Why Marriages Fail: Invalidation (Part 2)

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 create barriers in marriage and increase a couple’s chances of marital failure. In one key study, researchers followed a sample of 135 couples for twelve years starting before they were married. The researchers were able to differentiate between 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 congruent with these findings. Many of the struggling marriages I’ve worked with have exhibited one or more of these negative behavior patterns. Crucial, I believe, to the success of any marriage is for couples to minimize the occurrence of these four negative behavior patterns in 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).

The Second Risk Factor: Invalidation

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 is one of the most serious communication mistakes spouses can make 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.

Invalidation Through A Response

One person expresses their perceptions and or feelings, and the other responds with:

“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.”

Invalidation Through A Remark

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.

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 for 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 your feelings don’t matter. A husband may put his wife down because she is more emotional or is more easily hurt by comments.

A wife may invalidate a husband’s desire to succeed in his career, saying that it doesn’t matter if he receives a promotion to a managerial 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. The spouse begins to share less and less until eventually, the intimate level of sharing evaporates. When this happens, closeness and intimacy are lost.

Invalidation With a Cliche

Sometimes invalidation may be nothing more than trite cliches like “It’s not so bad” or “Just trust in the Lord”. While these statements are commonplace, 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 acknowledgment 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.”

What Validation Is

Validation is an act of caring that communicates respect and builds love and intimacy. In my opinion, and I think almost all marriage experts would agree, validating your spouse and responding to your spouse empathically is a relationship skill that is crucial in a healthy, intimate marriage. So crucial, I believe, that in our Christian Couples Retreats, we spend an entire session and several exercises training couples in this vital skill of “emphatic responding.” One question that  inevitably arises is, “How can I empathize with my spouse when I don’t agree with her?”

My answer is validating your spouse doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with your spouse about 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.

How to Validate

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… listen, seek to enter into your spouse’s experience. Put yourself in your spouse’s shoes and try to look at the world through his or her eyes. 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. Furthermore, you care enough to listen and to try to understand. Validation is a powerful tool you can use to reduce frustration, anger, and conflict. In addition, validation is a tool to use 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.