You could probably “google” the title of this blog and get hundreds of different responses. Despite this, I would like to share what I think is the secret ingredient most couples and family members lack when they experience relational distress. I believe it is human intuition that when our character or role in a relationship is threatened we immediately want to put up a defense to protect it. One of the reasons we do this is to avoid feeling shame about ourselves or the role we play in our relationship distress. Most of us naturally want to feel important as well as feel we are making a positive difference with the people around us. The way we react to disapproval or criticism is similar to how our bodies react to a cold virus. When our bodies recognize that something foreign has invaded it and is threatening the system, it gives off antibodies to fight and defend itself. Unfortunately, in relationships, these natural efforts to defend ourselves from others’ disapproval usually causes more harm than good. Often times, we feel the “need” to help our loved ones hear our side of the story because if they don’t (we say to ourselves) they will think the worst of us. Then as soon as we express what “really” happened, we expect our loved ones to succumb to the “truth” of it and admit that their views of the incident are in error. Unfortunately, as you might have guessed, our episodes most often don’t unfold in this manner. What often happens is two people feeling unheard and misunderstood and leave feeling more frustrated than ever. However there is a key piece of knowledge here that many people have a hard time contemplating. It is that TRUTH IS POINTLESS IN RELATIONSHIPS! Trying to convince each other to hear the “real” story often ends up in a conversational debate about who is right and who is wrong. Now don’t get me wrong. I think there are certain things in the relationship that need to be regarded as “wrong” and “right.” However, for the most part, healthy relationships are often founded on a mutual understanding of each other’s unique perspectives. This leads me to the SECRET INGREDIENT……..VALIDATION. Validation is the ability to step inside our partners world and to see the world as they see it. When we have done this we given them permission to feel whatever they are feeling and acknowledge their difficulty and pain in the events that have occurred. When couples and families are able to validate one another’s story and feelings, positive interactions can start to succeed the negative ones and lead us on the road to relationship satisfaction. I think that often times we fear that if we validate and understand our partner’s feelings that we are afraid that our own feelings won’t be heard or understand. However, that is often not the case. When we are able to listen to our partners on an emotional and authentic level and our partners are able to express themselves on a vulnerable and authentic level, our partners are much more likely to step inside our world and listen to our reality.
Author: Kyle M. Reid, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist
I once had a friend who told me that when he was first married, he had the flu one weekend. He started to get very angry at his wife because she didn’t have a glass of grape juice sitting on his bedside when he became sick. I thought to myself, “That’s ridiculous!” He went onto say that growing up his mother would give him a glass of grape juice every time he was sick. He was so used to getting one over the years that he expected his wife to do the same thing.
We all of have expectations in our relationships. Some are important for the relationship to continue (e.g. fidelity) and some are ones that we might need to reevaluate or just remember that we own them and shouldn’t push them onto our partners. I would say that the hard part is trying to decide which ones are worth fighting for and which ones we need to own for ourselves.
One of the biggest mistakes I see in relationships is the fight each partner has between what is right and wrong in their eyes. Each partner spends so much time trying to convince the other that they need to see things their way that all they end up doing is convince the other to hold onto their current way of thinking who in return becomes resentful towards them for trying to force their beliefs onto them. One example of this is when my wife and I were first married. In our drawer in the kitchen, we had bar towels and towels you would use to dry your hands. According to my beliefs and how I was raised, you NEVER mix up the two! I had a firm belief that you never use the bar towels to wipe your hands and you never use the hand towels to wipe the counter. However, my wife didn’t see this issue as of great importance and was wondering why I was running around throwing a hissy fit. So, she would continue to mix up the two quite often. Sometimes I would go and wipe my hands on a hand towel not knowing that it had been used previously to wipe the counters off. I became frustrated with her quite often and attempted to convince her that my way was the right way of doing things and she needed to stop mixing the towels up. I began to realize that she just wasn’t raised my way. I realized that I needed to stop putting my expectations onto her and stop demanding that she live up to them. I had to make a choice. I would either continue to nag her about the towels to the point she would do what I said. I would get what I wanted but with a heavy price of resentment and a build up of emotional walls from her in return. On the other hand, If I chose to own my expectations and understand where she was coming from, I could begin to see how using the right towels wasn’t worth the pains of the relationship distress. I could ACCEPT it…… Of course, I chose the latter. We haven’t fought about it since. Choosing to ACCEPT this has lead me to look back on it now and think how silly it was for me to put so much effort into using the right towels. Now, instead of getting on her case, I grab another towel to wipe my hands and move on to the rest of my day leaving that behind me. This experience has taught me the importance of owning my expectations in my relationship as well as learning to ACCEPT many things I don’t have control over.