Managing couple conflict with DBT


Getting and giving the love and support we want can sometimes be challenging. There are skills we can learn to express our emotions constructively and to validate our partner. These skills can help us to manage conflict better.

This article is a summary of some of the thoughts and strategies behind a Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) approach to couple conflict. It is based on the writings of Alan Fruzzetti, including his self-help book The High Conflict Couple, as well as Marsha Linehan’s original ground-breaking work on treating borderline personality disorder. 

Understanding emotion in relationships 

If we want to understand conflict, especially conflict that gets out of hand, we need to understand the role of emotions in relationships. Emotion is a vital ingredient in all aHigh conflict couple book coverspects of life; without it, we could no more enjoy the pleasures of life than we could enjoy our favourite meal without the use of our senses. Having the right amount of emotion, though, is key. Too little and everything becomes bland and cerebral; too much and we become focused on doing anything, at any cost, to make those feelings stop. That is especially true when those feelings are very negative. Sometimes, the cost of trying not to have a feeling is the wellbeing of the relationship, of our partner, or of our self-esteem. 

There are ways to manage emotions in relationships effectively in order to communicate better, focus on what we want in the long-term, and shift our focus from being “right” to being effective. These skills include learning to express underlying emotion accurately and to validate ourselves and our partner. 

Underlying this skills-based approach to managing emotion is a model of how emotional sensitivity leads to conflict, and conflict in turn leads to more emotional sensitivity. According to DBT, people who have a history of emotionally invalidating experiences, whether in childhood, past relationships, or both, can become very emotionally sensitive to certain types of events. Invalidating experiences are those life events or circumstances that deprive you of your core needs. Core needs include the need for physical safety, sympathy and understanding, or emotional warmth and guidance.  

Invalidation often occurs at an age when we are dependent on other people to provide us with the safety and validation we need to help us to feel good about ourselves. Our core self-esteem reflects the belief that we are a worthwhile, lovable person, who is capable and competent and has inherent value and dignity. When situations in the present are perceived as invalidating (for example, when we perceive a lack of sympathy, understanding, love or care), it triggers negative emotional reactions. That negative emotional experience can get combined with a negative judgement about what is happening (e.g., this shouldn’t be happening, it’s not fair, I don’t deserve this, you’re going to leave me, I can’t cope with this). It is the combination of emotional sensitivity and a negative judgement that leads to extremely heightened emotional reactions.  

When we become flooded with negative emotion, we lose the ability to think clearly and to focus on what is important to us in the long-term (e.g. the quality of the relationship). Instead, we focus on the short-term overwhelming desire to escape from or control the unpleasant situation. This causes us to become intensely angry and to overreact and say or do things that may have very negative consequences. In this state of angry emotional hyperarousal, we tend to become more aggressive and to express hostility. These actions are designed to help us escape from or overpower the other person. When we are in this state of mind, our actions frequently come across as extreme and out of control. We do not feel safe enough in that moment to recognise, let alone express, the more vulnerable feelings that might be at the root of our emotional reaction. 

Our out-of-control behaviour and inaccurate expression of underlying emotion usually elicit negative, invalidating or unsympathetic responses from other people. This is especially likely if that other person is themselves emotionally vulnerable. In turn, these negative reactions from other people intensify the feeling of threat and lead to further judgements. We may label our partner’s behaviour as cruel, abusive, disrespectful, unloving, unkind, unappreciative, or devaluing. In turn, they are probably making similar judgements about us. Sadly, we are all likely to make negative judgements about ourselves, either in the moment or later as we count the cost. 

Our reactions to intensely negative, angry and shame-filled emotions lead to even greater conflict as the emotional intensity heightens. When the fight does eventually stop, each person will have had yet another emotionally invalidating experience. It is easy to become hopeless about ever getting what we want from a relationship or being the kind of person that another person could love or would want to be with. These negative feelings and judgements set the scene for more emotional sensitivity and reactivity. This vicious cycle is illustrated in Figure 1. 

DBT invalidation diagram

Figure 1: How emotional sensitivity leads to invalidation

Accepting yourself and your partner 

 If we want to learn to manage our negative emotions, or act more skilfully in conflict to prevent it escalating, then we need to learn to accept our partner and ourselves. If we, in turn, want to be accepted by our partner, then we have to learn to accept them. This does not mean putting up with the intolerable, but it does mean recognising both our own as well as our partner’s faults as well as remembering  to see our partner’s positive, lovable qualities and to value those qualities in ourselves too. The basis of acceptance is a willingness to suspend judgement and to focus instead on noticing and describing.  

For example, you might take some time during the day to notice voice tone. Notice how your voice tone affects the voice tone of the person you speak to; try changing your voice tone and see how it changes the voice tone of the other person.  When you aren’t feeling negative about your partner, notice any feelings of love you have for your partner. Notice your commitment to your relationship. Notice the things each of you wants from the relationship, such as companionship, friendship, support and understanding. Try to remind yourself of your connection to each other; how your happiness is their happiness and their unhappiness is your unhappiness. Remind yourself that when you take care of each other’s needs, you are also taking care of your own. 

Noticing is part of developing a non-judgmental, mindful stance to oneself and others. You might already have a mindfulness practice. If not, then perhaps you might think of signing up for a course in mindfulness-based stress reduction or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy with a properly accredited mindfulness tutor. You will start to learn that mindfulness is nothing to do with emptying your mind of thoughts or of learning to relax, but, in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition, mindfulness is a form of awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom. 

Even without formal training, you can increase your mindfulness of everyday activities by taking the time to observe them without judgement but with curiosity and good humour. For example, you could practise noticing your own experience without judgement when you are in the shower, or brushing your teeth, when you are cooking, or doing the washing up, or simply walking. You can extend this to noticing your value judgements such as good vs bad or right vs wrong. You can spot your reactions to events and sensations in terms of like vs dislike. Try to suspend judgement, merely notice and describe. Whatever is there, is what is there. Try describing what you are thinking and feeling in your own mind e.g.” I’m noticing that I’m having the thought that this is wrong and it’s making me angry and upset”.  

Once you can do this easily and confidently turn the spotlight of your non-judgemental attention to your partner. Start by noticing your partner when she or he is doing something near you that you are not involved in (e.g. on their smart phone, playing with your child, sleeping, or folding laundry). Stick with describing. Notice your reactions but bring your attention gently but promptly back to your partner. Notice your partner when she or he is talking to someone else. Let yourself be aware of what she or he is saying and doing. Be curious about what you imagine they are thinking, wanting and feeling, based only on your observations. 

In a non-conflict situation, practise listening mindfully to your partner; focus on listening to help you understand. Again, be curious about what you think she or he is thinking, wanting and feeling, based only on your observations.  When you are feeling calm and happy, try writing a list of “relationship reminders” that remind you why it is important to you to be in this relationship, with this person. Ask yourself, if this relationship were to stand for something important, what would that be? 

How to stop making things worse 

We can use this increased awareness of our partner to pause before saying something to them. Ideally, before we make a comment, request or complaint, we would ask ourselves, “is this going to make things better or worse?” or “is this going to get the two of us what we want in the long term?” In other words, we would focus on being effective. You can practise learning not to make things worse in the following ways. For example, in a situation of low-level conflict, when you are bickering for example, bring your mind to the consequences of continuing to fight or argue. Notice any urge or temptation to fight back or to say something hurtful or wounding so as not to feel as though you have lost the argument. Pause, and allow yourself to find some truth in what your partner is saying. Once you have found that truth, tell them the ways in which you agree with them.  

Make some quiet time to think about something you did in a recent argument that made things worse. You will probably be tempted to think about how you were justified in acting that way, but that will just lead to self-righteous indignation and increased anger and hurt. See if you can come up with something that might have been more helpful at that moment. Take this to the next level by practising imagining yourself stepping back when you are being criticised or verbally attacked by your partner and, instead of retaliating, finding some truth in what they are saying to you. Try letting them know that you can see things from their point of view.  

Notice that at times it can be hard to manage impulsiveness. Take some time out to learn what sets you up and what sets you off. List all the impulsive things you might do in an argument or fight, like shout, or break something, or leave the house, or get drunk. Write down what triggers your impulsive reactions and think about what they have in common; you might notice that they are all ways to manage strong, unpleasant emotions. They all have negative consequences in the longer-term.  

Come up with a list of things you could do when you feel under attack that could prevent you from retaliating and that would help to soothe you. Practise imagining the trigger and an alternative, less hostile and more constructive approach that you could take. Rehearse ending a conflict gracefully using self-disclosure of how the argument is making you feel, for example, sad or unhappy. Communicate your desire not to have conflict and your hope that you can work things out together. 

“Being together” when you are together 

Painful, frequent conflict can lead couples to become cautious around each other. Certain topics get avoided and we become experts at avoiding making ourselves vulnerable. We may find that even when we are together, we don’t really feel that connected. We need to relearn how to really “be together” when we are together. There are a number of ways that we can do this. It can help to start by learning to cultivate fondness and appreciation. You might create a relationship scrapbook, box, or photo album and spend focused time with it daily. You could pick a “recharging spot” for relationship mindfulness and practice recharging your affection and appreciation daily. This recharging spot is a place that is not associated with conflict and is not somewhere you go to recover from conflict, it is simply a place that is untainted by arguments where you can spend quiet, peaceful time in appreciation and gratitude for the positive things that your partner brings in to your life. 

It can also help to take some time to get into your own life more fully. For example, you could make a list of things you do to relax. Take a look at each of the items with a critical eye: do they enhance your life or are they forms of numbing, distraction and avoidance; do they have any hidden costs? Next time you eat a meal with your partner, you could take a few seconds every few minutes to notice that they are there, eating, sitting, being with you. In bed, you could notice how it feels to be lying in bed together, sharing the same bedclothes and each other’s body warmth rather than sleeping alone in the same bed. When you are both doing things around the house, perhaps take a few seconds to be aware of your partner and what they are doing, noticing that you are together in your life. You can also take other opportunities to be aware of your partner. Maybe noticing times when you fail to be aware of your partner and thinking of ways that you could bring your attention to your life together. 

It can also help to practise being together actively when we are together with our partner. For example, in a situation in which you are bit apprehensive, it can help to practise staying mindful by noticing and describing without judging. Once that gets easier, you can practise “being together” in a more challenging situation: if you notice you are drifting into judgement, criticism, anger, fear and negativity, it helps to take a breath and start again. 

As well as challenging situations, it can be useful to practise cultivating enjoyable situations. For example, noticing positive emotions as they occur during the day. Notice whether you are holding back from letting yourself feel positive. Try to let yourself just “be” in the experience. Even when you are not together with your partner during the day, you can monitor your positive feelings, allowing them to develop without intentionally trying to make them bigger or trying to minimise them. 

When we are not with our partner, we can try to recall something that we love or value about him or her and let ourselves feel lovingly towards them. And when we are with them, we can take time to notice positive feelings and focus our attention on them. Try switching your focus back and forth between your partner and your feelings and notice what happens. We might also use out initiative to try to create small situations in which we can be together emotionally that don’t require extra time or preparation. It’s a case of just noticing and enjoying being together. 

Reactivating your relationship 

Now that you are learning to really “be together” when you are together, you can start to reactivate your relationship. Some of the things that can help include increasing your time together, sharing interests and ideas, sharing values-based or spiritual activities, enjoying sexual experiences together, enjoying time apart and then sharing those experiences with your partner, and doing things for each other without strings attached. 

You might find it helpful to make an activity list of things that you would enjoy doing together, keeping it fresh by adding to it regularly. Pick something and do it in the next few days, remembering to stay mindful of each other as you do the activity. At least once a week, do something fun together. Be sure to reserve time on the calendar for these shared activities. As your confidence increases, start planning for a slightly bigger activity that requires some forethought. Take time to work out what each of your roles will be and how to share it equitably. 

Try to be more open with each other to share more of what you think about and what goes on in your head. Make an effort to be interested in what your partner thinks about. You might practise telling your partner about your thoughts and your mental and emotional life, just choosing one or two ideas at a time so as not to overwhelm them. Let your partner know that you would like him or her to share these kinds of things with you too, and then simply listen and show interest. 

If you want your partner to know what’s important to you, then make an effort to share your values or your spiritual side, with your partner. You might decide to engage in some values-based activity together and/or participate in a spiritual event together. It doesn’t have to be through an organised religion if you’re not religious people, just reflect your deeper values. For example, it might involve some community activity or political activism. Try to listen with respect when your partner tells you about her or his spirituality or values. Don’t disagree or challenge those thoughts; just focus on how knowing what he or she thinks, feels and believes brings you closer. 

If you would like to enjoy a more fulfilling sexual life together, then start to think of ways that you could each more often initiate, receive and enjoy a variety of sexual activities that you would both enjoy. You might cultivate your desire by thinking about sex with your partner more or talking about the sexual desires you have towards your partner with your partner. Set time aside as a couple to be sexual. You can plan what you are going to do, or not do, or be spontaneous. Allow yourself to engage in whatever sexual activity you have chosen in an intense and mindful way, enjoying it fully. Try not to be distracted by worries or evaluation: stay in the activity, in the sensation, in the moment.

When you are not together, enjoy time apart and then share those experiences with your partner. You could each make a list of enjoyable independent activities that you could each do alone or with friends. Let each other know that is on your list. Sit down together and discuss the idea of balancing individual with joint activities and add one or two independent activities to your weekly schedule. Engage in these activities fully and enjoy them. Discuss your individual activities with each other afterwards. Tell your partner what made it enjoyable or why it was important to you. Ask your partner what they need from you to help support their activities and make sure you do it.  

Loving and caring gestures are most appreciated when they come without strings attached. For example, think of and write down at least ten small, caring or considerate things that you could do for your partner that you have not done lately. Then, commit to doing at least one of these things every day and practise it in your mind first. Imagine doing these things even if you are unhappy with your partner at that moment. To help motivate you, focus on your enduring affection for your partner. Do one thing each day and do it from your heart, from a place of caring, not because you are supposed to. Take time to appreciate your own skilfulness in doing this. 

Accurate emotional expression 

One of the most important skills to learn is to express emotions accurately. In conflict anger is often the dominant emotion, but it is what lies beneath the anger that is more important. Just like an iceberg floats in the water with only the tip visible and the much larger mass of ice below the surface, so visible expressions of anger can hide a multitude of more vulnerable emotions. Like the iceberg, these are often just below the surface. Learning to express these emotions helps make it less likely that the iceberg of inaccurately expressed emotions will sink the relationship. 

You will need to be reasonably confident that you can self-soothe in the face of distress. As well as the mindfulness activities described earlier, you might like to learn some self-soothing techniques such as “dropping anchor”. If you have ever struggled with self-harm, you might already know to make sure that any medication or sharp instruments are not easily to hand and to construct and use a self-soothing emergency kit. This kit is a box of objects that you can use during a timeout or before or after a difficult conversation that uses the five senses to help bring you back into the present moment and to calm your emotions. Some examples of the things you might include are: 

  • Vision: collect things that you find nice to look at, such as photos of peaceful scenes 
  • Hearing: listen to something enjoyable, such as recordings of calming music or nature 
  • Touch: have some things that feel good against the skin, such as velvet or a soft toy
  • Taste: have a small treat—it doesn’t have to be a full meal, just something to suck on or chew that you like the flavour of
  • Smell: find some flowers or spray a perfume or cologne you like.   

It can also help to be able to get to know and name your emotions. You might like to check out a wheel of emotions, for example, to help you to find words to express whatever it is that you’re feeling. You could print out John and Julie Gottman’s anger iceberg handout. You might consider completing a self-help module from CCI on learning to manage your feelings 

Managing emotions is also about managing our lifestyle. The acronym STRONG can help you to remember to: 

  • Sleep as much as you need – not too much, not too little. 
  • Take medications your doctor prescribes. When sick, take care of yourself.
  • Resist using street drugs or alcohol. 
  • Once a day, do something that gives you a feeling of being in control or of personal mastery.
  • Nutrition – eat a balanced diet, don’t over or under eat. Don’t make decisions about food based upon your emotional state at the time (e.g. “I’m too upset to eat”). Keep your blood sugar balanced.
  • Get exercise – try to do 20 minutes a day. 

When you think about how to express your emotions accurately, start by noticing what you bring to your interactions. To what extent does your facial expression and body posture reflect your real, primary emotion? Use your relationship reminders, or create a tool kit of objects that help you to self-soothe, to help bring down your heightened emotional state before you initiate a conversation – even about reasonably noncontroversial topics. Notice how your partner responds differently when you manage your emotions and are less on-alert for conflict.  

Practise allowing your facial expression and body posture to relax and reflect your genuine feelings and desires. Use a large mirror to see the difference in what you communicate nonverbally when you are calm and again when you are very upset. Don’t judge yourself, just notice. Practice interrupting heightened negative emotional feelings, taking a short break (maybe going to the bathroom to practise) and using skills to experience, identify, and reflect your genuine primary emotions, before initiating everyday conversations. 

Repeat the previous steps but do so in preparation for discussing touchy or sensitive subjects. Practise mindfulness every time you use the bathroom for a few days. What do you notice? Consider committing to doing this regularly. 

Learn to know what you want and feel. Try to notice when you are getting angry. Ask yourself, is anger really justified in this situation? Is it really the only emotion you have? What other emotions might you be missing (disappointment, sadness, anxiety)? If you are angry, notice if you have been judgemental in your mind or just said something judgemental. Try to let go of judgements and notice what other emotions you might be feeling. Notice the situation and describe your reaction – of course it is legitimate to be upset or not to like something, the idea is to let go of the toxicity of the judgements. 

If anger really is justified, try to describe it without using the word “angry”. For example, say “I really don’t like this” or “it really bothers me that…” Practise noticing anger and using it as a signal that you are having a big reaction and try to identify an alternative, more primary, emotion. Recognise the legitimacy of that emotion and focus your attention on it. 

Try to learn to communicate what you are feeling deep down but do so directly using words to communicate your feelings, not actions. Actions are easily misunderstood. Practise rating how important something is to you before you ask your partner to do it. Maybe use a 0-100 scale in which 0 is not important at all and 100 is the most important thing to come up in the past year. Notice how you express your wants and desires. Can your partner tell from your expression whether what you want is low or high in importance? 

Think about your emotional, practical and relational goals. In DBT, there are three types of objective that need to be considered before engaging in conversation: what we want, how we want the other person to feel about us, and how we want to feel about ourself: 

  • Objectives effectiveness
    • What is the “thing” that I want from this interaction?
    • What do I have to do to get the results? What will work?
  • Relationship effectiveness
    • How do I want the other person to feel about me after the interaction?
    • What do I have to do to keep this relationship happy or improve it?
  • Self-respect effectiveness
    • How do I want to feel about myself after the interaction is over? 
    • What do I have to do to feel that way about myself? What will work? 

For a few days or longer, try to notice what you really want from your partner before you say anything to him or her. Sort out whether you have an emotional goal, a practical goal or a relational goal. In other words, is it about wanting something to help you to feel differently, something you want help with or to get done, or something about the way that the two of you interact? Pick a strategy for expressing yourself that makes it clear to your partner what you are looking for from him or her. Notice if it works and if your increased clarity makes it more likely for your partner to be responsive to your requests. 

It can also be really helpful to think about the situation you are in before deciding how to go about asking for what you want or expressing how you feel. For example, over the course of many conversations, notice how well your voice tone, intensity, body posture and facial expression match your words and the importance of your goals. Think through the situation before you initiate a conversation. “Is this a good time for me and my partner?” Are there likely to be few distractions? Are we physically ready – not too hungry, tired, or stressed? Only proceed if the timing is right. When you do initiate a conversation, practice starting out in a constructive way, being sure that you communicate that you like your partner before you go on to the substance of what you want to talk about. They will appreciate you for it! 

Validating responses: what to validate and why 

Validation is about communicating understanding and acceptance. It is not necessarily about agreement. We can still validate someone’s feelings, even if their perspective is not the same as our own. It is perfectly possible to see the same events from two different points of view and for each to have validity. This attitude is at the heart of what it means to be dialectical, as the term is used in DBT. In DBT, being dialectical means that two ideas can both be true at the same time; that there is always more than one true way to see a situation and more than one true opinion, idea, thought, or dream.  It is an appreciation that two things that seem like (or are) opposites can both be true and that all people have something unique, different, and worthwhile to teach us. That ultimately a life worth living has both comfortable and uncomfortable aspects (happiness and sadness; anger and peace; hope and discouragement; fear and ease; etc) and that all points of view have both true and false within them. 

In order to “be” dialectical we learn to let go of self-righteous indignation and of dichotomous “black and white”, or “all or nothing” ways of seeing a situation.  We look for what is “left out” of our understanding of a situation and find ways to validate the other person’s point of view. Being dialectical helps us to expand our way of seeing things, to get “unstuck” from standoffs and conflicts. To be more flexible and approachable, and to avoid assumptions and blaming. 

  • We learn to validate others because:
    • It helps our relationships go better  
    • It calms intense situations so that we can problem solve   
  • We learn to self-validate because:   
    • It quietens defensive or fearful emotions so we can problem solve.   
    • It allows us to let go of the pain and exhaustion that constant self-justification and self-doubt requires.  

Validation is about telling someone that what they feel, think, believe, and experience is real, logical, and understandable, and that we understand and appreciate their perspective. Self-validation is when we are able to reassure ourselves quietly that what we feel inside is real, is important, and makes sense.

Taking a dialectical approach is not the same as saying that everything is just a matter of opinion. Facts still exist and it is important to recognise them as such. We all need some shared understanding of what is real and what is not, what is true and what is fake, especially when there are organisations whose purpose is to make us doubt those facts in order to sow division for their own self-serving ends. But, in our intimate relationships the ability to validate another person’s point of view, to be able to say, even though in my opinion this is what happened, I understand that in your eyes that’s not how it went at all, is key to moving on. It helps us not to get caught up in futile disputation about minor details, but to focus instead on what really matters, which is usually how we will feel about each other as a result of the way this conversation goes. 

To practise becoming more dialectical in your relationship, try thinking think about what your partner was feeling the last time you had a conversation. Did it make sense to you? In what ways were his or her feelings legitimate? Recall the last time you were upset with your partner. Try to let go of your judgements and see if you can find a way to understand what she or he wanted or felt. Think about how the way they were feeling was legitimate in some way.

Practice noticing what your partner is wanting, thinking, feeling and doing (including being happy or experiencing a lot of suffering). Try to assume that her or his experience or behaviour makes sense. Try to understand something about your partner’s expression or behaviour in a previous situation some weeks or months ago that you had a hard time understanding at the time. Can you find ways in which those experiences or behaviours were valid or understandable under the circumstances? 

When you are upset with your partner, notice how your own strong emotions or judgements get in the way of seeing the validity in your partner’s experiences or behaviours. When you reduce your strong emotional reaction and let go of judgements, notice how it is easier to understand your partner’s feelings, desires, thoughts or actions. 

Validating responses: how to validate your partner 

There are a number of ways that we can learn to validate our partner’s experience. Non-verbal validation is a way of communicating interest and attention. You can use body language (eye contact, posture) to show interest and awareness of other people and you can check in with your partner to find out whether they think you are interested and paying attention.  

You can also verbally acknowledge your partner’s experience. To start with, you could practise acknowledging people’s experience in general. Write down 3 or 4 things you might say to acknowledge how people are thinking and feeling; try not to get hooked into any negative judgements you or the other person is making, just validate what is true e.g., how they feel. You can then practise acknowledging your partner’s experience in non-conflict situations. Try to notice how they respond. 

Perhaps you might recall conflict situations with your partner – ask yourself what you might have said at the time to acknowledge their experience. Go on to rehearse these things in your mind. Practise bringing down emotion in conflict situations so that you acknowledge experiences. Even in difficult situations, try to validate what your partner is thinking and feeling. This takes practice, so don’t give up. 

You can also ask questions to clarify understanding, but make sure that it doesn’t turn into an interrogation. We’re not trying to arrive at the indisputable truth but to expand our understanding of what each of us thinks and feels. Practise asking clarifying questions when you are not sure what your partner is saying, wants, thinks or feels. Try to communicate your desire to understand, not to fix things. Maybe talk about the best ways to ask each other for clarification. Try to do what your partner tells you is most reassuring and does not trigger defensiveness. 

We all make mistakes and both we and our partner are no exception. It can help to understand partner problems or “mistakes” in a larger context. For example, think about something problematic that you have done. What led up to your behaviour? Were your feelings valid? How were they valid? What were your feelings afterwards? What would have been helpful for a loving partner to say to you without suggesting that the problem behaviour was ok? 

Talk with your partner about how to handle such situations for each of you. What would be constructive? How can you validate the valid parts without supporting the problematic parts? Pick a situation from a while ago, one that is no longer fresh or causes bad feeling. Try to talk through the episode, validating the valid parts, keeping the big picture of your partner in mind. 

When your partner is self-critical, try to validate the underlying emotion and ignore the judgement. Try the same when your partner is judgemental about someone else. Remember, you will both feel better, more consistent with your values, if you stay descriptive; stick to what the person did, how you reacted, what you like and don’t like, and what you  want and don’t want. 

Everything we do happens in a context. That might be our life circumstances right now or the personal history each of us has that has shaped the person we are. It can help to communicate understanding of the historical reasons for current experiences. Try this experiment. Each of you picks one thing from your early life or a previous romantic relationship that you think had a big effect on you and that influences the way you react to your partner. As you discuss it, be sure to validate in terms of previous experiences: “It makes sense that you worry that I might react that way, now that I know how he or she reacted at the time.” 

After validating, clarify your own reactions via accurate disclosure and expression: use a phrase such as, “I hope you can notice as we are talking that I don’t feel that way at all”. Find the “of course, anyone would feel that way” in your partner’s experience. For example, notice how your partner responds to lots of situations in ways that most people would respond. Several times a day, ask yourself how your partner is feeling and why? Notice that the way that he or she responds is typical of how many people would respond. 

In situations that don’t involve you, practise validating your partner by saying something like, “of course you feel/want/did that. Anybody would do the same”, or use your own words to convey the same message. Now try validating even when your partner’s reaction concerns you. Choose a situation that’s relatively recent that isn’t too raw and practice what you’re going to say first. Let your partner know that how they reacted makes sense as anybody would have felt the same. Now try doing the same in situations as they unfold. Step back and notice how your partner reacts to what you are saying. 

It can be useful to match your level of vulnerability in a relationship. When our partner is disclosing something that makes them feel vulnerable, allow yourself to be as vulnerable as your partner. The key phrase is, “Me, too.” Practice noticing when your partner is being vulnerable to you with words or by actions, such as smiling and making warm eye contact even when you are having a fight. Be mindful of his or her vulnerability and ask yourself whether you want some of the same things that your partner’s vulnerability implies they want too, e.g., more closeness and fewer arguments. 

Rehearse saying “me, too” in those situations. Practise noticing your vulnerable feelings and letting yourself be vulnerable. Let down your guard and reciprocate: match your partner’s tone of voice, actions and vulnerability and respond in words or actions so that they can hear your “me, too”. 

Validation extends to situations outside conflict and into everyday life. We can learn to respond with our actions in a validating way. For example, practise being responsive to your partner in non-conflict situations. If he or she is frustrated, offer to help. If distressed, provide some comfort. In a successful relationship we learn to share the burden and share the joys. 

Think about some situations where you might have been more actively responsive to your partner. What got in the way? Did you make a balanced decision or a reactive one? If it was reactive, work out what skills you could have used (for example, mindfulness, letting go of judgement, awareness of your partner) and commit to practising them. When you choose not to be responsive (e.g., not to agree to something that your partner has asked of you), practice verbal validation, including of your partner’s disappointment and frustration that you don’t want to, or aren’t willing, to go along with his or her request. 

Practise being actively responsive whenever you can. Turn towards, not away. 

Recovering from invalidation 

Validation is not always easy and sometimes despite our best efforts we will either be invalidating (e.g. saying “you’re wrong”, or, “you shouldn’t have felt that way”) In those situations we need to learn to take care of ourselves and the relationship. First of all, we need to learn how to validate ourselves. Start by practising noticing and describing your experience. What are your sensations; what are your feelings; what do you prefer to happen? These are facts, so state them as facts – no judgements! Then, identify feelings or desires that are related to conflict with your partner. Separate the facts from your interpretations, assumptions, and judgements. Practice just acknowledging that you feel what you feel, and that you want what you want. 

Once you have validated those parts of your experience that are true (I.e. your wants and your feelings), show compassion towards yourself. Notice the kinds of things you tend to be self-critical about. Ask yourself whether these criticisms are helpful or unhelpful. If they are unhelpful, let go of judgement and be descriptive. Practise finding compassion for your feelings, even if they are feelings that make you uncomfortable. Accept your wants and emotions as they are in the moment. 

Notice the ways that your uncomfortable feelings and behaviours are valid. Be clear about why your actions make sense and are a problem. Both parts are true. Use your commitment to yourself and to your partner as a motivation to practise whatever skills you need to handle your interactions more effectively.  

Even after learning to validate and show self-compassion, we won’t always feel like validating, but this is what we need to do to break the cycle of invalidation. Practise the following strategies, first on your own, then in conflict situations: 

  • Validate yourself: 
    • Ride out the urge to retaliate 
    • Validate yourself for your self-mastery 
  • Soothe yourself with self-soothing strategies 
    • Soothe through the breath 
    • Soothe through the senses 
    • Soothe through imagination 
    • Soothe through kind and calming words 
  • Remember your genuine long-term goals 
    • The kind of relationship you want 
    • The person you want to be in a relationship 
  • Use relational mindfulness to develop the potential for empathy and validation 
  • Remember that you have the skills and ability to reduce your partner’s suffering 
  • Accept things as they really are… 
    • …not as you wish they were 
  • Find hope in the rule of three 
    • If you validate three times in a row, the other person will most likely stop the attack and start to calm down 

Finally, we need to learn the skill of repairing after invalidation. Think about something you did that was invalidating. Build motivation to validate and repair by: tuning in to the part of you that genuinely wants to repair; being aware of the impact of your behaviour on your partner and how it made them feel; being willing to allow your partner to feel bad for as long as they feel that way; and, accurately expressing and describing what you did. 

Plan your repair and rehearse it in imagination and out loud. Pick a good time to implement your repair. Get agreement with your partner that it is a good time to talk. Follow through on any commitments you make to change how you behave. Validate yourself for your intention and for the skills you used in your repair attempt. 

Managing problems and negotiating solutions 

There are times when we need to attend to difficulties that build up but that are preventable sources of conflict. In those circumstances it can help to do some collective problem-solving. Start by defining the problem. Pick what you think has been a small problem that has come up lately. Sit down with your partner and try to define what the problem is. Stay open-minded and validate your partner a lot. Notice how your idea of what the problem is changes over time, both in response to your conversation about it and with heightened awareness of what is bothering you and what is bothering your partner. 

Then start to develop an analysis of the problem. Pick a small disagreement you had recently and break down what happened one small step at a time. This is called a chain analysis;  we are trying to identify all the links in the chain that led to the problem. Note each of your private experiences (thoughts, feelings, physical reactions) and your public reactions (what you said or did or was otherwise visible to your partner). Discuss the chain of events and how it unfolded and try to understand what might have been going on for each of you that the other wasn’t aware of. Notice how sharing your private experiences helps each of you to make better sense of what the disagreement was really about. 

Once you have learned how to do a chain analysis on a minor problem or disagreement, move on to more emotionally difficult problems. Remember to stay mindful and validate. Don’t try to “fix” the problem, just try to understand each other better. 

Once we know the steps in the problem, we can start to negotiate a solution. There are a number of steps to follow, starting with the agreement to focus on one problem at a time – after all, you can’t change everything at once. Then put your heads together and see how many possible solutions you can come up with. Don’t rule out anything at this stage. Even obviously daft ideas can lighten the mood and may provide the germ of a useful idea later. Work out which ideas might be feasible then weigh up the pros and cons of each. Choose one to try out and commit to giving it a go with a fixed time to evaluate how it went and to change or fine-tune it if necessary. 

It can help to start with a small problem. If the problem seems too big, break it down into smaller, more manageable problems. Make sure you take each step slowly with lots of validation for each other’s thoughts, feelings and intentions. Evaluate how well you did as a couple in finding a solution to the problem. Identify what each of you could do to make it go more smoothly next time. 

Continue working with small problems and notice how your confidence grows in your ability to work as a team. Start taking on increasingly difficult problems, one step at a time. If no solutions can be found that are agreeable to you both, try to accept that this is a problem you may have to learn to live with, hard though that can be. 

Transforming conflict into closeness 

Conflict is not something that is just to be avoided or even managed away. It can also be an opportunity to learn more about your partner, and yourself. If nothing else, it tells you want is important to you and your partner, if you can get beneath the angry feelings. There is almost sure to be a story of hurt or loss or pain behind the things that unsettle us and lead us into conflict. 

You can learn to come to terms with the things about your partner that you can’t change. Make a list of the things that you have tried, over and over, to get your partner to do differently, but without success. Pick one that you are willing to tolerate for a couple of weeks. Stop criticising, complaining, nagging, demanding, or doing anything to try to get your partner to change. 

Validate your disappointment that your partner is not doing what you want them to. Soothe yourself in your disappointment. Get active and put your energy into some other activity, such as your self-care. Let go of frustration and anger: don’t ruminate on your partner’s behaviour or engage in self-righteous anger or feelings of entitlement – they have the right to be the person they are. 

After a week or two of tolerating the behaviour, notice whether the way you feel about it has changed a little or a lot. Notice what feelings are left for you – you can always go back to trying to change your partner’s behaviour if you think that will be more helpful. If you are no longer bothered by the behaviour, give yourself some credit for reversing your habit. Pick another behaviour and start the process over again. 

Finally, let yourself become aware of unnecessary suffering. Notice your agenda to change your partner. Each time you experience the urge to change your partner, notice what the costs are of responding with an attempt to change them: for example, more unhappiness, more conflict, and more distance. Notice what the opportunity costs are, that is, the things you could have done differently with the time you spent in futile attempts to change the other person’s behaviour, for example, the time you could spend talking to a friend, doing some hobby you enjoy, or taking a hot bath. 

Practise recontextualising the “problem” behaviour in your relationship. What aspects of your partner’s behaviour have you been missing? What things have you been taking for granted? Notice the bigger picture, and let the parts that are truly most important to you become more central, more salient. Try to let the less important parts diminish. Practise finding alternative meanings in your partner’s behaviour. How is his or her upbringing relevant? What is important to your partner? How might the problem behaviour actually be something else, a reflection of previously unnoticed lovable attributes? 

Take every opportunity to embrace the person of your partner exactly as she or he is. Enjoy what you have.

Further reading:  

  • Fruzzetti, A. (2006). The high-conflict couple: A dialectical behavior therapy guide to finding peace, intimacy, and validation. New Harbinger Publications. 
  • Fruzzetti, A. E., & Fantozzi, B. (2008). Couple therapy and the treatment of borderline personality and related disorders. Clinical handbook of couples therapy, 567-590. 
  • Linehan, M. (2014). DBT? Skills training manual. Guilford Publications. 
  • Linehan, M. M. (2018). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. Guilford Publications. 

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