Why Marriages Fail: Invalidation (Part 2)
By Roy Milam
Why do marriages fail? While the answers to that question are many and often complex, there is a growing body of research suggesting that there are four negative risk factors- four negative behavior patterns that create barriers in a marriage and increase a couple’s chances for marital failure. In one key studiy, researchers followed a sample of 135 couples for twelve years, starting before they were married, and were able to differentiate those couples who do well from those who do not, with up to 91% accuracy.*
My experience of working with thousands of couples over the past seventeen years is definitely congruent with these findings. Many of the struggling marriages I’ve worked with have exhibited one or more of these negative behavior patterns. Absolutely crucial, I believe, to the success of any marriage is for couples to minimize the occurrence these four negative behavior patterns from their relationships. In a previous article, we looked at the first of these four patterns- Escalation, and suggested practical ways to overcome it. (Click here for the article about Escalation).
Now let’s look at the second risk factor that creates barriers to intimacy in marriage and increases a couple’s chances for marital failure: Invalidation. It’s one of the most serious communication mistakes spouses can make in their marriage, in how they respond to each other. Invalidation is a pattern in which one (or both) spouse(s) either directly, or indirectly puts down, or questions the feelings of the other. This may be done by denying, minimizing, ridiculing, ignoring, or judging the other’s feelings or perceptions. Regardless of the means, the effect is clear: the other person’s feelings are judged as “unimportant” or “wrong.” Invalidation can take many forms. One person expresses their perceptions and or feelings, and the other responds like this:
“I’m upset about you being so late to pick me up.”
“Oh chill out, there’s nothing to get all upset about.”
“My dog died and I feel very upset about it.”
“It’s just an animal, get over it!”
“I don’t like it when you tease me like that.”
“I’m only kidding. You need thicker skin.”
Or invalidation might resemble remarks like these: “You’re overreacting.” “That’s nothing to cry about.” “You’re upset for no reason.” “You need to buck up and stop being a drama queen.” “Don’t worry.” “Don’t be upset.” “Stop complaining.” “Don’t be so sensitive.” “Get over it,” etc, etc.
Sometimes invalidation can be overt, such as when one partner (or both) berates or belittles the other person’s feelings. An overt, caustic remark may even convey a sense of contempt of one partner for another. Sarcastic phrases like “Well, I’m sorry I’m not perfect like you” or “I forgot how lucky I am to be married to you” can cut like a knife. Invalidation hurts and can be highly toxic to your relationship. Research shows that a pattern of invalidation is an accurate predictor of future problems and divorce.
Invalidation can also be more subtle. It may involve an argument where one partner may merely be ignoring or minimizing the other partner’s feelings. The message conveyed is that your feelings don’t matter. A husband may put his wife down because she is more emotional or because she is more easily hurt by comments.
A wife may invalidate a husband’s desire to succeed in his career, saying that it really doesn’t matter if he gets promoted to a manager position . Or a husband may invalidate a wife’s fears about the children’s safety. Ultimately the spouse receiving these comments feels frustrated, unheard, angry and resentful, and begins to share less and less until eventually the intimate level of sharing evaporates. When this happens, closeness and intimacy is lost.
Sometimes invalidation may be nothing more than trite cliches like “It’s not so bad” or “Just trust in the Lord.” While these statements may be well meant, they invalidate the pain or concern of the other partner. They make the other partner feel like their fears, upsets, or frustrations are invalid or inappropriate. The bottom line is, invalidation creates barriers to intimacy in a marriage. It’s what Solomon was referring to in Proverbs 25:20 when he said, “Singing cheerful songs to a person with a heavy heart is like taking someone’s coat in cold weather or pouring vinegar in a wound.” When our spouse is hurting, we need to find words of acknowledgement and comfort that do not invalidate his or her pain or concerns. Romans 12:15 admonishes us to, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”
Validation is an act of caring that communicates respect, and builds love and intimacy. In my opinion, and I think most all marriage experts would agree, that validating your spouse and responding to your spouse empathically is a relationship skill that is absolutely crucial a healthy, intimate marriage. So crucial, I believe, that in our Marriage Renewal Retreats, we spend an entire session and several exercises on training couples in this vital skill of “empathic responding.” One question that inevitably arises is, “How can I empathize with my spouse when I don’t agree with her?”
My answer is that validating your spouse doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with your spouse with regards to his or her perceptions and feelings. But you can still acknowledge your spouse’s feelings even though you don’t agree with your spouse’s thoughts and reasoning.
So how do you validate your spouse’s feelings ? Validating your spouse’s feelings requires accepting your spouse’s feelings without judging them or trying to minimize them. And then it involves responding empathically. To respond empathically first listen…really listen, seek to enter into your spouses experience. Put yourself in your spouses shoes and try to look at the world through his or her eyes, and then lastly, verbally acknowledge his or her feelings, by saying for example, “I understand that you feel _______________(anxious, disappointed, upset), etc.”
When you validate your spouse’s feelings by responding empathically, it
says to your spouse that you care…that you care enough to really listen, and to try to understand. Validation is a powerful tool that you can use both to reduce frustration, anger and conflict, as well as to create companionship and build intimacy in your marriage.
*Scott Stanley, et al. A Lasting Promise: A Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage;(San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 1998), p.34.