive in my office.
But you can build these skills, and your relationship will be stronger and healthier for it. I hope this podcast gave you some good ideas for where to start.
Music in this episode is by Nocturne Blue, covering “Ship of Fools” by World Party.
You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://nocturneblue.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Divorce With Kids
Divorce is devastating under any circumstances. But if you have kids, divorce is even more fraught. In my experience as a marriage and family therapist and breakup recovery coach, divorcing parents are often worrying about how the end of their marriage will affect their children. I know that this can really ratchet up your pain and distress, and make a difficult situation even more challenging.
If you’re like most divorcing parents your number one priority is the mental and emotional wellness of your kids. You’re probably looking for answers to questions like, “how to tell your kids about divorce,” or “the impact of divorce on children,” or “healthy co-parenting strategies.” I’m so glad that you found this resource today!
Here’s something you should know right off the bat: The fact that you’re working so hard to educate yourself about how to help your children means 1) that you love and care about them so much and 2) you’re already doing a great job. Your efforts to help them through this mean that you’re the type of parent who’s going to get them through this in the healthiest way possible. You’re already doing it!
To support you in the work you’re already doing, I have put together another educational resource for you. On this episode of the podcast, I’m speaking with Dr. Amy Smith, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist on our team here at Growing Self who is an expert at helping families get through divorce. She has tons of experience coaching parents and many years of experience in helping divorcing parents learn how to help their children with the emotional and relational aspects of divorce too.
If your marriage is ending and you’re worried about how your children will be affected, you’ll want to listen to this conversation. We’re talking about how to talk with your kids about the divorce, how to navigate co-parenting with your ex, and how to be the unwavering foundation your kids need — even when your own world feels like it’s falling apart.
I hope you join us for all of this and more. You can listen here on this page, or find the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts (and subscribe to the show while you’re there!)
I sincerely hope that today’s show helps provide you with some insight and direction on how to help your children through divorce and that it helps ease your anxiety along the way.
You’ve got this!
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Divorce with Kids
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
As a marriage and family therapist, I’ve seen couples counseling transition to breakup or divorce recovery work many times, and I know it’s never easy for either partner.
But if you’re worried about your kids, I have some good news: Research shows that divorce does not cause irreparable harm to children in and of itself. In fact, children actually may do better with divorced parents, if the alternative is living in a high-conflict environment.
The key factor that determines how well children will cope with divorce is whether or not they place blame on themselves. It’s normal for young children to not have a clear sense of self, and blurry ideas about what they do and don’t control. For this reason, it’s critical to help kids understand that the divorce is in no way their fault.
Effects of Divorce on Children
As kids come to terms with their parents’ divorce, it’s normal for them to have a lot of questions. They may be uncertain about where they’ll live, when they’ll see each parent, and what the future will hold.
It’s also normal for them to feel a sense of loss and grief. Their family is changing on the most fundamental level, and they’ll need some time to accept this new reality, and to adjust to it. They may experience sadness, anger, anxiety, and withdrawal as they grapple with this change.
In the short term, you may notice some behavior changes, like more tantrums, or getting into trouble at school. It can be helpful for parents to recognize that there are big, difficult feelings behind these behaviors. Giving your child an outlet to talk about these feelings will be more effective than taking a punitive approach.
Being There for Your Kids Through Divorce
If you’re going through the stages of a breakup or divorce, you’re sorting out some big, messy feelings. It’s important to remember that you are there to support your children emotionally, but that they can’t be there for you in the same way. Avoid putting that responsibility onto your kids. Take good care of yourself, and look for other adults who can talk with you about the details of your split or who can support you as you work through painful feelings about your ex.
Talk with your kids about how they’re feeling, and acknowledge that what they’re going through is really difficult. Keep the dialogue open and encourage your child to come to you with any questions they have.
Avoid talking negatively about your ex. However they’ve treated you, your child deserves to have their own relationship with both of their parents (as long as those relationships are safe). As hard as it is, this is truly a situation where if you can’t say anything nice, it’s better to say nothing at all.
Create Clear Co-Parenting Rules
As difficult as it can be when you’re in the midst of emotional turmoil, it’s important to work out a co-parenting plan with your ex that’s as positive and peaceful as possible.
Getting really specific about what is ok and what isn’t can help you sidestep future conflict, and spare your children from the stress of their parents fighting. Will you pick up, or drop off your child when it’s your time with them? Will you come inside? Can the kids have video calls with their other parent while they’re in your custody? How will you communicate with your ex about your child? Think through questions like these and try to create an amicable divorce agreement that puts your kids first.
Also, keep this in mind: You will make mistakes! This is very difficult, and sometimes your feelings will get the best of you. If you don’t navigate co-parenting as gracefully as you hoped, don’t be afraid to acknowledge that to your child, apologize, and try to do better next time.
When You Don’t Like How Your Ex Parents
Co-parenting goes from tricky to exasperating when you don’t like the way your ex parents. Maybe they let your child eat too much sugar, or spend too much time on screens. Maybe they’re not being as ethical about how they talk to your child about the divorce as you’re striving to be.
The first question to ask yourself is, is my child safe? If the answer is no, you should absolutely step in. But if the answer is yes, pick your battles carefully. You won’t parent exactly the same way your ex does, and you won’t be able to control everything that goes on when you’re not there.
If your ex is badmouthing you to your child, it can be tempting to retaliate with the same behavior. Avoid this. Your children will make up their own minds over time about the divorce, and pulling them in opposite directions will only do harm.
One of the most heartbreaking outcomes of a divorce can be a child becoming alienated from one of their parents. Parental alienation may happen because of an ex “turning the child” against the other parent, or because of how the child interprets the divorce.
Losing your relationship with your child, or seeing that relationship grow distant, is truly painful. The best thing you can do is offer your continued, unconditional love and support. Avoid trying to retaliate against your ex by interfering in their relationship with your child. This will be damaging to your child, and is likely to backfire.
The best thing you can do is to continue letting your child know you are there for them, no matter what. Never give up on your relationship with your child. As they mature, they’ll have a more nuanced understanding of the divorce, and they’ll have opportunities to reconnect with you.
Kids and Divorce
If you’re going through a divorce and worrying about how it will affect your children, stay strong. This is such a turbulent time, and I know it can be overwhelming.
I hope our conversation gives you hope that your divorce does not have to be profoundly damaging for your kids. With support and an open dialogue, you can help them adjust to this new reality, and grow into happy, healthy adults.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: On today's show, we're talking about divorce with kids. Nobody wants to get divorced, and it is not the most pleasant topic to discuss on this podcast or elsewhere. But divorce is also incredibly real, and it's common. If you are looking down the barrel of a divorce right now, I know that you need help with this. You need guidance because this is really hard. It's a difficult experience for anyone. But it's especially hard if you're a parent, and trying to figure out how to have a healthy divorce with kids involved.
There are just so many things to figure out: How to talk to your kids about divorce? How to separate your lives with children? How to co-parent? The biggest thing I think is how to meet the emotional needs of your children while it feels like your own life is kind of falling apart, at least for a while. This is tough stuff for anyone. Again, it's just so incredibly important to be talking about this so that you can get good information to help guide you through this transition.
That's what we're talking about on today's show. That is why I have invited my colleague here at Growing Self, Dr. Dr. Amy Smith to join us because she is a true expert on helping divorcing families get through this transition in the healthiest way possible for all involved, and I wanted you to have the very best help. I have invited her to chat with us today.
Dr. Amy, thank you so much for being here.
Dr. Amy: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited to be here today.
Dr. Lisa: It's gonna be a great conversation. Now I do need to formally introduce you. With other guests, I would probably ask them to share a little bit about themselves. I know you are so modest, and you're not going to toot your own horn. I'm actually going to go ahead and get that horn for you, okay?
Dr. Amy has a Ph.D. in applied developmental science, master's degree in human development and family studies with a specialization in marriage and family therapy. She is also a university professor at Colorado State University. She's the author of multiple peer-reviewed journal articles, encyclopedia articles. She is an expert on parent-child relationships. She also is a certified family life educator through the National Council of Family Relationships. All that to say, Dr. Amy, you know what you're talking about on this topic?
Dr. Amy: Hopefully! I feel that we always have things to learn but it is an area that I love to work with. Because it's so hard to be going through divorce. It's hard to parent anytime. Sometimes, we just need a little extra support when we're going through all of those changes as well.
Things to Consider When Divorcing With a Child
Dr. Lisa: It's so hard, it is so hard. To your point, especially hard when divorce is on the table. Let's just jump right into your topic. I mean, I know you're a wealth of information around how to go about this in the best way possible. I think on today's show, we've talked a lot on shows in the past about what it's like for adults and relationships, and how to stop the divorce potentially, or things to consider if you are thinking about getting divorced. I would refer you back to other podcasts on that topic. You can scroll back through our feed to find them.
Really today, this is for somebody who has either decided that this needs to happen, or who is in a relationship with someone who has decided for them that this needs to happen. They are just so agonized about not just their own feelings in relationship, but like, “What is this going to do to our kids?” And “How do I help the kids with us?” I think the biggest fear for a lot of parents in the situation is that the divorce is going to harm the children emotionally, relationally, irreparably. Can you speak to that a little bit? I mean, what does the research say?
Dr. Amy: The research in this area really does show that it's not irreparable harm to kids. It's hard for kids. Anyone going through that kind of transition, or there's a lot of uncertainty and unknown. And so often, kids can struggle a little bit. It's hard to go through that. Kids might have a lot of questions. It varies a little bit depending on how old they are. With an older kid might have a few more questions, and a one or two-year-old just from where they're able to have questions. There’s an adjustment period. It's difficult. There's research outcomes that say kids tend to do okay, particularly when they don't place blame on themselves for the divorce or the conflict, or when they're able to sort of recognize “This isn't my fault that it's happening, but I'm able to know that it is happening, and have that support through it.”
They tend to turn out okay, and it goes away. They can have healthy relationships after that, as well. There's actually some research in kids that says that, “When there's really high conflict, or there's a lot of conflict going on in the home, the kids actually have sometimes better outcomes when there's a divorce, and the conflict is reduced in their lives.” If that's sort of the decision that's happening. Really, when that conflict is able to be de-escalated, or there's just less conflict around that — not to say divorce is the only path forward to reduce conflict. But that high level of conflict between parents also has negative outcomes for kids.
Recognizing there's lots of different paths forward, but paths forward that allow kids to know this isn't their fault — that they are loved going through it, and that they still have their parents who care about them. They still tend to turn out okay, even if it's a difficult adjustment period, or there some questions, or things that they want to explore. They still turn into good, healthy functioning adults most of the time.
Dr. Lisa: That's so reassuring. Everybody, you heard it here from a legitimate expert that going through divorce is not going to ruin your child's life, or damage them forever, and that it's going to be okay.
Dr. Amy, I did also hear you say that it is normal and expected to have a transitional period where it is hard. I also heard you say that there are certain ideas or messages that kids really need to be getting from their parents in order to have those positive outcomes. Let's just take those one at a time. If it's okay. What would you say is normal and expected for kids to be feeling or going through as their parents are making this transition that may be some of the harder stuff and again. Not wanting to talk about this to be all negative, but sort of to prepare parents for what they can expect and how to help. So, what’s normal?
Dr. Amy: Sure, normal can look a lot of different ways. So I'll try to…
Dr. Lisa: I said that. I was like, “What am I talking about? What's normal?”
Dr. Amy: There’s a lot of variation there. Kids can often… I would say they still have lots of questions about it, or, it's a confusing thing about life has looked one way. Up until now, and now there's a big change in my world. I don't know what that… I don't know why it's happening. I don't know what that means for me. A lot of kids might have friends that have divorced parents, and they see their parents every other week. But then they have another friend and they do summers and holidays. There can be so many questions that they have like, “Who am I going to live with?” “Do I still get to see my dog?” “Do my favorite toys even get to go with me if I'm changing home?” Often, there's a lot of confusion and questions. Sometimes those questions… Kids often ask, “Is it my fault?” “Did I do something wrong that led my parents to not be wanting to be together?” “Is it because of me?”
When we think developmentally, kid’s brains are also still learning that idea of self, and then “How do I influence the rest of the world?” That idea that probably “I'm influencing everything that happens in the world” is very developmentally normal for kids. It can be a little bit tricky when we have that normal perspective, and we're going through this big outcome to say, “Well, I'm sort of influencing everything.” Or “I'm figuring that out that probably I influenced this divorce.” And maybe they didn't really at all.
Some of those questions, and confusions, and wanting clarity, there can also be, a lot of grief or loss for kids of, “I've gotten to see both of my parents all the time, and I love both of my parents. Now, I don't get to see them all the time.” Or “I don't know what that's going to look like and I'm sad.” Or “I'm sad that I don't live in the same house all the time if we have to move.” There can be that sort of element of loss for them too. That makes a lot of sense. Whenever we have changes, and changes are hard. There's uncertainty that they could still be okay, and they're losing something so often that confusion or loss tends to come into play.
Sometimes, there's that… Kids tend to either go internal to themselves of how we see that. That can look like, “Maybe I'm withdrawing some” or “I seem more sad” or “ I'm crying more.” Those kind of internal behaviors that could maybe be a little bit feeling more anxious, or “Can I control things” or they could also have external symptoms. That might mean more pushback, or maybe if you're a kid that's usually pretty mild-mannered is starting to talk back a lot or really resist rules. Sometimes, that is a really normal reaction, or if we start being a little bit more flamboyant in our interactions, and even beginning a few more arguments at school, or more tantrums, if they're in that age. Those would be external behaviors that also sort of saying the same thing.
Sort of seeing some of those changes. Short-term can be normal to see and wanting maybe to support your kids through that, and really being able to identify where are those things coming from, what are they feeling. Helping them explore that can be really helpful. But it is normal either to see some behavior changes too at times.
Dr. Lisa Wow, that was just so much information! To make sure that I'm following — developmentally, kids are very self-referential. They're little narcissists. Everything is about them, right? Because of that, they can blame themselves, or feel a sense of responsibility, or guilt. That can be normal, and it needs to be really addressed directly. I'm also hearing you say that, because this is a loss, they will also commonly have really big emotions, sometimes it is sadness.
But sometimes, that can look a lot of different ways. Anxiety, which turns into controlling behaviors. Anger, which can be difficult as a parent, and withdrawal, isolation, rejection of others. These are just symptoms, I guess, of these really super big feelings that are going on in kids. They need help from parents in order to be able to manage those. I'm so glad we're talking about this because we're both family therapists. Sometimes, you see kids… And here come my air quotes. You can see this on the video if you're watching, but if you’re on audio you can't. My air quotes is that kids are behaving badly because they are doing weird controlling things.
They are lashing out, or breaking rules, or being defiant, or not doing their homework, or stuff. It can be easy for parents to take a sort of like punitive approach with kids like they tried to start managing the “bad behaviors,” and sometimes miss the fact that there are big feelings. Normal, healthy, appropriate feelings. Do you see that in your work?
Dr. Amy: Often, when I work with families. Either I'm working with parents or a family that often we see behaviors, and we want to stop the behavior because they're not working for some reason. But often, if we're getting into fights, or we're really talking back or things like that make sense, as parents, we'd want to sort of stop that behavior. Often, those behaviors are a way of saying, “I don't really know what I'm feeling” or “I'm feeling something big, and I don't know how to express it” or “I'm trying to show you that I'm having those feelings.” Either way, we often pay maybe more attention to those big external behaviors. Those internal ones sort of have the same impact, even if we're keeping it all inside.
We seem like we're functioning really well. Sometimes, those feelings are still all packed up, and maybe a tighter little bundle but they aren't coming out. But it's still important for those kids to have, the outlet and the space to talk about it, and to know that those feelings are okay and that they make sense. As parents, you're sort of still there of, “We care about you, we understand you can have those feelings. Let's figure out what we do about them.” Being able to recognize that it's not just the kids that act out, but sort of that act in, too, both wanting that support. Sometimes, it's easier to see the acting out as the problem behavior.
How to Tell Your Kids About Divorce
Dr Lisa: As opposed to the perfectionistic 14-year-old girl who's the star of the school play, and throwing up her lunch every day in the bathroom. Like that kind of… We miss that. The ones that hide. I'm hearing you say is that a lot of the outcome for kids really depends on the parents’ capacity and willingness to be that emotional partner in that place for kids.
Certainly, a parent could send their kid off to therapy to have that one hour a week of talking about their feelings, or I'm sure a lot of the work that you do is really around that, as a parenting coach, helping parents learn how to engage with their children in a more emotionally substantive way. Do you… And I know that this is a podcast and beyond the scope of our 45 minutes together, whatever it is, and people… You do multi-sessions of family therapy around this. But what would be some of your recommendations or strategies to help parents just kind of reorient themselves and almost know how to be with their kids in a way that's helpful for their kids?
Dr. Amy: Yeah! That was like very…
Dr. Lisa: Oh, thank you for saying that because I just felt very convoluted as that came out of my mouth.
Dr. Amy: I think one of the first biggest tips is to recognize that even though you're, as a parent, being that emotional partner, like that support for your kids to process, sort of that recognition that it is a one-way street of you're there to support your kids feelings, but your kids aren't there to support yours. Sometimes, that's really hard because when we go through divorce, or we're thinking about our any of those process, as a person, there's a ton of feelings, and lots of things that come up, and we want support and validation. That makes perfect sense. When you're thinking of a kid that's maybe a little bit at the middle, we might want that reassurance that your kid does love you, or that they want to be with you. It's not necessarily your kid’s job to give that to you, or to hear the problems between parents.
Wanting to be able to provide kids answers, provide kids information, without having it be their responsibility to take care of us because it's not a kid's responsibility to do, and that's a really big burden for a kid to carry. Doing things like saying, if a kid had a question, “Mom and dad have decided that we're not going to stay married together. We know that's a really hard thing to hear. We've been trying to figure it out, and it's not going to work for us. But we want you to know that we both still love you, and we care about you, and nothing's going to change. We're still going to be mom and dad.” Kind of providing that validation and information without making it their responsibility. That's sort of one of the steps is offering that support without doing that.
The other thing is you can tell your kids that it's okay to have feelings like, “Actually, no! This is a really big change that we're going through, and it is going to be different. Do you have any questions? How do you feel about it. You can come talk to me at any time.” Maybe even checking in with them about things, and that's depending on the age. If we're old enough to do that, but as little kids too, just that reassurance that they're loved, and that it's not their fault. Answering those questions that they have. If they come to you and say… Maybe they say, “You know, I sometimes I feel angry.” Or I feel… Kids sometimes act out in their bodies like, “My tummy gets tight when I think about it.” That makes sense.
It's okay. If you're angry with us right now, we made an adult decision, and that adult decision is impacting you. You can be angry at us, but we can talk about that. It's okay to do that. Saying whatever those emotions are coming up — same goes for sadness, or anything that they're feeling — that makes sense that you'd feel that way. This is really hard. Then, we can model those coping behaviors for our kids to, “What do we do when we're angry? Should we go get our pillow? We can hug our pillow really tight because no one gets hurt if we hug our pillow really tight.” Or “Is it that sometimes we just need a little extra cuddle time? Should we go read a story together?” There's also really great storybooks about families going through a divorce, like the things that won't change or… Families look all sorts of different ways. We've been having those kinds of resources available.
Dr. Lisa: Will you send me, If you think about it after we finished recording our interview, send me links to some of your favorite books, and I'll include them in the show notes of this podcast so people can find those links. But go on. This is great!
Dr. Amy: I will definitely send those links. Doing those things that make it normal, or even checking in with them. Sometimes,we might have family routines like we have pancake breakfasts on Saturdays, and that's something we've already done and you want to continue that tradition, and maybe you're doing it for the first couple times without their other parent being there and saying, “It's a little different that we're doing this. Just me and you now…” Or “…me and your siblings. How are y'all doing with that? Should we still do that?” So, kind of checking in on where they're at, “Do we want to maintain that? Does that feel really good?” Or “Do we need to switch to waffles, and have something new and something fun?” Big on breakfast food today. Kind of checking in on what is that's important.
The other thing would be to the extent that your parenting agreement has. Kind of validating that… Of course it makes sense they would still want to talk to their other parent, or they still love their other parent. That makes sense. When we have two parents that are really good, safe parents, kids deserve to have that connection with both of them, and they want that. That kind of goes into just maybe a what not to do. Not bad talking their parent to them.
Sometimes not saying anything is better than saying. If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. We'll go back to that that we learned when we're kids. If we can't say something nice about their parent, don't say that they're a bad parent because what a kid can sometimes hear is that, “Well, if my two parents. I came from two parents. If one of my parents I'm hearing is really bad. What does that mean for me? Does that mean I have the bad? Or what does that mean?” Or “Is it bad that I want connection with this person that I still love them.” Being able to separate the conflict between parents, and then there's the relationship between kids and their parents. Those are not the same thing. Someone might not be the best spouse for you, or there might be thoughts every since that ended, and it doesn't mean they can't still be a good parent for your kids. So, trying to recognize and balance that for them as well.
Dr. Lisa: So much to unpack here. I heard you say that how to explain divorce to a child and how to tell your kids about divorce… It matters the way that you're describing what's happening, the way that you're communicating. That's something that parents can do to shape this experience for children is to get real clear and intentional about how am I talking about this.
My other takeaway from what you said is that it's incredibly important for parents to be very actively managing their own emotional turmoil in a way that helps them be not just emotionally present, but emotionally safe for their kids. Don't send the kids to therapy. You go to therapy. You have a place to talk about all these feelings of anger and rage, and hurt, and fear. That one-way street… Do not share that with your kids. It's your job as a parent to be a safe space for your children, to talk with you about how they're feeling. That your job is to invite that, and just be extremely validating and affirming, and make it okay to do that.
I also heard you talk about the need to be really intentional about routines, and things that help children kind of maintain that sense of… I don't want to say sameness, but our new normal and positive ways, “This is the breakfast and dad's not here. That's kind of weird, but we can have pancakes anyway. You want to talk about how weird it feels that dad isn't here.” Without trying to talk them out of their feelings.
Dr. Amy: That's okay to feel weird. Weird isn't always bad. It's just weird.
What is Parental Alienation?
Dr. Lisa: Okay. Moving on you were talking about… I think what is a really important topic… Because it's almost like there's the short-term pieces of a divorcing family, divorcing parents around how do we manage the first conversations, the big feelings that might be occurring right around the time of the separation in those first few months. There's also this almost longer-term peace around the family dynamics that can start to happen when parents actually don't like each other, and sort of what to do with all that in a healthy way so that it doesn't begin to negatively impact the children and their feelings.
For our listeners, in addition to other things, Dr. Amy is also an expert on the subject of parental alienation, and what all happens there. I think we were kind of dipping a toe into that pool a little bit around what happens when parents start talking about their negative feelings with their kids in a way that's really unhelpful for the children. I know, that's a big topic on its own.
Can you share a little bit more about what do parents need to be keeping in mind when they are awash in big feelings that… Maybe your ex did cheat on you, maybe they were horrible to you through the divorce and hid assets, and are demanding, trying to litigate you out of existence. I mean, those things happen in yucky divorces. To be in a situation where you still need to be fairly positive with your child about their dad or mom or whatever. That's hard. Can you say more about this piece of experience like…
Dr. Amy: And it is still so hard. We talk sometimes about these solutions. When we're just sitting here having a conversation, they can sound so easy to do like, “Here's my step-by-step book.” They are so hard to do. It's more like the first step on the moon type step-by-step book. I do just want to say that it's not an easy thing to do, by any means. In recognizing that, sometimes we do have valid reasons why we might not like the other person all that much. I think one thing that's important to remember is they don't have to be a good partner for you. They don't have to be the right person for you to be with. They're always going to be your kids’ parents. We can't change who our parents are — a little bit of that recognition.
Sometimes, we have to get a little creative. What can you do? Maybe there are situations where having an exchange for parents like, “I don't think I can see this person right now.” And have a good exchange for that. Maybe my sibling or your good friend, or whoever they do the drop-off, you have a neutral person. Maybe they're living with this new partner, and you're not ready to see that at all. We can't do those exchanges or drop-offs at their house. “Oh, let's meet at a coffee shop.” And have it be sort of a neutral territory. Being able to have those creative situations of knowing yourself, and maybe have to do a little bit of self-exploration to know those things for yourself.
Saying, “I know I can't go into this situation and handle it well, then I'm not going to put myself and my kids in that situation. I'm going to figure it out on a creative other way to do that.” If there are situations where maybe there's those times we’re like, “If I have to answer something about my ex-partner, I'm not going to say anything nice.” You could say to your kid, “I'm really glad that you had a great visit with them” or “I'm glad that you still had a special time with mom or dad” or “That sounds like a really fun experience, I'm glad you got to do that.”
Sometimes not saying anything about your own feelings, and then go have your person to go talk to it about, and whether that be your therapist, or your friend, or whoever your safe space is going to be like, “Oh my gosh, let me tell you everything that just drove me crazy…” Doing it not maybe outside the doorway where your kid is, where they can overhear. Kids are really good at hearing everything that goes on around.
Finding your safe space and your safe person, and being able to have all of those emotions. In the moment, just saying what you can say and doing what you can. Sometimes, there's little tips in that too… Tends to be easier to drop a kid off versus pick them up. If one parent is posed to pick up, what if they come, and you're in the middle of something or it's hard or so being able to do the drop off on a scheduled time–-being able to follow that often.
If we're in an area where there's a lot of contention, or there's going to be a lot of disagreements, having a really clear parenting plan about what is or isn't allowed. It could be, “Are we allowed to FaceTime with our kids during the week?” If it is “Yes, you're allowed to have a video call every day” for either side when your kid isn't in your custody, you always have that fallback plan of “This is what we agreed to.” If one person's not following through on that, you have that safeguard. Sometimes, it's really thinking in advance of what do I want this to look like.
Parenting plans can be very creative. Creating what you want it to be, with the exception of it's probably not going to be everything that you want it to be. Probably in an ideal world, you want your kids all of the time for it not to happen. Thinking of those priority things and being able to say, “Okay, we're each going to navigate that.” Sometimes, it's helpful to do a little bit of how do we effectively communicate with each other to whether… Maybe you go work with a therapist or a coach some time on. We don't need to solve all of our issues necessarily. We've decided we're not doing that. We do have to know how we can communicate effectively. And that's, “Can we do that? Can we at least get the skills to co-parent?”
Even though we can divorce someone, they're still in our life for the rest of our life because they're in our kid's life. There's events like future weddings, or graduations or all of those milestones, they're going to be there. Finding out a way that we can maybe be around them without it ruining that whole event for you, it's so special as a parent. It can be really helpful too.
Divorcing with Kids
Dr Lisa: Again, so much good stuff. What I was thinking of just really briefly. As you're talking about like that parenting plan and the agreements. I don't know if you caught this, but there was a podcast — I think it was last year — excellent podcast with a family law attorney. Her name was Stephanie Randall. It was like how to have an amicable divorce. She just provided so much really great information for people to be thinking about, and just like ways of negotiating certain things like parenting plans in order to have it be as good as possible. I'll just refer our listeners back to that.
What I heard you saying like emotionally, and relationally, for parents with kids is–-and this is a really simplified way — I think of saying it, no matter… In some ways, how bad things get for you, and how bad you feel that your job as a parent is really to insulate your child from that as much as you possibly can–-being very thoughtful and intentional about the things you share, and having a well-developed way of managing all of these feelings outside of the relationship with your kid. But also the high degree of emotional intelligence knowing, “This is a trigger for me, and I'm not even going to try to do a drop-off in this situation because I know I'm going to lose it.” Figuring out how you can solve the practical situation without putting yourself in a vulnerable situation emotionally. Like, there's so much there.
Dr. Amy: I'll say we're not going to get it right all the time probably. That's okay. Actually, we can model really great behaviors for our kids. Let's say, we did the drop-off, and you got really mad, and we argued, and the kid could even go back to them and be like, “Gosh, you know what? I thought about it, and in our drop-off, I got really mad that time. Did you see that? I had some big feelings too.” Or “I was really angry and I didn't handle that quite the way that I wanted, and I'm sorry that you saw your parents fighting like that. I want you to know that wasn't about you and that wasn't a ‘you’ thing. I'm going to try to do it differently in the future. I'm sorry that I acted like that.’ Sometimes, dad does make me mad, but that's okay. We're going to figure out where we go from there.
Being able to apologize or model that of, “Yep, you're right. Sometimes we aren't going to do it perfect, and that's okay.” Really, that goal is that we're trying our best to get there, or we're doing our best, and maybe it gets easier over time, or we're a couple of years in and there's a thing or like, “Gosh, where did that come from? I thought those feelings weren’t there.” It's okay to figure that out, and that we can always try again. There's always the next day and we can try again the next day, and that's an okay thing too.
Dr. Lisa: That's wonderful. To direct very directly and explicitly, the creating emotional safety is by being authentic like, “Did you see me right there? Totally lost it.” And acknowledging what that was like for the child, but also modeling for the kid how we repair times when maybe we did make a mistake.
In the back of my mind right now, I'm imagining that we have one of our listeners sitting with us right now in this conversation, who is one of these people who I know you and I have both worked with closely, Dr. Amy over the years, who is in a situation where they have maybe grave misgivings about the way that their ex does parent. They don't trust their ex to meet their kid’s needs. They're worried about their child, and they're part ex-partners care.
I think a lot of times parents who are divorcing, that right there is the hardest thing for them because they have certain standards of parenting that maybe their ex isn't doing, or maybe it's not even about giving them candy and going to bed without brushing your teeth. But maybe the ex on the other side is actually bad-mouthing you to the kid and isn't trying to be as ethical emotionally with the children as you are being.
Bad things are being said about you on the other side. Again, this is a big topic and we're not going to talk about everything in our short time together. I know people spend months with you trying to unpack all this. But do you have any basic ideas or thoughts that might be helpful, even just as a starting point for someone who is in this reality where they're trying real hard for their kids, and maybe their ex is slinging sauce and being mean, and being questionable? Do with that.
Dr. Amy: It is so hard because, on one hand, we can only control what we do. We can't make another person change, although sometimes that feels like it would be the easiest situation. There's sort of two scenarios you described. There's the one scenario of I don't really like how this person parents too. Maybe I have disagreements about it. The first question is, “Are your kids safe? If the answer is that they're not safe, you should step in and do something, and try to figure that out. Because we, as parents and professionals, we want kids to be safe, first and foremost.
A lot of times, though, kids are safe and we don't like what's going on. Bedtimes a lot later than we think it should be, or they're eating a lot more sugar. In those cases, it's sort of… Let's pick our battles on that, if it's… This diet really is important for some reason. Maybe, here it is… Well, maybe then we need to negotiate that. But if it's, bedtime is 7 p.m. versus 8 p.m., and we don't like that it's 8 p.m., it's okay. Then we pick our battles on that because you're probably going to parent differently in different households, and that gets even more complicated if somebody gets remarried, or there's more kids added into the mix.
Kids can kind of adapt between those two rules. Having routines or things for your own kids, when they come home like, “First night back, we do movie night,” or “We're going to have that meal together,” or whatever those routines are that you can establish. It's really helpful to provide that consistency or expectation for kids if they know what's going to happen. That can even be maybe that's not being done on the other side, but they know that routines there with you. That can be kind of grounding and hopeful. Doing what you can and helping that.
Sometimes, it can be… I see it come up a lot of times of, “Are we going to church or not?” and that can be different, or maybe we have different political things we're telling our kids about, or different… Those value differences can be really hard to hear. Your kids are probably going to experience that sometime in their life too. We can practice it and be like, “Yeah, people really believe different things in this house. But we believe it's this, and this is what we've really been doing. You're right, that's different in that house.” That can be confusing.
We need to talk about that more. Who can we find to talk about that? Sometimes that can be helpful. Sometimes, there's the other thing that you mentioned was really, when parents kind of bad-mouthing you or they're not doing any of these things.
Dr. Lisa: Or using the kids emotionally, or like doing all the things that you said to not do, right?
Dr. Amy: What we generally want to do is do the same thing back and to kind of defend ourselves. It makes sense of, “Well, they do that too” or, kind of we…
Dr. Lisa: Let me tell you the truth.
Dr. Amy: What that does is it puts our kid in a very stuck position of having to choose sides. Kids don't want to pick sides, and that's really, really tough. Being able to say… came in and they're like, well, “so and so”, they said this, and it doesn't even have to be the other parent. It could be another step-parent or a grandparent, or anyone involved could be saying the negative things about you. “I really wish they hadn't said that to you. I'm going to tell you the truth, and the truth is that, ‘Yeah, we do disagree a lot,’ or ‘Mom and Dad, we don't get along very well.’ But one thing that's true is that we're both trying to love you.” Or they brought up a situation like “Oh, you don't like this” or “We can't do this because of you. Dad said that.”
Well, you can own your truth and be like, “Gosh, I don't know why dad would say that, but I love this. Here's what I actually think is true for me.” And then sort of period. Stop. Don't go to the… say your dad is wrong, or they're saying that, but sort of owning or mom's wrong, “No, actually, this is what's true.” Sometimes you can even provide the data to choose it like, “Well, mom said we can't pay for the soccer game” and be like, “You know, you're right! I don't have the money for that, and that's really hard….” because sometimes money looks different, “That's right. But it's not because I don't love you, or isn't because I don't want to pay for that. It's just I can't really afford that right now. Maybe we can think about how we could do it in the future.”
Being able to acknowledge what's true and what's your truth, and providing that consistency and stability that you can do, and kind of being there for that. Recognizing… Again, you probably need to go to that safe person to handle that. While we want to be those people for our kids, getting a professional involved for your kids, and getting them to see a therapist can also be helpful during that time, particularly in that high conflict to say, “You don't have to try to take care of Mom or Dad. This is an adult that’s safe, and you can talk to it. You can talk about all of those confusing feelings.” And that kid doesn't have to worry about hurting anybody's feelings that are saying the wrong thing. They just have a safe space, and they can get the coping tools, and they can navigate it, and they can be honest about what's coming up. That can be really, really helpful for kids as well.
Malicious Parent Syndrome
Dr. Lisa: I could totally see. That would be definitely an argument. Get the kid therapy so that they don't have to try to take care of anybody emotionally, and can just feel what they feel and figure out their own truth. That's a good reminder. Just what a difficult situation, though, emotionally. As I heard you talking about how a thoughtful parent could handle those situations where maybe they are being bad-mouthed on the other side is that to balance how maybe good it feels to say, “Yeah, I can't pay for soccer because your father hid his retirement assets. When we…” The whole truth, versus this idea of, “It is not good for my kid to hear negative things about either of us. It's not good for my kid for me to say bad things about their other parent, even if I am completely justified.”
Doing so… And that would… Is something that can be challenging to get to. There's a sort of other corollary here. I don't want to spend our time together without talking about this just a little bit because I know that parental alienation is a very real thing. I know you're an expert on this topic. This is a situation when there has been a lot of negativity or bad-mouthing about one parent from the other. It does have an impact. Can you say a little bit more about what parental alienation is, and how to manage it?
Dr. Amy: It's a really tough area. I'll say parental alienation exists on a spectrum. Often, when we talk about it, we talk on like, the worst-case scenario, situation of parents that are safe, good loving parents that don't have any access to their children for some way, or the kid has sort of turned against them, even though they are good safe parents. That's one sort of caveat, when we're talking about it that parental alienation really only exists when there's two parents that should have contact with their children. In situations where there was any abuse or neglect, that's not parental alienation to not have your kid have contact with them.
That's being safe. It's one definitional point is that it's between when there's two safe parents, and that it can exist on any spectrum from that kind of bad-mouthing and confusion creating, and that can go really big to kids saying, “Well, I'm not going to go to your visitation” or “I'm not going to do that.” One of those things can be protective is, again, going back to those, legal orders that we have in those protected rights of saying, “You actually have to do this, or this has to be done” because sometimes what happens is you don't get to go to visitation or the kid is gonna say, “I don't want to go” or “I don't want to answer the phone.”
The courts can be used as a way to kind of, “Nope, this is the order. This is what we're doing.” Having that safe ground and being intentional in how you create it can help, and navigating…
That sort of navigating that support. There are cases I've worked with where people
don't have contact with their kids at that point and that is just heartbreaking to do. Sometimes, the best we can do is try to maintain that consistency.
One of the things we know that doesn't work is to do the same behaviors. On the other end of things, and sometimes, kids get to be adults, or they can change in the future. Recognizing that it was really hard, and it's really tricky, trying to navigate that continual contact, “I'm still here, I'm still showing up for you.” That looks different in different contexts of there's a little kid versus a teenager showing up might look very different. But often, it's very…
Let's go to the preventative: Can we figure out where that's coming from? Can we do some couples work together? Or if I'm just having that time, I can… You can disagree with behaviors without bad-mouthing another person and say, “I really wish mom or dad wouldn't say those things, and I really hope that you can trust that what I'm telling you is what's true for me. We only get to say what's true for ourselves. I want you to know that I love you and I care about you, and I have fun.”
Providing that alternate balance to kids can be really helpful, or not pushing back. The kid says, “I don't want to see you right now.” It's really hard to do these transitions, isn't it? “But right now, it's our parenting time. So, what are we going to do?” And kind of navigating through that. We've been figuring out if they say, “Where is it coming from or handling her?”, that gives us ideas of how do we move forward. Often, that alienating back doesn't work, or it will be met with resistance, or be used to confirm things even, and recognizing again that it's a full spectrum of anywhere.
They don't always all go to those worst-case scenarios. I think that's a helpful thing to remember that they do. It's tragic and awful when that happens, and that they don't always or we can prevent it earlier on sometimes as well.
Dealing with Parental Alienation Syndrome
Dr. Lisa: That said that parental alienation is on a spectrum. There's sort of shades of grey. It's when one parent is very negative towards the other, and actually influences the child to think badly about the other parent to the point where it impacts their ability to have a relationship with that other parent.
I've heard some people saying, “It feels like they're brainwashing my kid against me!” All of this, and you're saying to not use the same tactics about trying to talk back, but just really consistently like sticking to the visitation as much as possible. If the child is maybe like a teenager or something. He's like, “No, I'm not getting in the car!” To just find ways of just consistently showing up to the degree that you can so that your kid knows that you're not giving up on them. You're still there.
Even if right now they might be under the influence of somebody who's highly negative, they'll grow up, and maybe have the opportunity to re engage and make up their own minds. That sort of summarize that.
Dr. Amy: I think that's great. I would also say, in those cases, get support for yourself as well because there's so much outside of your control, and there is so much grief and pain. To go through those experiences, that's traumatic for a parent. To have that support in place for you. as well is so important to be able to just… Because it's confusing, and it's disorienting and lost. I think that it's really important to be able to have your personal support system. Do the things that are right for you as well, but also have that sort of professional area where you can get that support and guidance, and have that space for yourself is really important too.
Dr. Lisa: Can I ask you a question? Have you ever seen… I haven't but I'm wondering if you have because you have more experience than I have in this area. If there is a dynamic where one parent is really highly negative about the other, “Your father is the devil!” And is really like using their kids and manipulating their kids emotionally in an unhealthy way.
Have you ever seen the parent on the other side be able to make contact with the parent who is being really destructive in a way that is able to help that destructive parent understand what they're doing, or work through the anger and pain that may be at the root of the lashing out on the negativity? Is there anything you've seen that works? Because that's like the source, right? Or is it just?
Dr. Amy: I think then, it doesn't always hurt to try. Sometimes, it gets so complicated in these cases of is it just from the other parent? There's so many other people. It can happen from a step-parent bad-mouthing someone or a grandparent. Some of it's sort of where is it coming from. Some of it's the why is it coming from. Sometimes it's, “Do we not know? Is it intentional? Where's that?”
I think every person probably knows their situation better than I can hypothesize right now for each person listening. Being able to say, “Does it feel like reaching out?” or even saying “I don't know that we're doing this co-parenting thing well. Can we get some help on how we do it better?” Navigating those systems. Sometimes works well, sometimes those… Maybe they didn't listen to the podcast, or they don't have those information. It's not an intentional thing to happen.
Dr. Lisa: So, they don’t know how destructive it is. They don't know.
Dr. Amy: A lot of times when it's, I say, “I don't know” or “I'm coping poorly”, those cases, there could be a lot of potential for that. There are also cases that we go to that more extreme end, where it is more intentional in nature. Maybe not always intentional consciously, but we're really doing this, or I want that custody or different things that happen in those cases. Probably there'll be less success in those areas as someone's trying to do it.
Say, again, it's very complex, and there's so much different layers or different ways, say, no two cases really look alike, the being able to kind of figure out what's your area, and what's the sort of step forward that's going to work for you and trying to understand that is so key to do. Trying to recognize that not everyone’s story… You can go onto Google, and you see all the horror stories, see all the great stories, and recognizing that that support is wonderful, and finding that support for yourself.
Seeing like, just because that's what this person experienced doesn't mean it's going to be what I'm going to experience and kind of holding that balanced perspective for yourself as well.
Dr. Lisa: No, I hear what you're saying. We can certainly find the darkest of the dark corners: Power, and control, and narcissists intentionally manipulating things. The thing all of its… But maybe a note to end on. Certainly, if listening to podcasts like this around what is actually best for kids emotionally when you're going through this and just helping people become educated, and how to manage their own feelings in a way that helps their child even if they're hurting. That would be a start.
On that note, do you have other books or resources that other people or people listening could kind of learn more about these topics — how to be safe emotionally for kids, any other information on the impact of… I want to say negativity on children and sort of healthy boundaries for people in these situations. You might even send to an ex in the mail or something. What are books or resources would you recommend?
Dr. Amy: I’ll send… they send you a list versus the ones that just popped into my mind can leave you with a little storybooks too. I think that often there's some good websites. Looking at sort of any of these. There's a lot of parenting data out there that's not really research-based. Going with the ones that are really rooted in research tends to be the best.
Dr. Lisa: A blogger with a strong opinion is not always okay.
Dr. Amy: I think that a lot that have developmental perspectives can be really helpful because the way you're going to talk to a four-year-old is going to look very different than an eight or nine-year-old versus a 13-year-old versus a 19-year-old. Divorce can impact kids very differently at different ages. When you're looking for those resources, really wanting to be, “I'm not reading a book about divorcing with an elementary school kid if I have high schoolers.” It's going to be different.
If you have three different ages of kids, you might want to read three different books on how to support kids differently. A lot of that I'd say that the emotional intelligence parenting too or sort of looking into those resources are helpful for any parent, and being able to have these emotion conversations. But they tend to be really helpful in guiding it about how do we talk to kids about divorce. I can certainly send over a list of specific titles and things. If you want to link that to be great,
Dr. Lisa: Wonderful, I will put your reading list in the show notes of today's episode, and that will be on growingself.com. We're going to be calling this episode, Divorce and Children. It'll be growingself.com/divorce-and-children. I'll be sure to put links to your recommended books and articles.
Dr. Amy, thank you so much again, just for taking the time to talk through all this with me. I know it's a complex subject, but you shared so much information in such a short amount of time. I know it was helpful for a lot of people listening, so thank you.
Dr. Amy: Well, thank you so much for having me. To everyone listening, I just want to say I really commend you for even taking that first step to get the information and resources. The fact that you clicked on a podcast to listen to it says that you really want to be there for your kids and to do that.
Hopefully, there's been some good advice or some good resources, or even food for thought about next steps. I think that even listening to the podcast, and wanting to get that resource says that you care a lot about your kids. I just want to share that too. Dr. Lisa, thank you so much for having me as well. It was an honor to be able to be here today.
Dr. Lisa: This was fun and ditto. “Yay” to you mom and dad for trying so hard. Dr. Amy, thank you so much for saying that so beautifully. Thank you. Dr. Amy: Thank you
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Hi there. Are you reading this “advice from a marriage counselor” article because your partner just forwarded it to you, as a way of attempting to communicate that you invalidate feelings or they feel emotional invalidation and that they would like this 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 impulsively texting it to you on the headline alone — might not know yet: we all invalidate our partners accidentally. I'll bet you probably feel invalidated by them from time to time too. Am I right? Yes? Welcome to relationships.
How do I know that you're feeling emotionally invalidated sometimes too? First of all, I've been a marriage counselor and relationship coach 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 and conflict. (Except in the tiny percentage of couples counseling cases that I could count on one hand where the hurt-inducing partner has actually been a diagnosable sociopath and/or narcissist. 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. More than once I have had to apologize for making him feel like I don't care, despite the fact that I love him very much.
But I'm working on it and it's better than it used to be. You can do the same. On today's episode, I'm talking all about emotional invalidation and what to do when you're feeling invalidated to make it stop. Listen below or scroll down for show notes and a full transcript of today's episode.
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
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. The impact of this original invalidation will then generally make your partner swing one of two ways, towards either hostility or withdrawal and emotional shut down. Neither of those are good.
In order to not invalidate feelings anymore you need to be self-aware of when it's happening, and what you're doing to cause it. This is the hard part, because almost nobody is intentionally trying to make their partner feel diminished or unimportant when it happens. If you call an invalidating person on it in the moment, they usually get really defensive and start sputtering about how “that's not what I meant” and protesting that their intentions were good.
Again, except in the case of narcissists (see link above) this is true. Emotional invalidation is generally unintentional. So, no need to beat yourself up if you've been unintentionally hurting someone you love. But you do need to take responsibility for how our actions impact others. We all do.
So let's get familiar with what invalidation actually looks like so that you can become more self aware. Emotional invalidation comes in many flavors, and can happen in both subtle and dramatic ways.
Types of Emotional Invalidation
Now, take a deep breath and non-defensively read through the following descriptions of “emotional invalidators” and see if you can spot yourself.
See if you can spot the invalidating behaviors your partner uses. (They are in there, I'm sure).
But again, the hard part is recognizing your own. Bonus points if you can think of other ways you might be invalidating sometimes that I haven't put down here. The possibilities are limitless!
But here are some of the “usual suspects.”
Inattentive Invalidators: These types of invalidators don't pay attention when their partner is talking about something important. (C'est moi! I totally do this.)
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. 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.
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: “You need exercise, Timmy. 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. That is so boring, why would anyone want to do that? Personally, I'm busy anyway. 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. The doctor said that this could happen for the first time….”
If this conversation sounds even remotely familiar… I'm glad we're here right now!
Fixit Invalidators: Then, there is the “Fixit” Invalidator, who would prefer to leap over messy feelings entirely and go straight to helpful solutions — having zero idea they are making things infinitely worse by doing so.
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.”
Does this sound like something you might say?
Owner of the Truth Invalidators: Lastly, there are the reflexive “that's not what happened” invalidators who pride themselves on being rational and who sincerely believe that their subjective experience is the yardstick of all others. If it didn't happen to them, it is not a thing. A kissing-cousin of codependency, this type of invalidator will often follow up their original invalidation by explaining to you how you, actually, are the one with the problem.
Example of a Truth Owner in Action:
Them: “I am feeling really invalidated by you right now.”
You: “I am not invalidating you. You were just telling me that your day was hard and you're feeling overwhelmed, and I know for a fact that you shouldn't be feeling that way because it wasn't that bad. You just need to get more organized. You're overreacting.”
Good times, right? Yes, there are so, so many ways to invalidate someone. This is just a small sample of the many ways, shapes, and forms emotional invalidation shows up in relationships. There are many more. Not sure what kind of invalidator you might be? Ask your partner. I'm sure they'd be happy to tell you.
Next, now that we've “cultivated self awareness,” as we say in the shrink-biz, we're going to talk about how to stop doing that, and start helping your partner feel validated instead.
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 emotional invalidation you are prone to, the second step is to learn what it means to be validating and why it's so important.
What is “Validation” Anyway?
So, what is “validation?” To validate someone means that you help them feel understood, accepted, and cared for by you. It requires empathy. Empathy happens when you really get how others see things, and that you support them in their perspective — even if you do not share 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 happy, healthy 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.
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: Validate Feelings Intentionally, Through Practice
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 tryingto 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 my perspective of me being invalidating (and then trying to practice validation) 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 to go take photos and how he might drive out towards the mountains, and now he's talking about this new video game that he started playing with our son, and how there are these avatars that build sawmills and jump over sharks and there are dances (or something) and …
….I've now officially 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… Mountains…. 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. I am now entirely absorbed by my own thoughts rather than what he is saying, but not on purpose.
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?” Only then do I realize that what he was talking about felt important to him, and I made him feel bad. 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 at that moment, but indulging my own self-absorbed thoughts instead of really deliberately tracking what he was saying to me. (If you, too, have a tendency towards adult ADHD, I'm sure you can relate.)
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. I think about how he might be feeling and ask about that. 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. In short, I am using communication skills and empathy to help him feel validated.
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. So does managing your expectations that your partner can or should be perfectly perfect at validating your feelings all of the time.
But truthfully, if you want to stop making someone else feel invalidated it requires a certain level of courage and humility. It's hard to think about, “What's it like to live with me” and really allow yourself to understand, deeply, what you do and how it makes your partner feel. I think that embracing personal responsibility without being defensive is one of the hardest things to do in a marriage, and helping other people move into this receptive, honestly reflective space is often the hardest thing for me to do as a marriage counselor. That's why I wanted to model this for you.
How to Validate Someone's Feelings
Every flavor of invalidation has an antidote that's a little different. Just as there are infinite ways to invalidate feelings, there are many strategies for how to validate someone's feelings too. 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, here are some pointers:
Inattentive invalidators need to stay present and use mindfulness skills to focus and not drift away.
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. Not easy to do. It requires emotional strength, the ability to be honest with yourself, and the willingness to grow in service of your relationship. But it is so worth it.
Now, please send this post and episode back to your partner so they can think about what THEY need to be working on in order to help you feel more heard, valued, and understood by them.
The music in this episode is “Dive” by Beach House from their album “7”. You can support them and their work by visiting their website or on Bandcamp. Each portion of the music used in this episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act. Please refer to copyright.gov for more information.
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[Intro music: “Dive” by Beach House, from their album “7”]
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: Hey friends. Today, on the show, we're going to be talking about something that we need to talk about. It is a silent killer of many relationships. You may be experiencing this on your own. It's feeling invalidated. Either you might be listening to this because you are feeling routinely invalidated by your partner, which is hard, or perhaps you are listening to this because your partner is telling you that you are making them feel invalidated.
This is a really significant issue and one that we need to address together. So that's going to be the focus of our time together today, is talking about what invalidation is, why it happens, and most importantly, what you can do to either feel heard and understood by your partner in your relationship or potentially do a better job of helping your partner feel validated and respected by you.
If this is your first time listening to the podcast, I'm so glad you found us. I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I am your host. I am also the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching. I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. I'm a licensed psychologist. I am a board-certified coach. But what I love doing more than anything else is helping people improve their relationships. I am very married. I've been married for a long time. I've also just worked as a counselor and a coach for so many years.
Just one of, I think, my main takeaways from all of this life experience is that truly, our wellness, our happiness, our health comes from the quality of our relationships largely. That's why so often on this podcast, I want to talk about things that can help you improve your relationships. Because when our relationships feel strong and successful, everything just feels so much easier in our lives. We feel better emotionally. We have more fun. We have a nicer time. We have a strong foundation from which to launch off and do amazing things. So I am a relationship person.
That's what we're talking about today is in the love quadrant: what you can do to increase the emotional safety in your relationship. I think that that's one of the things that happens when invalidation is present in a relationship is that it really erodes the emotional safety between you and your partner. And ugly things can start happening in a relationship when people aren't feeling safe, and respected, and heard, and understood. That's what happens when invalidation is a frequent issue in a relationship.
What Is Validation?
To just dive into our topic today, first of all, allow me to just take a couple of minutes to orient you to validation, what it means, why it's important, to set the stage. When I am talking about either validation or invalidation, to validate someone, it means that you're helping them feel understood by you, that you get whatever they're sharing, you are accepting what they are telling you about how they feel. In that space, also, helping them feel cared for by you, that they're not just saying something and dropping a stone into a well.
There's this response. You get them. You understand how they see things. You can see the situation through their eyes. Also, there's the sense that their perspective is supported by you. I also want to say that in a truly healthy, vibrant relationship, there is always some diversity of thought. We're not partnered with clones of ourselves, right? People can have different perspectives, different opinions. But there's this sense of fundamental respect for each other's perspectives, even if it is different from yours. It's like this: “Yeah, you know when I look at it that way, I can see why that makes sense.”
Just think about it. When somebody says that to you, “I can understand why you would feel that way.” I've had friends in my life just naturally say things like that to me in conversation, and it's the relational equivalent of somebody just walking up to you and just folding a warm, soft blanket around your shoulders. “Yes, that makes sense. You make sense. Your feelings make sense. I can see why you feel that way. I would feel that way too if I were in that situation.” It's just like this, “Ah, thank you so much for saying that.” It's just such a nice experience to have.
I think that we all crave that from our partners from time to time. Again, that's a cornerstone of emotional safety. Now, if the phrase emotional safety is a new one for you, I would encourage you to scroll back through my podcast archive. I have done a podcast episode on emotional safety, specifically, where I talked a lot about that concept and how important it is in healthy relationships, and would encourage you to check out that episode if you'd like to explore more about all the different elements of emotional safety. Keep in mind that to be able to validate someone's feelings is an incredibly important part of that.
When we're creating emotionally safe relationships, and when we are validating people that we love, it is, again, it's like this experience that people are having with us, that we accept them, that we value them, we respect them for who they are. We think that their thoughts, and feelings, and preferences are important. They're important to us, right? In that context, over communicating that regularly, through the way we're communicating and the way that we're interacting with our loved ones, it just creates this very loving and supportive relationship. That's a foundational component.
How Does Emotional Invalidation Happen?
I have to tell you, as a marriage counselor, 95% of the time, when a new couple drops into the practice, and they’re, “We'd like to work on our relationship.” “Okay, great. What's going on?” 95% of the time, it is some variation of communication. “We're not communicating as well as we'd like to. Communication feels hard.” When you dig into that, like, “Okay, what about communication is feeling hard right now,” invariably, one, often both partners are not feeling validated. It's not that the words coming out of each other's mouths are not terribly problematic in and of themselves.
It's that they're not getting a validating response from their partner. The problem with communication is that they are not feeling like their partner hears them or understands them. They're feeling like their partner is misinterpreting their intentions. They say something well-intentioned, well-meaning, their partner takes it the wrong way. Here's something that they are trying to say that is interpreted very negatively, that is responded to in an angry way. Or they're feeling like their partner just doesn't have empathy for their perspective, or slaps whatever they're trying to share out of their hands, or making them feel uncared for, or that their feelings or perspectives aren't important in that moment.
That is very much about a validation issue. Because validation, really, at its core, is around having empathy for the other person. Being able to accurately understand their feelings, understand their intentions, and then reflecting back to that person: “Yeah, I can understand that. I'm not sure that I see it exactly the same way. But when I look through it, at the situation through your lens, I can understand that. Also, I understand that this is important to you. And I understand that you are actually feeling this way.”
I think the other big meta message within that is “I love you, and this, whatever this is, is important to you. You care a lot about this. This is making you feel a certain way. Because you are important to me, I care about it too because I care about you.” Again, it's just this whole experience of being cherished when we're talking about validation and how impactful it is. So many arguments, again, start this way. If we were to dissect pretty much any basic argument that a couple can have, almost all of the time, these arguments begin with one person feeling invalidated by the other.
When that happens, when anyone feels invalidated, the natural response to this is to escalate your efforts to be understood, which often sounds like yelling, am I right? If you say, “Yeah, I feel this way,” and the response you get from your partner's like, “That's wrong.” Right? “That didn't happen, or no, it's not that big of a deal.” That, I think, makes all of us say, “No, you don't understand. No, this is true. This is happening.” All of a sudden, we're really fighting to be understood, aren't we? We are not fighting to win. We are not fighting to control. We are fighting to be heard and to feel like we're cared about, to feel like we're important.
So the other thing that happens, so one person feels invalidated, and then they escalate, “No, I really need you to understand this.” Then, what also happens is that the invalidator, the person who originally came out with a less than ideal response, will double down on defending their position and will defend their invalidating behaviors. “No, that's not what I said. That's not what I meant. Why are you making such a big deal out of this? This always happens when we talk about your mom or your job,” or whatever it is, right?
How Fighting to be Heard is Invalidation
When this starts to happen, one person is like, “No, I really need you to understand how I'm feeling right now.” The other person is like, “That's dumb.” It can get extremely ugly, so fast. I think everybody within the sound of my voice right now has had this experience at one point or another in their relationship. I know that I certainly have. Truth be told, if we're all going to move towards healthy humility here, I think that our partners have probably felt this way with us from time to time.
I think that when we are fighting to be heard, we are experiencing invalidation. We're not getting the response that we want. We are really looking for comfort, or connection, or reassurance, and when that isn't what we're getting, right? It feels bad. I think it is very, very easy to miss the moments that we are accidentally and unintentionally making other people feel that way with us. Because I have to tell you, it is so easy to do. When I sit with a couple in marriage counseling, or couples therapy, or whatever it is, and unpack all of this at the core, I do not find narcissists. I do not find sociopaths. I do not find people who are irredeemable and incapable of having healthy relationships.
What I find are people who are simply unaware of the impact that they are having on others just because they're in a different place, or they're not fully understanding how important that particular moment is. It's just all these missed opportunities to connect. I have been so guilty of that in my own life. I think that chances are, if we are going to be humble and with healthy humility here together, you could probably reflect on some moments in your own life when you have unintentionally done the same.
The reason why I want to talk about this part for a second is because one of the easiest ways to just melt away all that defensiveness, and restore emotional safety, and increase love and validation all around, is when we can be humble and reflect on our own process because it helps us be more emotionally safe. It helps us be more validating and responsive to our partners, and I think it also helps us handle the moments when we are feeling invalidated by someone else.
It helps us handle those moments so much more effectively because we can shift away from that automatic response of, “You just totally invalidated me. I'm going to be mad at you.” “No, that's not what I said. I'm going to start fighting to be heard.” We can shift out of that and into a much more helpful and respectful way of getting our emotional needs met in that moment when we are able to stay soft, and empathetic, and emotionally generous with our partners, and make an effective repair attempt, which is, “You know, let me try that again. I feel like maybe you didn't fully understand what I was trying to communicate to you in this moment and how important it is for me right now just to feel heard by you, and respected by you, and understood by you. So I'm going to have a redo.”
Particularly, if you and your partner have had the opportunity to work on some of this stuff together in couples counseling, or relationship coaching, like it's not the first time they've had this conversation with you, it immediately orients them back to, “Oh, this is one of those moments when you're not looking for me to do anything. You are not attacking me. You are not presenting me with a problem that I need to solve. I don't have to be defensive right now. This is one of these moments when you're just trying to connect with me emotionally. I can do that. So thank you for giving me another go at this so that I can be a better partner for you right now. Because I love you, and you're important to me, and that is what I want to do. Okay? Okay, so let's do this again.”
Then, you can literally have a redo with your partner, where there is a different outcome. That outcome is one where you feel loved, and cared for, and respected, and supportive, and have had the opportunity to share your feelings about something that's on your mind, and not have it turned into an argument. It turns into a conversation where you just get to share and be heard. Maybe that is 100% the goal. That's fantastic. No other action is required. We do not have to change anything. We do not have to fix anything. You got to say it. It was received, and we're done. That's fantastic.
Other times, I think another component of validation can be attached to, “I'm feeling this way, and I would like to find a solution to this problem because I'm feeling bothered by the situation. I'd like to have a productive conversation with you where we could maybe just talk about different ways of handling this because I don't like feeling the way that I'm feeling right now. So I'm just hoping that we can sort through this.” When there is validation happening on both sides, it isn't just you saying, “I have a problem, and we need to fix that because I'm not okay, right now.”
It turns into, “Let me tell you about how I'm experiencing this situation and help me feel like you understand what I'm saying. Now tell me how you are feeling in this situation and what you see is the ideal outcome or different options here.” Because when you are being intentionally validating, and respectful, and supportive, you start asking your partner questions like that. “I'm not the only one in this relationship. You might have a totally different perspective here. Tell me more about how you see this, or how you've been feeling in these situations. How are you experiencing me when this stuff happens?”
Because in that space of emotional safety, when you are able to validate your partner and help them feel really understood and cared for by you, they will tell you how they're feeling because they trust you. You're not going to freak out when they tell you how they're actually feeling. But if there isn't that trust in your relationship, they won't tell you. The trust has been broken to the point that people do not feel safe enough to share how they are really feeling with each other.
Overcoming Emotional Invalidation
We think of trust many times as something that is broken through betrayal. There's an affair or there's some catastrophic lying going on in a relationship, and that can certainly damage trust. But there are many more subtle kinds of betrayals of trust that I think people don't fully recognize or understand the significance of because they're subtle, and a betrayal of trust that happens all the time.
Unintentionally, nobody's doing this on purpose. But when someone tells you how they really feel, or what they need, or what their hopes are, or what is upsetting them even, and when that is invalidated, or dismissed, or rejected, or reacted to with hostility or contempt, it is a betrayal of trust. The message that people receive is, “I don't care about how you feel. I disrespect your experience right now. I reject this.” What happens is, they're like, “Okay, cool, noted. I am never doing that again. The next time you ask me how I'm feeling, I don't think I want to enter into that ring of emotional intimacy with you because I don't trust you enough to tell you how I really feel right now.”
This is hard. This is, I think, a place where I find with many couples, I often need to stay for a fairly significant period of time in couples counseling or in relationship coaching, because people really do not understand the impact that they are having on each other. Again, and I say this as someone who has done exactly the same thing, we all get so focused on our own perspective, our own needs, and whether or not they are being met in a relationship, and whether or not we are feeling validated, or getting the response that we want.
We get very hyper-focused on what is happening in that regard and really miss the systemic nature of relationships, which is, “When I'm feeling that way, what do I do? How do I approach my partner? How do I engage with them?” Because especially people who perceive themselves as really fighting for their relationships, fighting to have greater emotional intimacy or greater connection, have no idea how scary or emotionally unsafe or even threatening they themselves are being in these moments when they feel like they're seeking emotional intimacy.
I'm going to do a whole other podcast on that topic, that concept, specifically, around emotional intimacy and what to do when we're feeling lonely and disconnected in a relationship. So more on that topic to come soon. Just that one takeaway from today would be to ask yourself: Are you validating your partner? Are they feeling invalidated by you in those moments? Or has trust been broken in the past that accidentally trained them to hide from you, and to not communicate with you, and to not tell you how they're really, really feeling even though you want them to, but something has happened, where they feel like they can't?
That's a really, really common thing that happens in relationships. It is frequently due to that primary issue of people feeling invalidated or rejected by each other in these potentially tender moments of connection.
What Does Emotional Invalidation Look Like in Action?
With that in mind, I would really like to turn this conversation to talking a little bit about understanding what invalidation looks like in action so that we ourselves can be more conscious of the times that we're doing it and then, also have a little bit more empathy or understanding for the times when our partners may be doing that to us without fully realizing it. Because empathy is so key.
To begin, when invalidation is happening, what we are communicating, what is happening is that people feel like we don't understand them. We are misinterpreting them. We are taking what they are saying, and then running it through our own filter of meaning, and coming up with something different than what they were trying to communicate to us that they don't feel understood. Or that if we do understand what they're saying conceptually, we don't care about their feelings. Not that we don't care, but that we are rejecting it, and it can be very, very subtle, you guys.
It could be like, “I'm sure they didn't mean that when they said X, Y, Z. You're probably just overreacting.” Those kinds of things, which might be true. I don't know. But the truth of what is happening or not happening is so insignificant that the truth of what's happening is that your partner is actually trying to tell you how they are feeling, emotionally, in this present moment. You have just been offered the gift of trust and emotional intimacy. What are you going to do with that?
Are you going to make them feel like you don't understand, or they're stupid, or their feelings are ridiculous or not important, or they're being overreactive, or they're just not thinking about this the right way? Because that doesn't feel good. We all know how that feels, right? It is not good. Or are they going to be leaving whatever interaction they just had with you feeling like, “I love them so much because they love me.” Just feeling loved. In order to improve this experience, we need to be self-aware of when it's happening and what we are potentially doing to cause it.
Types of Invalidating Behaviors
There are different flavors of invalidation. We all have our unique styles, I think. When I am being invalidating to my husband, I'm usually doing it in one of a couple of ways. So let me just run through these types of invalidating behaviors. See if you can see yourself in any of these and maybe if some of these are true for your partner.
One, and I think this is probably the most common, and this is the one that I am so guilty of, is an inattentive invalidator. These types of invalidators, they're just not paying attention when their partner is talking about something important. Oh my gosh, I can so easily do this, because I don't know what you're like. Me, I'm just kind of usually zooming along at 900 miles an hour. I am a habitual multitasker. I know it's not good to do that. But I am doing the dishes while I'm on the phone with somebody, and I'm thinking about five things that are happening.
Sometimes in these moments, this is when my husband wants to tell me about something. What happens is, they will say, “Oh, I had such a day. I'm not feeling good. I think I might be getting sick.” Then, you might say — by you I mean me — you’d be like, “You know what, I was just thinking that we should go on a trip to Canada.” Or, “Oh did I tell you that Julie called. She was thinking that we might go camping this… Would you want to do that?” So, I am now picking up my phone and researching campsites or travel reservations.
My husband just said something totally unrelated to that. He was trying to tell me something about how he felt. It triggered an idea in my mind, or I wasn't really paying attention to the impact of what he was trying to say. Because there can be emotional connotations to certain things that people say. They're very easy to miss unless we're really paying attention. So he, in that moment, felt like I was totally disconnected from what he was trying to communicate, which I was. It's just because I wasn't fully present.
I was kind of thinking about something, and he said something, and I had a random thought in my head and just sort of impulsively acted on it. I'm nowhere near where he is in terms of what he's trying to communicate or what he is needing for me in that moment. It’s not intentional. It’s not like I'm trying to harm him in those moments. I'm not mad at him. It's just really a simple lack of attention. I, in order to be a better partner, need to slow down sometimes. Also, one of the things that I have found over the years, and I see this routinely with the couples that I work with too, is to be able to set some boundaries or guidelines around these conversations.
When I can tell that he is trying to communicate about something that might be more important, and I am not in a headspace where I can do that. I have a crisis situation at work that I'm thinking about or needing to deal with and that maybe he doesn't know about that, right? So he's trying to talk to me all of a sudden, and I have learned to say, “I want to hear all about this. Can you give me 15 minutes? I need to take care of this. I need to X, Y, Z or whatever.” Then, 15 minutes later, I am like, “Tell me more,” blink, blink, and I’m looking in his eyes asking appropriate questions. I'm all there.
But I need to communicate to him when I can't be present. Because if he doesn't know that, he's going to try to communicate with me and not have a good experience. I think we've learned a lot about each other over the years. He's like, “I would like to talk to you about something important. Is now a good time? Or when can we talk about this?” That conversation right there has been a game-changer, I think, in our relationship. But for so many couples that I work with, particularly, in relationship coaching, people come in, and they have been feeling so badly with each other, and it's just felt so hard.
When we unpack it and when we dial down into it, sometimes, you guys, the answer is as easy as that. “Tell me what is going on in the moments that you're trying to communicate, and it's not going well, or it's feeling frustrating. Literally, where are you?” It could be, sometimes, people are telling me, “It was during dinner, and our three-year-old was having a meltdown, and X, Y, Z.” They start talking about all of these different circumstances. When we're able to identify the practices that people are using, the boundaries that they're setting around their communication, and how they are communicating their needs in those moments to each other, it's so much easier.
It was actually not this big, horrible, catastrophic thing. We don't have to spend nine months in therapy talking about, “Yes, your mother was an alcoholic, and all of these big things about why you can't communicate.” No, it's actually learning how to say, “Is this a good time to talk?” to your partner. Not always. Sometimes, there are old things, and it goes deeper. But, you'd be amazed at the impact of making these small procedural changes can make on the way that everything unfolds. So I just wanted to share that. If inattentive invalidation is a thing at your house, just try it. Let me know what happens.
Now, there are other kinds of invalidating behaviors that we should talk about. Another common one is a belligerent invalidator. The MO of a belligerent invalidator is to rebut rather than listen and put their energy into making their own case, instead of seeing things from their partner’s perspective.
Example, somebody, either you or your partner, is talking about, “I didn't feel good about that situation. That person was being rude, or that felt uncomfortable.” A belligerent invalidator will basically tell you why you're wrong for feeling that way. Or say, “Yeah, well, this is what was actually going on.”
What's happening in those moments, and again, it's not on purpose. It's not intentional. But it's like they are replacing your perspective or whatever you just shared with their own perspective. They are not trying to be hostile or belligerent. But it really feels that way. Because it was like you just put something out there, and then, they just steamrolled over it with their concept of reality.
This, again, is super common. I think it is very easy to identify people or situations when we have felt that way. Less easy to identify when we ourselves are accidentally doing that. Somebody shares something, and it's very easy to say, “Oh, no, that's not what happened. Let me tell you what really happened.” Sometimes, when you do that to people, they'll fight back and it'll turn into an argument, which in some ways is great. It's healthier in some ways, and it’s like, “ No, I need you to listen to me right now.”
Other times, you will do that to someone. You'll say, “No, no, no. That's not what happened. Let me tell you what actually happened.” People will just take it, and you will have made them feel really bad, and uncared for, and disrespected. They just kind of go inwards. You just steamrolled right over them and broke their trust in you. You're not emotionally safe. But they're like, “Okay.” We'll exit that. You might not ever know what just happened. You'll feel fine because you were just telling them what you thought. What's the harm? You're just calling it like you see it right? You’ll never know that that was actually a real wound.
That's another thing about relationships. We've all heard that saying, “Death by a thousand cuts.” These micro-moments? Those are cuts, and if you're with someone who isn't real assertive in telling you how you're making them feel, you can just keep cutting, and cutting, and cutting, and they'll just eventually be done with you, and you will not have known why. That is a terrible thing to consider, and it is a reality of relationships. So, belligerent invalidation. Please keep that one on your radar.
The next time somebody tells you something, particularly, if it has anything to do with how they felt, or perceived something, or reacted to something, is just to keep in mind, they are telling you how they feel right now. Their truth is how they feel. Your job as a partner, or a friend, is to help them feel understood by you, not corrected by you. Nobody's asking you for that. So, again, I'm being direct. I am being your friend right now. Because the alternative when you're doing that to people and not fully aware of it can be really bad for relationships, and it's very easy to do.
Another very common kind of invalidating behavior are the controlling invalidators. These types of invalidators are often extremely confident, which is a good thing in many situations. But they are very 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 it.
Now, I have also been guilty of this in my relationship. Again, I think it's more due to impulsivity than ill will, right? When someone is invalidating in a controlling way, they often feel like they're helping. They are stepping in. They're going to manage something. They're going to prevent a possible problem that they foresee in the future and that maybe their partner doesn't. But this happens in so many situations, including parenting, housekeeping, social situations around finances.
One example would be, one partner saying, “No little Timmy, you can't go out to play because you have to take a shower and clean your room.” The other partner is, “Oh, yeah, Jim's mom called and wants you to play. Just be back before dinner.” So it's this really subtle and common kind of invalidation that happens when one person's preferences or things that they are trying to create or do are, again, just undone by someone else.
This can happen in very small ways, too, around someone's preferences for how you do things. I think, for many couples, teamwork can feel hard. One aspect of every successful relationship is just being able to work together as a team, right? Like the most banal things. Who does laundry? Who folds the laundry? Does laundry get put away in the drawer? Or does it stay in the laundry basket even if it's clean? Who gets the mail? Who opens the mail? How often does this happen? Who pays the bills?
These little procedural things, even around cleaning, cleaning the house, or making the bed, or cooking a meal that people who have a tendency towards this controlling kind of invalidation, they wind up taking over for a lot of different things because they have stronger opinions about the way that things should be done. The message that is sent to their partner is, “You're not doing it right. Your way of doing things is wrong, and I am taking this away from you.”
The experience on the other side, again, can be very subtle. People may or may not be talking about this, but it leads to a lot of withdrawal in relationships. It's like this: “Okay, I tried. It wasn't good enough. Fine. You do it.” It is this sense of being, sometimes micromanaged, but just disrespected. “My preferences, my ways of doing things, my feelings in the situation are not important to you.” It's like, “This is your show. This isn't my show.”
It comes through these small interactions and through these very subtle and seemingly insignificant, controlling kinds of invalidating behaviors that many of us are not aware of. Because, again, our intentions are not bad. We're not trying to make our partners feel micromanaged or disrespected. It's that we maybe have done this before, maybe we have our preferences; we already have a system. “No, the bread goes here,” that kind of thing. But again, what it leads to, particularly, if it's a pattern in the relationship is the other person withdrawing and just feeling like there's not space for them.
I do not want to genderify this because these patterns can exist for both men and women and in same-sex relationships, certainly. But usually, controlling invalidators, in my experience, tend to be women. Not always, but many, many times. So just check in with yourself. “Am I doing this?” See if you can notice it in yourself. Again, notice, too, that when this is happening, you're not trying to be disrespectful. You're not trying to be damaging. You are not trying to communicate contempt. But that's how it can still be received.
Again, I'm not saying these things to make you feel bad. When we shine the light on ourselves and understand how easy it is to accidentally make other people feel this way, we can become much more gentle and compassionate when we are experiencing invalidation from others. We can see the other person not as this invalidating enemy who is trying to hurt me emotionally. It's, “Oh, they don't understand what's happening right now.” Because I, sometimes, don't understand the small things that I do make other people feel a certain way.
When we can move into that space of compassion and collaborative understanding. It's so much easier to talk about that authentically and have grace for the other person to say, “Let's have a redo. This is one of the things that we've been working on. We've been talking to Lisa about this or whatever.” It softens it. It makes it much more likely to have your needs met when you can have empathy for the noble intentions of your partner, noble intentions much of the time.
One other thing, a couple other kinds of invalidating behaviors, there is also such a thing as a judgmental invalidator. These kinds of validators, again, in my experience, they are truly trying to be helpful. But what they do in action is that they are minimizing the importance of things that they don't personally feel are interesting, or important, or significant that their other person sees. They do so in a way that creates disconnection in their relationships.
An example of judgmental invalidation would be somebody saying, “What should we do this weekend? There are so many fun things. Do you want to go to the farmers market? Do you want to go to the RV show, rodeo, anything? It could literally be brunch with my friends.” The judgmental invalidator would say, “No, that's boring. I want to spend this time playing video games with my friend. Or I am not even remotely interested in brunch or your friends. Why would I want to do that?”
Again, they probably feel like they're being authentic, right? They're telling you how they really feel. Also, a judgmental invalidator can also communicate this way about emotionally laden things. “That's, again, the wrong way of looking at it.” Or “Why would you think that?” What they're doing is, they're so entrenched in their little perspective of the world, their own little fiefdom of reality, that it is very difficult for them to look over the wall and understand that other people have other interests.
They have other cognitive filters. They have other expectations of relationshipse. They are interpreting the world differently. They have different motivations. They have different tastes. They're just, again, so stuck in their own one worldview. It's like they're just looking down at their feet. This is the way things are. To have that acknowledgment of the diversity of all humans, they struggle with that. But again, they're not doing it out of maliciousness. They are simply being authentic.
They’re like, “Why would I do that? I've never gone to a rodeo. I don't really get it. No, I don't want to do that.” Again, what happens is that it sends this message of what you are interested in doing, what you like, what you might want to try, “First of all, I don't understand that, and I will not participate in that with you. That isn't important to me, so I won't do it.”
Again, it can be very subtle. But I tell you what, I have seen so many relationships break apart on those rocks, I can't even tell you. Because what happens is that the person on the other side feels like if they want to maintain a connection with this individual, they have to enter their world. They have to be into what they are into. They need to hang out with their friends. They need to participate in their interests because their partner is not coming over the line onto their side of things.
Now, just to state this very plainly, and clearly, it is also true that in vibrant, healthy relationships, partners have different interests. It is 100%, okay, to have hobbies, or sports, or activities that you are into that your partner is not into. You don't have to be doing all the same things together all of the time. I think, in some ways, to have that kind of diversity in a relationship is quite healthy because you have this sort of interdependence. You can have your separate lives and separate friend groups.
I think that makes for a more interesting relationship, right? You can go do something fun with your friends, and your partner can go through a different thing. Then, you can come back together and have an interesting conversation because you have stories to tell and things to share. It's great, right? So that's how people grow and evolve. All of those things are healthy.
But I think when there is this, almost absolute refusal to enter into someone's worldview ever, what is experienced is a lot of judgment. Because, again, I think people are not intended to come across this way. But the meta-message is that “Well, that's dumb. Why would you want to do that? Ew, no, that's boring.” For whatever it is. That feels really bad. It feels really bad to be partnered with someone who is judgmental of who you are and what you're into.
I think that the lesson we can take here is that even if you are not into the things that your partner is into, it is okay to help support their interests by talking to them about it or doing things with them sometimes. You don't have to spend every weekend of your life doing the thing. But, what we want to communicate is that “Your interests are important to you. Therefore, they are important to me.”
Listen, you guys, I have a 13-year-old who is super into video games right now. Candy Crush stresses me out. That's all I can take, right? Not only am I not interested in playing video games, I do not really care that much. But my 13-year-old is super interested in this. So, I will be a video-game spectator. I will watch him play. He's telling me about all these different missiles, and guns, and squads, and things, and whatever. He is so excited.
To connect with him, I am not being judgmental and rejecting of the things that are important to him because it would be so easy for me to do that. Because inside my head sometimes I'm like, “Why would you want to, anyway?” But in those moments, my role is to like, “Tell me more. What do you like about this game? Or tell me about what happened when X, Y, Z. Or who's your favorite character? Or what do you like about? Tell me about the plotline.”
Asking questions being engaged, because the alternative is to subtly communicate judgment, and rejection, and invalidation in a way that can create a lot of disconnection in a relationship and sends a message, “You're not important to me. What you're into is dumb. I think you're dumb. I don't care about this.” It feels like “I don't care about you.” We don't want to do that for the people that we love. Again, easy to do. Easy to do.
Now, there are a couple of other kinds of invalidators that I'm going to talk about really briefly. One of the most important, and this, oftentimes, I think, is a very obvious one is the emotional invalidator. How many times have we encountered these people in our lives? This is the stereotypical garden-variety emotional invalidator who disagrees with other people's feelings, or argues that other people's feelings are not reasonable, or tries to talk them out of their feelings.
For example, if you have ever been crying for some random reason, and your partner wanders in and says, “You shouldn't be sad about that.” Or “It wasn't that big of a deal.” Or doesn't even acknowledge the fact that you are in the grips of a big emotion, or tries to cheer you up. Again, these responses to emotion often come from — this is hard to even say out loud, but it's so true — they are honestly well-intentioned.
Somebody thinks that they're trying to make you feel better. “Look on the bright side. Or at least, X, Y, Z.” Or, “You know? Forget about that. Let's go do something fun. Let me distract you from your feelings.” Oftentimes, people are trying to help you because they perceive emotions as being problematic, dark emotions as being something negative that need to be avoided. They themselves are often not that great in noticing how they feel or being able to stay engaged with their own negative emotions, which is a core component of emotional intelligence. It's hard to do.
Again, not to genderify, but many men, as we've talked about on this podcast previously, are not socialized to have a really deep relationship with their own feelings. So many little boys to this day get yelled at for crying or punished for having “negative,” I prefer to call them, dark emotions. There's a lot of negative connotations around those. Emotional invalidators often will see someone in the grips of a negative emotion and be like, “Oh, no, I have to get them out of there because that's not good,” not recognizing that it is so positive and so important for all of us to really be in those fully present spaces sometimes.
Like, “I am having an authentic experience right now. I am feeling really, really sad about this situation.” Or “My feelings were hurt.” Or “I just feel really bad about this situation that happened at work. I don't know what to do.” Or “I'm feeling so overwhelmed” Or… Whatever it is, in order for us to grow and to be genuinely healthy, we need to go into those spaces, and stay there, and process our feelings, and take wisdom from those feelings.
The best thing that any of us can do when our partner is in that space is to say, “Tell me more about what's going on.” Open-ended questions. “When did you start feeling this way? What were the triggers? What happens to you in these moments?” Or to say nothing at all, just to sit there with somebody and allow them the luxury of having their feelings validated in your presence. Because just to simply be present with someone when they're not okay is such a gift. It's so emotionally intimate. We don't show everyone in the world that side of us.
But in our most intimate relationships, we are extending this treasure of, “This is how I really feel. This is who I really am. This is what is true for me.” To simply have that be acknowledged, and accepted, and not argued with, and not to have someone try to change it or do something about it, is the greatest gift that we can ever give. That really is how to connect with someone. Anything else leads them to feel like, “They don't care about how I'm feeling. My feelings are not important to them. My feelings are making them uncomfortable. So I need to fix myself back up again because they can't handle it.”
Do you want somebody to feel that way with you? I don't. So just to be aware of that in those moments. Even just a hug, or “I hear you,” or “Yeah, that is a really hard situation. That is legitimately so hard. I'm so sorry that that is happening. I know that there is nothing that I can do, and I'm just so grateful that you're sharing these feelings with me right now. Because I appreciate that we have that kind of relationship where you let me into this.” Just even saying simple things like that can be just the most amazing thing you could possibly do.
A close cousin of this emotional invalidation, somebody who's very uncomfortable with dark emotions, is the other well-intentioned person that is a Mr. Fix It or Ms. Fix It in those moments of, somebody is struggling with something hard and what they're trying to do, honestly and legitimately, is saying, “I love you so much. I'm going to solve this problem. Let's fix it because I don't want you to feel bad about this. Let's fix it.” So it is, “I'll pick the kids up tomorrow.” Or “Let me. It's okay. Here's what we should do instead,” and jumping right into solutions.”
Hey, I am all about solutions. Yes, all couples need to solve actual problems together. There are so many moments of opportunity for productive, collaborative problem solving that do actually make changes in the way you do things, where you talk to each other, the way you handle things, related to parenting, or finances, or boundaries. So much stuff. There is a time and place to actually focus on making specific changes.
What often happens to the detriment of relationships is when people jump into that problem-solving space at the expense of the emotional-connection space. Again, it is so well-intentioned, but I can't even tell you how many couples I've worked with in couples therapy or relationship coaching, where we had to stay awhile on helping people understand how those efforts are actually received on an emotional level by their partner.
Because when someone says, “I'm just feeling so overwhelmed by the situation, right now. I'm feeling so frustrated.” And somebody is like, “Okay, well, let's just do this. And then, it'll never happen again,” they don't experience that as being helpful. The message it sends is, “I don't want to hear about it. We need to just fix this immediately, stop talking about this. I don't want to know how you're feeling about it. I am going to shut the door of emotion. We'll fix this, so we can never talk about it again.” It's kind of how it's experienced.
Again, noble intentions, problem-solving is good. But without the space of being able to connect and really talk about the feelings and help your partner feel genuinely validated in that moment, it does the opposite of what is often intended, which is to fix something. What it actually does is create emotional disconnection in the relationship. It turns into, “Well, she doesn't want to hear about it, or she's just going to tell me to do this thing differently. So, whatever.” It creates withdrawal. It makes people feel uncared for and they're not truly known by their partner, which over time leads to serious disconnection in a relationship.
Again, we'll talk more about that emotional intimacy in upcoming podcast episodes. But be aware if this is something that you tend to do in relationships is that rushing in to fix or trying to talk people out of their feelings. I will bet you a cookie that subjectively, you feel in those moments like you're trying to be helpful. You're trying to make them feel better. You're trying to look for solutions, all positive things. But there is a whole other dimension of relationships.
We must make space for the authentic emotional experience of our partners, and help them feel understood, and respected, and affirmed, and validated by us. Because even if we're fixing things, and trying to keep things positive, our relationships, over time, become really hollowed out when that emotional connection, emotional safety, emotional trust, emotional intimacy is eroded. That is what happens when people are invalidating each other.
The Arc of Change is Experiential
Lastly, just want to share that these patterns are often entrenched in relationships. They can be difficult for all of us to see when we are doing them because our intentions are often good in those moments. I would just like to float the idea that your partner probably experiences those moments similarly. They struggle to understand how their responses may be impacting you. So, certainly, would invite you to get them to listen to this podcast if that would be helpful, just to raise some awareness.
Also, these things are hard. I spend, easily, several sessions with couples, helping them gain self-awareness about these interactions, in these small moments that invalidation is happening in order to help them recognize them and do something different instead. So I always feel bad in some ways. I love making these podcasts for you. I hope that you find the information in them to be helpful. But I also just want to say out loud that the process of creating change in these areas is not just about getting information, listening to a podcast, and being like, “Okay, cool, I'm gonna do this instead.”
The actual arc of change is experiential. It occurs over time. So I just want to say that because I always worry that people will hear one of these podcasts and then assume that they should be able to do all of this stuff now that they've heard this, or even worse, that their partner listens to this podcast and should be able to do this stuff differently because of having benefited from this information. Personal growth does not work that way. Personal growth is never an event. It is a process that starts with maybe information. But then, it has to turn into self-awareness and recognition. That is very experiential in nature.
I just wanted to offer that so that you are gentle with yourself if this is a growth opportunity for you. Also, so that you are gentle with your partner. I hope that if you take nothing else away from our discussion today, please do take away this idea that if you are feeling invalidated in your relationship, as is so common, to take away that the fact that when people are engaging in behaviors that are experienced as invalidating, they are not intending to hurt you. There is a huge lack of awareness around the impact of these behaviors.
To be gentle and compassionate with your partner, and shift into a more effective stance of “Let's work on this. Let me help you understand what's happening in these moments. Let's try this again. Here's what I'm looking for you. I'm looking for emotional intimacy right now. I'd love to feel more of this with you. When these things happen, I don't feel emotionally connected to you. I'd like that to change.”
Having those kinds of conversations are just so much more helpful in the long run than having it just turn into a fight or being really critical with your partner because they maybe don't have the self-awareness or the skills yet to help you feel validated in those moments. Because we all engage in invalidating behaviors, sometimes, it's so easy to do, and I hope that we can all have grace with each other and help each other grow and evolve. That is my intention for us today.
I hope that you took something away from this podcast. Hey, if you did, as a favor to me and your fellow travelers on this journey of growth, if you could, trot over to wherever you're listening to this podcast, and leave a review. That helps this podcast reach more people. As you probably know, we don't do any advertising. This is not a mercenary thing.
This is me trying to help people who are probably never going to be my clients but to take hopefully valuable little bits of information away that will help them have more happy, and loving, and stable, honestly, relationships, and marriages, and families, and homes that can improve their lives, also the lives of their children, for kids to grow up in a home where there is an emotionally safe relationship happening with them, and their parents. To witness that in their partners, that is what lasts for generations.
So help other people find this show. Review it. Share it on social media, this episode and others. I would really appreciate it not just for myself, but for everybody that can benefit from hearing this message, too. So thank you again for being here today. I will be back in touch next week with another episode of the Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast. Bye-bye.
Few things are as frustrating, or as hurtful as trying to engage a disengaged partner. It's hard NOT to get upset and angry when you're feeling rejected, unloved, or uncared for. The problem is that many people who clam up as a defensive strategy when things get tense don't understand how destructive their behaviors can be to your relationship.
But there is help, and there is hope. Because these types of communication problems are so common, I thought it might be helpful to you if I put together a “Communication Problems” podcast-mini series.
“Communication Issues” is the single most common presenting issue that brings couples to marriage counseling. The first thing to know about communication problems: Absolutely ALL couples struggle to communicate with each other from time to time. Just because it's happening in your relationship does not spell doom. Truthfully, by making a few positive changes in the way you interact with each other, you can avoid many communication problems — and start enjoying each other again.
In episode 1, “Communication Problems and How To Fix Them” we discussed the most important and empowering things you can remain mindful of if you want to improve the communication in your relationship: Systems theory, and your own empowerment to affect positive change.
Specifically in episode 2, we looked at this communication pattern from the perspective of the “withdrawer” (i.e. the person in the relationship who might be perceiving their “pursuing partner” as angry or even hostile). In that episode I gave you some tips to help get back into the ring with your partner, some insight into why they may be so angry, and things that you can do to help soothe their anger and bring the peace back into your home.
If you've been feeling frustrated or angry because your partner refuses to talk to you, this one is for you. In this episode I'm talking about what may be leading your partner to seem emotionally withdrawn, as well as things that you can do to help your partner come closer to you emotionally, and start opening up again.
Communication strategies to help make it easier for your partner to open up to you
The paradoxical trick to making your partner feel more interested in coming towards you
I sincerely hope that this series helps you understand what may be happening at the root of your communication problems, as well as some real-world tips for things that can help you improve your relationship.
P.S. One fantastic, low-key strategy to start a dialogue with your partner is by taking our “How Healthy is Your Relationship” quiz together. You can send your results to each other, which opens the door to talk about how you're both feeling — with out an anxiety-provoking conversation for your conflict-avoidant partner. Just be ready to learn some things you didn't know! Here's the link to get the relationship quiz. xoxo, LMB
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Communication Problems and How To Fix Them, Part 3: When Your Partner Refuses to Talk
by Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby | Love, Happiness & Success
Music Credits: Nick Drake, “The Time of No Reply”
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