Police Interview Newsletter - Validate Your Partner's Feelings

VALIDATE YOUR PARTNER'S FEELINGS
Volume 2, Issue 7
July, 2003


In his book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, John Gottman, Ph.D. emphatically states that one of the keys to marital success is not whether or not you argue with your spouse but “how you argue - whether your style escalates tension or leads to a feeling of resolution” (p.173).

In this issue of Police Interview, we will take a look at the third and fourth of Gottman's four strategies for helping couples to break the cycle of negativity. He strongly advises that couples strive to #3 -Validate their partners' feelings & to # 4- Overlearn and Practice all four skills-presented in the newsletter over the past several months.

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Gottman Strategy #3: Validation

"I understand what you mean. You know, that really does make sense."

"It seems you get annoyed with me when I work late and fail to call home to let you know."

"You are right, dear, I have been insensitive. I would be worried too if I thought that my mother was developing an alcohol problem."

The process of "validating" one another's feelings and experiences is incredibly important in a marital relationship. All of us appreciate being on the receiving end of a statement that tells us that another person knows where we are coming from. How often do you make statements to your partner, such as those comments offered above, to let your husband or wife know that you are making a sincere effort to understand? Men are notoriously bad at tuning in to the emotional aspects of things that their wives say to them. When our wives tell us about their struggles or problems, our natural response is to find a way to "fix it." Got a problem, let's find a solution. But, far too often, we miss the boat. Our wives are often just looking for a little understanding - the kind of intimacy that comes from being able to accurately appreciate your partner's experience. When I talk to couples in my office about the importance of validating one another in their communications, the wives are generally nodding their heads in agreement while the men are surprised that such a minor adjustment on their part could produce such wildly positive results in their marriage. This really is good news for men! You don't have to fix or repair each and every problem as it is identified. Most of us would do well, however, to improve our ability to listen for the feelings that are embedded in statements that wives make to us.

Let me offer a recent and personal example. Just last weekend our family returned from a wonderful beach vacation. It actually took on the form of a family reunion as their were 17 of us staying in a large rental house along the Virginia Coast. Given our many competing schedules (including the summer work schedules of eight very active teenage children), it was necessary to make these vacation arrangements many months in advance. It had been over 10 years since such a gathering was possible so I was anticipating the week at the beach with great relish. I don't get to see my two younger brothers more than once or twice a year so I was looking forward to long walks on the beach and late night conversation. The week turned out to be a wonderful and relaxing get-away with plenty of time for visiting with my mother, my two brothers, their wives, and all their children. I was up early most days, drank coffee on the deck where I prayed and meditated, then hit the beach for some walking or jogging with whomever was up and ready to go. The rest of the day was filled with what you might expect: tanning and reading on the beach, cooling off in the surf, and escaping back to the house for cool drinks, food, and afternoon naps when the summer heat became too intense.

The only downside to our beach vacation was that, unbeknownst to me, my wife Louise was missing time with me and feeling somewhat left out. In hind sight, I realize that because I was so focused on my own agenda (reading, exercise, and spending time with my brothers) that I had failed to set aside much of any special time for my wife and me. Her feelings of missing our time together were compounded by the fact that Louise was able to be at the beach for only three days - due to her professional responsibilities. My wife is a very patient and self- sacrificing individual so she didn't express these feelings in the midst of our beach vacation. She undoubtedly was trying to give me some opportunity and freedom to connect with my family.

Two days after we had arrived home, Louise told me that she had really missed me at the beach and had hoped that we would find more time to spend together. Subsequently, we had several discussions about the beach experience and how each of us perceived the events and happenings in different ways.

The dialogues that follow offer different and contrasting ways in which we might have spoken to one another about our experiences. The first dialogue offers an example of interactions that are non-validating and somewhat defensive in nature. The second conversation is more positive and supportive. In that dialogue, each partner is making efforts to understand and validate the other's feelings and concerns.


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Validate Your Partner's Feelings

Non-Validating Conversation (self-oriented)

Louise: We sure didn't spend much time together at the beach.

Mac: I don't know why you say that. We got up together and walked on the beach at least two different mornings.

Louise: It just didn't seem like you included me in your plans very much.

Mac: Well, I guess that my priority was to spend time visiting with my brothers this week.

Louise: It seemed like you carved out special time to spend with your mother, your brothers, and one of your sister-in-laws, but there weren't any special efforts or plans for us to spend time together.

Mac: I didn't know you felt that way. You should have said something.

Louise: You had three days to yourself at the beach, before I arrived, to spent time anyway you wanted to and I just expected that when I arrived I would have gotten more of your time and attention.

Mac: Well, Louise, I can assure you that I wasn't trying to avoid you. I was just trying to spend some time with Barry and Chris. I don't get to see them very often and just wanted to make the most of my time at the beach.

Louise: It's no big deal. I was just hoping to spend more time together. It seemed like everybody was going in different directions and doing their own things. Then, when I had to leave to go to my conference on Friday morning, it didn't feel like I had had much of a vacation with you.

Validating Conversation (partner's feelings heard)

Louise: We sure didn't spent much time together at the beach.

Mac: I can see how you would feel that way. You were only able to be there for three days and a lot of the time I was hanging out with my brothers. However, if I remember correctly, we did get up to walk the beach together on two different mornings.

Louise: Yes, and I appreciated those walks that we did take together. It just didn't seem like you included me in your plans very much during the rest of our time at the beach.

Mac: It sounds like you really missed me and felt left out since our time together was so brief and unpredictable. Meanwhile, I was spending lots of time interacting and doing things with other members of the family. I guess that my priority was to spend time visiting with my brothers this week.

Louise: I realize that you don't get to see your family very much. They live in New York and Pennsylvania, and there aren't many opportunities to get together. It's just that you carved out special time to spend with your mother, your brothers, and one of your sisters-in-law, but didn't seem to make any special plans for you and me to do things together.

Mac: Wow! I had no idea that you felt that way. Sounds like it really did appear that I was making special efforts to connect with everybody except you. I'm sorry that I got caught up in the excitement of seeing my family in a way that kind of left you on the sidelines. I sure wish that you would have said something at the beach while this was all happening.

Louise: I can understand how easy it was for you to forget about me a bit when you were so excited and charged up about seeing Barry and Chris. It's just that you had a full three days at the beach, before I arrived, to spend anyway you wanted. I guess I envied you those extra days and had hoped to be a little more at the center of your attention when I finally arrived.

Mac: That certainly makes sense. After all, this was our vacation too and we didn't spend all that much time with one another. I can assure you, Louise, that I was not trying to avoid you. I guess that I just had some tunnel vision with regard to connecting with my brothers.

Louise: It's no big deal. I was just hoping to spend more time with you. It seemed like everybody was going in different directions and doing their own things. Then, when I had to leave to go to my conference on Friday morning, it didn't feel like I had had much of a vacation with you.

What a huge difference a little bit of validation can make in how my wife and I feel towards one another. So, take time to put yourself in your husband's or wife's shoes. Make a sincere effort to demonstrate to your partner that you are trying hard to see things from his point of view. It's good for your relationship and research shows that it's good for your physical health as well.

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Gottman Strategy #4: - Overlearning-Try and Try Again

In his book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, John Gottman, Ph.D. reminds us that anytime we learn a new skill (eg. Driving a car, throwing a ball, baking something in the kitchen), we must practice it often if it is to become automatic and effective. "If you practice, practice, practice these skills you will have gone a very long way toward improving your marriage. It has been my experience that these four principles-calming down, communicating nondefensively, validating, and overlearning - are all that most marriages need in order to get back on track. I believe this is even true of marriages that have been almost completely subsumed by negativity (p.201)."

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