by Don Rosenthal
It happens frequently for one in search of a lifetime partner that he or she meets someone, they click, and fall rapidly in love. In a short time they are both high on the delicious emotions of the early romantic love. They may also experience an intensified high from the quality and newness of their sex. These highs are so compelling that they lead both partners swiftly to the conclusion that they have met their lifetime mate. With such intense love and connection, how could the union be anything but a lifetime of bliss together?
The fact that such a disturbingly high percentage of relationships—well over the majority— end up either in splitting, living in constant conflict, or going dead, suggests that the predicted bliss emerging from such beginnings is almost always greatly misleading. In fact, how high the high moments are at the early stage is a very poor predictor of long term relational success. For someone seriously seeking a lifetime partner it would be wise to abandon this misleading criterion and to look for another one that would more accurately predict the likely success of the long term endeavor.
Are we able to identify one? The answer is “yes.” Before the end we will suggest what that quality in a partner might be; but first we lay some groundwork.
Resentment: the Plaque in the Arteries
From decades of observing couples in all stages of relationship in our workshops and counselling, Martha (my wife of 46 years) and I are clear that the chief ingredient of most failed relationships is resentment. When not properly dealt with, resentment gains ground ceaselessly, choking off the flow of good will and love. This plaque in the arteries of relationship is invariably mutual, since resentment expressed by one party entails the diminishing of love, thereby triggering resentment in the other. As it bounces back and forth between the partners the resentment grows. Here is the central factor in the darkening of feelings and the lessening of love.
If resentment can be caught early and dealt with, before it has the chance to grow like a tumor, unchecked and dangerous, a relationship stands a far greater chance of success. It makes sense, therefore, to uncover the favorite breeding grounds of resentment as a crucial place to interrupt—before a destructive pattern is created.
We all want a relationship where we can communicate our feelings if we are upset by our partner’s behavior, and be understood by them. We have observed much resentment originating when such communication is attempted. The partner who is told by their mate, “I was hurt by what you said to me,” or “I was angry at what you did yesterday,” is likely to experience this as a threat. Out of their fear the confronted partner often becomes defensive, which invariably means that they are in no position to hear the upset one. The outcome is increased resentment.
Defenses Take Many Forms
Defensiveness can take many forms. A most common one is explaining oneself, or self-justification: “I had good reason to do what I did, and I didn’t mean to hurt you….” Another is denial: “I didn’t do what you said.” Another is attack: “What, you accuse me? You do it too, even worse!” Another is accusing the other of overreacting. Other forms of defense may include withdrawal, emotional meltdown, or inappropriate sarcasm or humor.
What they all have in common is simple: in being defensive one is in a state incapable of understanding their partner’s reason for being upset. The one who is trying to be understood about something that genuinely troubles them, is guaranteed in the presence of defensiveness to be frustrated in their desire, because the defensive partner will invariably tune out the other’s reality.
Here lies perhaps the major source of resentment. As a couple with human flaws, my partner and I are bound to do things regularly that don’t feel good to the other. There needs to be a way of conveying this effectively and of being heard. Without this capacity the most unfortunate message is transmitted: “if I behave in ways that bother you, I don’t care”. How can an intimacy flourish in such an environment? Yet such is precisely the situation in a disturbingly high number of relationships.
The reader might ask him or herself, how do I respond when my partner tells me they are upset with my behavior? Do I perhaps get defensive? If so, can I see that my partner may not feel that I am interested in hearing their truth?
In order for them to feel understood, what do they actually need from me? It can’t be that I always agree with their perspective on things, their story, because that is simply unrealistic and impossible. And yet, when they tell me their feelings I can’t argue with them, because it feels as if I am being defensive, and they won’t be heard. What they realistically have a right to ask for is that I be more interested in understanding their reality than in being right. That I will be able to put myself in their place and understand them. I need to show them that their feelings makes sense. In short, my task is to validate their feeling.
What is Validation?
To validate is to show the other that under these circumstances their feelings make sense to me. They are not crazy or inappropriate. And I can understand the connection between my actions and their feelings. It by no means requires that I agree with their assessment of the situation. In fact, it is possible to validate even when I strongly disagree. But it does require that I have the capacity and the willingness to let go temporarily of my personal perspective on the matter. Perhaps I may search my memory bank for an experience similar to the one I am trying to validate. It is an art to be able to put myself in their place and show them convincingly that their feelings make sense to me. In return for this gift I may receive a fresh perspective on some of my unconscious behavior patterns that might well deserve a closer look.
An example may clarify our meaning. Lets say my car was being fixed, I borrowed my partner’s car to go shopping, and it took longer than I had thought. I had an appointment on the phone when I returned home. In order to make that appointment on time I had to rush home. This meant I didn’t have time to put gas in the car, which sorely needed it. My partner discovered the gas indicator almost on empty when I returned the car, and got angry with me for my carelessness in not handling the gas myself.
Most of us, in the face of our partner’s upset, feel a strong impulse to defend ourselves, sounding something like this: “Look, I had a really important conference call at 3:00 and I simply didn’t have the time to get gas. You’re being unfairly upset at something I couldn’t help!” Or, “Okay, okay, so I’m not perfect! Don’t you ever make mistakes, especially when you’re pressed for time? Give me a break and stop coming on like you’re so perfect!” Or, “Why is it that you’re always finding fault with every little thing that I do? I can’t do a thing without you blaming me and getting upset over practically nothing!” You can imagine how unsatisfied our partner feels. In fact, this may well be the start of another cycle of resentment.
What did they actually want from me? For their upset feelings they were awaiting a validation, which might sound like this: “I can see why you are angry. The one time I borrow your car I return it with the gas very low, which means you have to handle one more thing the next time you go out, and maybe even worry about making it to a gas station. You always make sure the car has enough gas when you bring it home, and I can see why you would expect me to have the courtesy to do the same when I borrow your car. My failure to do that must have felt really disrespectful. I can understand your upset.” To receive such a validation usually softens the feelings and even helps them to release. But, alas, most validation does not arise very easily or naturally.
The Value of Validation
Couples who have learned a thing or two about the art of intimacy understand that to validate is to bypass a great deal of potential trouble. Ideally, if validation does not arise naturally during the upset, one can ask for it. Although it takes a while to learn well, the skill is greatly worth having. Whoever has learned how can offer it when requested. In fact, it makes sense on several levels for a couple to have an agreement that validations will be given upon request. Not wanting to give one is no longer an acceptable excuse. This ups the ante for relational integrity, as well as guarantees that one who really desires validation can count on receiving it.
One may find that the capacity to validate on request is not a luxury, but an indispensable component for maintaining a thriving intimacy. It may even become difficult to imagine how an intimacy could possibly succeed with a partner who, when told about my difficult feelings, is unable to show me some understanding, due to being defensive, about why I am upset. Without the capacity to validate on request, negative feelings are likely to build swiftly until they poison a relationship, and likely render it unpleasant to participate in or to behold. Imagine the difference when one lives in a relationship where he or she knows beyond doubt that they can always be heard and understood if they request it, due to the partner being non-defensive, no matter how difficult or loaded a situation is. The need to hold onto resentment withers; the trust level flowers.
The Quality Needed to Maximize Success
We can now return to the question of what quality in a potential mate will successfully predict the greatest likelihood of a thriving intimacy. I believe it is the willingness and the capacity to learn how to validate.
Were I considering someone as a potential partner I would first make sure they understand how important the proper handling of conflict is to the success of a relationship. Then, I would make sure they understand the importance of validation replacing defensiveness, and had learned or were willing to learn how to validate. Finally, I would want to try it out with them to make sure they have the capacity to validate effectively. The best tools are now in place to address any difficult situation, and a thriving intimacy awaits.
Author: Don Rosenthal, Relationship Counselor
Don shares more of his wisdom in a course at IMHU, “7 Essentials for Creating Thriving Relationships”. Click here for more information.