The Art of Relating: Validation Starvation

By Christine Kniffen, MSW, LCSW, Therapist & Relationship Coach

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Do you suffer from Validation Starvation?  By that I mean an ever-present feeling of being misunderstood by your partner.  And, thereby you are wrought with thoughts of unacceptability, whether from yourself or somebody else.   Remember that even though one may not be consciously aware of feeling unacceptable in some way, we all have a degree of these lurking under the surface causing overreactions to many events.  These overreactions are always made worse in a relationship whose dynamics leave each person feeling as if there is something wrong with their particular way of viewing life and the world.  Unfortunately, this is why many couples are suffering from such a great disconnect in their relationships.  It is directly correlated with the ability of the couple to function as a cohesive unit in handling conflict including resolving feelings through validation.  There really is a fairly straight-forward way out of this exhausting and quite frankly, needless and non-productive dynamic of interaction.  There are many reasons for this cyclical, interaction driven and problematic way of handling one’s emotions since so many of us seem to do it.  These would include the great power struggle to be right, as well as individuals lacking the courage to let that guard down.

I seem to write quite often about the idea of a power struggle existing in your relationship.  A real detriment to the solid development of a good relationship has everything to do with the ability of the partners to be able to convey a sense of validation for the other person’s feelings.  Only in another’s expression that they can understand us feeling the way we do, will we finally feel fully accepted in our romantic relationships.  And, that acceptance is what most often equates to an actual experience of feeling fully loved.  Unfortunately, after a time if you don’t validate my feelings I’m probably not going to humiliate myself by offering up my usual empathy and hence the circle of interaction begins, leaving us trapped in its grip.  We naturally then begin to frame the interactions as right or wrong and then the power struggle ensues.

If you can’t validate me it makes me feel as if you don’t really think I have the right to feel the way I do.  Of course we can over react to that.  And yes, it is our jobs to own it, take it on and do the work necessary to improve the relationship.  Remember, feelings should never to be framed in a right versus wrong manor.  It is important that we deliver the message (feeling) in a way that can be heard.  This is all that is going on in couples counseling.  We are learning the best words to use to communicate our most accurate feelings.  And, if your previous  approaches have not been getting an open and inviting response from the other person, we may need to get the delivery changed as well.  Let’s get the ego out of the equation.  It’s not about winning the dysfunctional, right or wrong debate.  Relationships work when both people are growing as individuals as well as a couple.  I guarantee there are non-productive dynamics and hurt feelings to address and help repair for all involved in the process.

A secondary cause that works to support validation starvation in a relationship refers to the figurative “having your guard up”.  The guard I speak of acts like a protective shield.  However, its presence is most assuredly stunting the growth of the relationship.  We will resist discussing our part of an argument.  Implementing this typical defense mechanism may have protected you in your earlier years, but that behavior is no longer working for you.  We all have that dynamic going on in some way or another.  Remember, this is not just about the other person.  Keeping that shield in place also robs you of your ability to be utterly honest and vulnerable in your expression of your own voice.  Real inner peace, therefore happiness, is achieved when we can confidently, but not aggressively convey the level of intensity of our feelings and we feel that we are validated in having them and doing so.  This is when we all feel accepted if the other person decides to stick around.

That is really what love is all about.  Someone has to start the vulnerability dance and start the increased levels of openness and emotional honestly.    This really refers to identifying the correct feeling behind the intense reaction.  It is almost unequivocally related to hurt feelings or a sense of fear.  In relationships we always have the right to let another know how their behavior and actions impacted us be it good or bad, period. It’s not about whether-or-not you intended to cause that effect in your partner.  Ninty-nine percent of the time I don’t think anybody really ever intends to stick a knife in our particular emotional wounds.  It is simply a repeated lesson forcing us to keep coming to the table and learn how to validate each other’s feelings.  It is essential that this pattern get adjusted or the relationship doesn’t have the odds with it in terms of a much longer duration.

The most important lesson to take with you from this article is that validation of feelings means just about everything to having a truly lovely relationship.  If your relationship is suffering from validation starvation it is important that it be adjusted.  If this lack of validation has been present for some time, then you may need help in getting your communication back on track.  Start to make a genuine effort to stop reacting and start listening to your partner’s feelings.  Don’t you want to be heard as well?

Christine Kniffen, LCSW is a Relationship Coach Therapist in private practice.  For a free consultation call 314-374-8396.