Validation is a buzz word. Your feelings are valid, and so are your partner’s. Most of us feel good when we receive validation, which involves explicit or implicit acknowledgement that your emotions are real and that you have a right to feel them. Validation does not equate to agreement - you can receive validation from your partner even if they strongly disagree with you.
The most common validation technique is reflection.
Reflection involves saying back what you heard your partner say, without necessarily adding anything or interpreting.
So reflection sounds like:
“I heard you just say you feel frustrated that I haven’t done the dishes this week. You’re particularly annoyed because I said I would, so you feel betrayed and also overwhelmed.”
Reflecting your partner’s feelings back can be very difficult if you disagree with the interpretations they are making (for example, you might be thinking, "I didn't promise I would do the dishes, I said I would try, and I did try!"). But you can reflect back their feelings and interpretations even if you disagree, by reminding yourself that you are not signing onto their worldview, just acknowledging that you received what they shared.
Reflection is a foundational validation skill, and it's often a good place to start. Reflecting first, then going on to other forms of validation or dialogue is often very effective.
Another common validation technique is affirmation.
Affirmation is a variation on reflection where you sense the emotion behind your partner's words (whether or not they actually mentioned the emotion) and acknowledge that the emotion makes sense.
An affirmation might sound like:
"Ugh, that sounds like such a stressful day. You're probably exhausted!"
It is completely possible to affirm your partner's emotions without thinking that they "make sense." But, it can be tricky if you are feeling reactive to the way your partner feels. It's easy to accidentally come across as judging their emotions, which will not be validating. Don't try to affirm your partner's feelings if you feel strongly that they are wrong for having those feelings. Your affirmation won't feel authentic.
You can also reciprocate their feelings.
Reciprocation involves hearing what your partner says and noticing that you feel that way too. This can work with both positive and negative types of emotions.
For example, if your partner shares that they really enjoyed going on a date with you, reciprocating sounds like, "I loved our date night too." This is usually pretty easy to express (it's much simpler to respond positively to a positive comment).
Alternately, if your partner says, "Our relationship has felt hard lately. I feel disconnected and worried about how we're going to get close again," you can reciprocate with something like:
"I feel that worry too. I know we love each other, but it seems like we keep missing each other lately and it feels like a loss."
Validate by encouraging a conversation
A really effective (and somewhat subtle) way to validate your partner is to encourage them to keep talking. Most of us really respond to being given more space to express ourselves. After your partner shares a few things, you can encourage them to keep talking by saying:
"I'm listening, can you say more about that?"
"This seems really important, I want to keep exploring it together."
"I'm so glad we're talking about this."
The gift of space is inherently validating, because it shows that you believe their feelings are worth talking about.
Bonus: A varsity level way to validate
If you feel like you have all of the above down, you can explore a more complex form of validation, which involve allowing for and even embracing the discrepancy between your experiences.
For example, if your partner expresses an emotion that is incredibly different than yours, you can make space for their feeling while also holding onto yours.
"It's so interesting to hear that's how that conversation landed for you. I really interpreted it differently. I want to understand more about how we came to such different conclusions."
Is this validating? Yes, it actually is. Your partner's feelings have room to breathe. You show interest in their feelings. And also you are curious about the ways in which their feelings differ from yours.
Source: This post draws upon Enhanced Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy For Couples, an evidence-based couple therapy developed by Norman Epstein and Donald Baucom.
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