Many couple systems struggle with how to validate their partner’s feelings when navigating a disagreement. The constructs seem at odds and out of reach to many. How can I endorse your feelings when I fundamentally disagree with your message?

When working with high-conflict clients navigating contrasting values and belief systems, validation can be a grueling therapeutic task. Begin with the practice of active listening. Without judgment, criticism or editorializing, help clients hear their partner’s message. Oftentimes, practicing non-response is challenging!

With support, walk clients through listening, withholding response, and reflectively repeating what they hear back to their partner. No opinions, just, “this is what I heard you say.” Did they get it right? Did they miss something critical? The next step is easy… take a break!

This is a great time to practice distress tolerance strategies such as the DBT Stop Skill, TIPP Skill, ACCEPTS skill, journaling, meditation, breath-work, or whatever else is in your therapeutic arsenal! The point is, take a break. Research published by the Gottman Institute suggests that the physiological effects of taking a break can make all the difference to couples navigating conflict. Just twenty minutes apart can help couples regain access to affection and humor after conflict (Gottman, 1994).

Once reactivity has been managed, the couple is ready to return to the table with collaborative intention. This is when couples may have reached readiness to structure sentences through an emotionally validating paradigm. “I understand that when I yelled at the dog, you felt scared. I was intending to get the dog’s attention quickly, not to upset you.” At this stage, accountability, perspective taking, and apology are vastly more accessible. You don’t need to agree, but it is in everyone’s best interest to develop insight and empathy for the perspective of the other.

Supporting clients towards validation amidst conflict is an invaluable step towards developing a trusting, intimate, and loving relationship dynamic.

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About the Author: Hannah Kolodner
Hannah Kolodner, LCSW, is a PhD Candidate in Social Work at the Catholic University of America. In her clinical work, Hannah prides herself for providing compassionate and evidence-based clinical care. She has worked with clients facing a wide diversity of challenges including Anxiety, Depression, Mood Lability, Grief, Loss, Stress and more. She enjoys supporting clients through interpersonal milestones such as relationships, intimacy, divorce, re-coupling, reconciliation and other momentous life events. Personally, Hannah is committed to honoring the mind-body connection. Mindfulness practices, yoga, exercise, nutrition and time spent enjoying the outdoors are all activities that work well in tandem with therapy! She encourages clients to embrace healthful living practices that work in concert with their therapeutic goals, personal values and spiritual values. Hannah is a 200 hour certified yoga teacher, a horse-mom, a dog mom, an avid hiker, and an amateur chef.

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