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The Relationship Repair

Sarah Chana Radcliffe

Validation, not defense, is what rebuilds a relationship

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A dult child: …And that’s why, Mom, I’ve never really felt that I mattered to you.

Mother: That’s ridiculous! You — and your siblings — are all that has ever mattered to me! My family is my life.

After years of pain, struggle, and therapy, Chavi had finally gotten the courage to confront her mother. After inviting her out for coffee, Chavi explained to Mom that she’d always felt invisible, that her thoughts, feelings, and wishes were never acknowledged or addressed.

Mom was stunned. From her point of view, Chavi had always been a difficult, moody child. Nothing ever seemed to satisfy her. Of course Mom had continued to try — helping her, shopping for her, cooking for her, looking after her — this was her job, after all, and her raison d’etre.

And now here was Chavi declaring that she had failed in her job as a mother. What chutzpah! Mom couldn’t wait for Chavi’s children to get older so that she could see for herself how impossible it is to please everyone all the time. Wouldn’t it be ironic if Chavi’s daughter would one day tell her what a miserable failure she was!

Mom’s hurt makes it difficult for her to respond empathetically to her daughter. She feels judged, blamed, and insulted. Her emergency chemistry kicks in to immediately ward off the attack. She pushes her daughter’s accusations away with an outraged “That’s ridiculous!” Her counterattack swiftly executed, she now brings on the troops to defend her cause: “You — and your siblings — are all that has ever mattered to me! ”

 

Expressing Vulnerability
 
Chavi has been blindsided — yet again. Opening her heart in honest communication, she took the risk of being vulnerable — a risk she had no business taking. She failed to take into consideration that Mom had always been invalidating. Even though she actually told Mom that she felt that her thoughts and feelings had never been properly acknowledged, she invited Mom into a conversation that required the ability to acknowledge thoughts and feelings.

This might have been wise if Mom had demonstrated a newfound ability to respond appropriately to thoughts and feelings. If Chavi had recently noticed that Mom was acting uncharacteristically understanding, receptive, or supportive, then she could realistically take the risk of launching a heart-to-heart conversation.

Parents do sometimes learn new skills and manage to change their ways. An adult child experiencing this kind of positive change can take advantage of it to help repair old relationship wounds. However, if no such change has been evident, then the adult child must expect that the parent will be the same as always: invalidating. Instead of healing, she can expect another round of wounding.

Mom responds to Chavi’s feelings with discounting (“That’s ridiculous!”). Discounting includes any message that communicates that the other person is exaggerating or incorrect. It’s never a good start to a repair because it immediately creates a distance between the parties. Then Mom mentions other people (“and your siblings”), which often causes pain to a person who is begging to have her own story heard at last. Finally, Mom talks about herself instead of addressing her daughter (“My family is my life”).
 
 
 
The Sound of Validation
 
A validating response, on the other hand, embraces the speaker’s point of view, acknowledges it, and reacts to it. It starts off by welcoming the speaker’s perspective (“Thank you for sharing this with me.”) and showing that the message has been received (“It sounds like you’ve carried this pain for a long time.”). Validation often includes repeating back the poignant part of the speaker’s message (“You’re saying that you feel that you’ve never mattered to me.”) and reacting (“What a painful way for a child to feel!”).

Finally, the listener can begin to address that pain — not with explanations, defenses, corrections, or other forms of fixing the speaker’s perception — but by treating that perception as the truth it is for the speaker. Asking about it (“Can you tell me what I did that led you to feel that way?”), apologizing for it (“I am so sorry that my actions caused you to feel that way.”) and/or acting on it (“I never want to make you feel that way again. What can I do now to show you how much you matter to me?) all initiate the repair. It takes respect, courage, self-control, and skill to offer a validating response.

It’s hard — but not too hard for love.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 584)

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