What To Do If Your Partner Isn’t Great at Listening or Validating

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Genuine empathy and sincere validation are some of the most connecting powers in a relationship. When two people share mutual excitement in each others’ good fortune, and recognize and appreciate the difficulty of each others’ situation in times of difficulty, it creates an incredible feeling of closeness and appreciation.

I’ve written at length about the importance of validation in relationships, including a basic overview of what validation is, whether it loses its power when both people in a relationship know about it, and how to validate someone when you disagree.

Many people find my book, or read one of my articles, and come to realize that they’ve been missing out on one of the most powerful relationship skills.

They suddenly see in themselves a tendency to jump right into giving advice or encouragement, downplay other people’s emotions, and/or not get quite as excited or invested in other people’s good fortune. They begin to recognize that the people they enjoy being around are those who are great at listening and validating. And it becomes apparent that changing their habits, and improving their validation skills, can have a profound effect on their relationships.

But what about those people who read the book and think:

“Gee…I sure wish my husband / wife / manager / mother / etc. would read this!”

(Are you one of those people?) 😉

How do you bring something like that up?

If You Don’t Talk About It, It Won’t Change

I am a strong believe in the following truth:

You—and only you—are responsible for your happiness and satisfaction in a relationship.

It’s not your husband or wife’s job to make you happy, it’s not your friend’s job to know how you want to celebrate your birthday, and it’s not your manager’s job to make sure you love your job.

And that’s actually awesome.

Why?

Because it means you’re not a victim. It means you don’t have to be “stuck” in an unsatisfying relationship. It means you don’t have to go through your day just hoping nothing “bad” happens, so you can be happy. I’ve written all about this in an earlier post, but I bring it up again here because it relates:

If you want something to change in your relationship, you need to ask for it.

Learning how to communicate effectively with your romantic partner, co-workers, family members, and friends is a worthy (and lifelong) endeavor, and it definitely comes into play here.

Yes, as much as you may hate hearing this, if you want more validation and connection in your relationship, you’re going to have to talk about it with your partner.

The Uncomfortable Conversation

How do you bring something like this up without looking like you’re trying to “fix” the other person, or cause offense?

1. Keep It About You

Believe it or not, this is actually about you, not your partner. The fact that your partner isn’t validating your emotions or connecting with you in the way you want doesn’t mean they’re “doing things wrong” or are “bad at relationships.” It simply means you’re looking to connect in ways different from what they may be used to.

This is an important mind shift to make before bringing this up with your partner.

If you make the conversation about them (i.e. “you need to change this for me to be happy,”) you’re setting yourself up for conflict, defensiveness, and hurt feelings. If you can keep the mindset of “I’m now realizing that this is important to me, and I’m going to ask if he/she will make it a priority,” you’ll be entering the conversation from a more centered, emotionally healthy perspective.

2. Check Your Expectations

What do you hope will change? How are you hoping the other person will react?

Take a moment to think through what you’re hoping will change, and consider writing it out. Why? Because you don’t actually have any control over what happens. Yet you’re obviously hoping for a specific outcome.

Expectations can destroy a relationship if we’re not aware of them. There’s nothing wrong with having them (even if they’re lofty or specific), as long as we recognize them and accept that they may not be met.

So, in this instance, you probably hope that the other person will agree to learn more about validation and commit to becoming better at it. That’s reasonable!

But what if they don’t? What if they shrug it off or dismiss it? What if they take offense and get angry, or get embarrassed and withdraw? Are you okay with the fact that you can’t control how the other person will react?

If not, journal out answers to the above questions and explore this a bit more before having the conversation. If you’re not yet ready to respect the other person’s agency, you’re not yet ready to ask them to change.

3. Identify Your Boundaries

Again—as we discussed earlier—you are responsible for your own happiness. And you deserve to be happy! So take a few minutes to think about what you want from your relationship with this person. How important is validation to you? What type of change or commitment are you looking for? And what are you prepared to do if they choose not to honor your request?

Boundaries in a relationship are powerful forces for good. They eliminate feelings of helplessness, keep drama and manipulation at bay, invite love and compassion, and eliminate the guesswork around what you are (or the other person is) wanting from the relationship.

So, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are you and aren’t you okay with in this relationship?
  • If this other person brushes you off, what will you say?
  • If they refuse to work on it, are you going to be genuinely okay with continuing on in the relationship (with no right to feel sorry for yourself!), or will you choose to move on?

You have to be clear with yourself (and be prepared to be clear with this other person) about what you are and aren’t okay with. This is Boundaries 101, and while it may seem harsh or needy, it’s anything but. What’s harsh or needy is deciding to stay in a relationship with someone who has already told you they aren’t willing to do what you want, and trying to “make” them do it or feeling sorry for yourself, sulking in the relationship, and complaining to your friends while you wait for the other person to change their mind. Does that sound loving?

For more on boundaries, see my article and/or podcast episode on the topic.

4. Have the Conversation

Once you know where you’re at, it’s time to talk it out. This doesn’t need to be an intimidating or heavy confrontation. With a little tact, it can be pretty casual. Here are a few ways you could bring it up (verbiage and manner of speaking obviously to be adapted for your own personality):

“So, I stumbled across an article the other day that gave me some insight into myself, and I actually think it’d help me if I could share some of it with you. Are you open to that?”

“I’ve been reading a book the past couple of weeks that I find fascinating. It’s helped me better understand how I connect with others and dives into some pretty powerful principles. It would actually mean a lot to me if you’d give it a read as well—I feel like it would help us connect better. Are you open to that?”

“Can I share something with you? I haven’t felt as connected to you as I’d like, and have been trying to figure out what I can do to change that. I came across an article the other day that helped me understand myself a little better, and I think it’d be helpful to read together. Would you be open to that?”

“My co-worker has been raving about a new book she’s reading. She says it’s made a huge difference in her relationship with her husband. Would you be willing to read/listen to it with me?”

There are, of course, an infinite number of ways to bring it up, and they all spin off of your history and relationship with that person. What matters here is that you bring it up, and do so in a centered, kind, respectful way.

Your Happiness is Worth It

Relationships are meant to bring us joy. They’re not always going to be filled with sunshine and rainbows, but the net result of being with someone ought to be positive and energizing. If that’s not currently the case, take action. Look inward, figure out what you want (as well as what unhealthy/unhelpful tendencies you may need to change), and surround yourself with people who support you, respect you, and love you. You are in the driver’s seat, and you deserve to be happy.

What methods or techniques have you used to bring up difficult topics? Do you have other suggestions for inviting someone to work on something? Please share your experience in the comments.

Photo by Matthew Henry

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12 thoughts on “What To Do If Your Partner Isn’t Great at Listening or Validating”

  1. I feel so invalidated all the wYs there are!
    But in your article,I realize that I am the most non-validating human alive :-/
    I am a do-er … I am a common sense girl and have not much patience with “goofiness” -simple minded seeming people who go through all kinds of loops and swirls to do something simple that calls for so much accumulation of “tools and time to preform while I am the type that can go ahead ;with few needs or time , and do the chore in No time and be spot on and cleared out by the time they get through trying to decide how to do it at all.
    I don’t mind doing it at all but seems that I step on toes and get resentment and become avoided !
    If I had patience rather that ADHA , I would be a better friend I suppose?
    P.S.
    I am always the one who gets called on when their road gets hard but, no one seems to ever have time to help me out with my load (far and few apart if ever.
    Also, I never want to have to ask for help , and , want to think they would offer ! Crazy me….
    Looking for validation here!! Lol
    Suggestions welcome!

    1. Michael S. Sorensen

      Hi Marsha,

      Happy to help in whatever way I can. I’m not completely clear on what you’re looking for suggestions for, though; feel free to email me via the contact page and we can chat more.

      Michael

    2. Hi,

      Thanks for your articles on validation and empathy. My partner has expressed that I don’t validate his emotions before going into solution phase. I think this is because I am a goal-oriented person, and like you said in another article, I’ve been raised to be a fixer. I used to tell my partner that solutions were more important than feelings, but after reading your articles and others about Non-Violent Communication I realize validating emotions is the first step to diagnosing a need and developing a strategy. I will listen more to what my partner has to say before anything else because I now understand why validation fulfills the need for connection.

      Thanks,

      Kim

      1. Michael S. Sorensen

        Hi Kim,

        Thank you for taking the time to share. I’ll be curious to hear how it impacts your relationship. My hope and expectation will be that, once your partner feels heard and understood, they will be more open to your opinion. Ultimately a win-win and a gift you give by taking a few extra moments.

        Best,

        Michael

  2. Hello and thank you for all of your insightful and very valuable information. I just wanted to say that for whatever reason im not sure but effective communication has never been one of my strong points. Yet im a people person.. It wasnt always like that. When i started my freshmen year in high scholl is when i realized i had a serious problem. So i became angry and aggressive. I would feel so stupid because for the most part i couldnt find the words to say. Well so many years have passed and now my marriage has suffered greatly because my wife longs to be validated. Ill be working on my new way of thinking and doing things especially for the best of my family! Thank you!

  3. Hi Michael. I found your book very insightful and it opened my eyes to something. My wife often tells me that I am too emotional and is really not much of a validator. Though our marriage crisis is mostly my fault, I think this is an area that she can improve in. But I know she will likely ignore me if I ask her to read this. I guess all I can do is start setting an example and improving on this myself then see where it leads. Gulp… thanks
    Brett

    1. Michael S. Sorensen

      Hi Brett,

      Thank you for sharing, and I am sorry to hear about the difficulty in your marriage. I love that you’re seeking and learning, and not afraid to take a look at yourself in the relationship. I hope she will be willing to listen and learn; but if not, looking at ways you can improve yourself can only help. My best wishes to the both of you as you.

      Michael

  4. Hello! I find that in my relationship my husband lacks empathy for me and in return I lash out and don’t give him the validation he deserves. I want to break the cycle but I’m afraid if I start I still won’t get anything from him. Where do I go with this besides divorce court?

    1. Michael S. Sorensen

      Hi Colleen,

      That’s not an easy spot to be in. And, I will say, you’re not alone. Some find that as they take a deep breath and begin validating their partner (with the understanding that they likely won’t receive the same in return—at least for the first while), their partner begins to soften and become more open to constructive dialogue around the issue. For some, the partner starts to notice the change, which helps them garner enough humility to entertain a discussion. From there, you might say, “I’ve been working on this. And it would mean a great deal to me if you’d be willing to work on this. However, it doesn’t always happen like that. I’ve seen others who do everything in their power to first work on themselves, set boundaries with their partner, see every therapist they can find, and still their partner won’t do their part. Every relationship is unique, and every individual in a relationship ultimately needs to take responsibility for themselves.

      So, operating off very little insight into your particular situation, my advice is general: I suggest taking a look at how you’re doing with codependency, validation, communication, empathy, and—perhaps most importantly—boundaries. Nine times out of ten, doing a self evaluation on these principles either fixes root issues of the problems or shines light on the appropriate next step to doing so. Whether that be professional counseling, personal therapy, or even yes, in some cases, the divorce court.

      Again, not an easy place to be in. Kudos to you for reading, researching, and doing the not-so-easy work. The fact that you’re doing that gives me confidence that you’ll find the right next step.

      Michael

  5. Thanks for your posts, they are both practical and grounded.
    One thought though, it is extremely difficult to validate a partner who is expressing his/her viewpoints through blame, judgment, personal offense and criticism. Assumptive worlds are powerful and many believe whole heartedly that their judgment about your behavior (right or wrong) warrants their attack. And when their viewpoints are laden with errors in thinking, and personalization, their reactions are often blaming and judgmental, making it very, very difficult to validate. Finding truth is difficult when thinking errors are involved. And, it is very often the case that the strongest attackers, have the least insight into their own reactions, yet still expect to be validated and heard. Any thoughts?

    1. Michael S. Sorensen

      Hi Roxanne,

      I agree 100% that it’s incredibly difficult to validate in these situations. Certainly, every situation is unique, and there are times when validation just doesn’t make sense, or even when it becomes counter-productive, such as when dealing with a narcissist.

      In moments where emotions are high, and accusations seem downright absurd, I find it best to use curiosity as a precursor to validation. For example, if someone is blaming you for something that clearly isn’t your fault, you could respond in one of three ways:

      1) Arguing back: “That’s not true!” (to which they’ll insist it is, and you begin an unproductive argument)
      2) Validating [prematurely]: “I can see why you feel like this is my fault” (which is likely just lip service at this point, and therefore feels either patronizing to the other party, or weak to yourself)
      3) Asking more questions: “Why do you feel like this is my fault?” (which requires them to explain themselves further, giving you more opportunities to ask questions, and ultimately uncover a misunderstanding you can validate, a false belief you can correct, and much more.

      So while I’m not going to say we should always validate people, no matter the circumstance, I will say that in my experience, 9/10 arguments play out better when I do. But oftentimes I need to stay curious for a few moments—asking questions to better understand the situation and the other person’s perspective—before arguing back OR validating.

      For further reading on this topic, check out my article: How Do You Validate Someone When They’re Angry With You?

      Michael

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