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In tough times, we turn to those closest to us for support, but that support falters when they dismiss our feelings | Gaynor Parkin and Amanda Wallis

Relationships, especially romantic ones, need to be based on mutual recognition and understanding of emotional experiences

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When we experience distress from physical pain or emotional turmoil, we often turn to our loved ones for support and understanding. However, when our partners fail to validate our emotions, we can feel isolated and resentful and may even question the strength of the relationship.

As a generally mild-mannered person, Mary* sometimes shocked her partner, Susie by shouting at other drivers. Susie thought Mary’s reactions were unnecessarily aggressive, and somewhat embarrassing when they were in the car together. However, Mary experienced Susie’s pleas to stay calm as critical and invalidating.

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Give your partner your full attention. Show you are listening via your body language, for example, lean forward, nod and keep an open posture.

Hold eye contact and use nods and verbal encouragers such as, “uh huh”, while showing your interest.

Acknowledge and verbalise the emotion being expressed. Label the emotion in a tentative, open way. For Robert it was listening to Sally suggest “It sounds like you’re feeling really frustrated?” “And maybe also disappointed?”

Legitimise the emotion by noting why it makes sense given the circumstances. For Mary, hearing Susie acknowledge “It’s understandable to feel annoyed by the way that person was driving” helped to take the heat out of her anger.

Show you understand the depth of the emotion and its complexity, if appropriate. Claudia was comforted by Mark’s attempts at this – “I can only imagine how painful and complicated this must be for you.”

Give the validation time to work! Reducing distress takes time; it’s not a once and done exercise. Let the soothing soak in before attempting any problem solving or “moving on”, and check in with each other – how are you feeling now? Do you feel understood? What else do you need from me?

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