I only heard the term validation recently, but quickly realized that I was familiar with the concepts behind it. It is very much about recognizing and acknowledging emotions, both in ourselves and in others, something that I find difficult. This would be true for anybody with alexithymia, and I’d presume is fairly common across the autism spectrum as a result.
“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” — Cool Hand Luke, 1967
Recent (and some not so recent) problems in the relationship between my wife and I have demonstrated that we are having some communication issues. One of the biggest of these issues is that we have fallen into a pattern of invalidation. As the article I linked to above puts it, “Invalidation disrupts relationships and creates emotional distance.” Well, that’s all too true for us right now.
I hadn’t noticed the signs. Nothing new there: I’m not the most observant person when it comes to social cues. But some recent advice from a friend has served to open my eyes and helped me to understand that some of the ways my wife and I have been behaving towards each other are broken.
“You talkin’ to me?” — Taxi Driver, 1976
I have a terrible habit of checking my phone while my wife is speaking to me. It turns out that I’m unintentionally signalling “I’m not listening” or “I’m not interested”. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not: that’s how my wife sees it. She has complained that I don’t pay her enough attention. So the first point for me to remember is to be seen to pay attention when she’s talking to me.
My wife has a bad habit of interrupting when I speak to her, partly because I hesitate a lot and speak slowly if I’m trying to find the words for an emotive subject. Sometimes if I get interrupted I will just stop in the middle of a sentence and let her carry on, my train of thought derailed. This says to me that she doesn’t think what I am saying is important.
“When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.” — The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, 2012
There are any number of other examples I could describe here, but I want to finish this essay today. The point I want to make is that both of us are getting things wrong, invalidating the other’s feelings by appearing to be ignoring, blaming, judging or denying them. “Appearing” is not some weasel word here: perception is key. Does how I behave; how I speak; my choice of words come across badly? If so then I have a responsibility to alter my communication to make my intent clearer.
“You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re ALL individuals!” — Life of Brian, 1979*
You see, my problem up to now has been that while I knew there was something wrong, I had little idea what it was. My wife certainly understands these problems better than I do, but there’s something akin to a language barrier that comes into play when she tries to talk to me about it.
She might say, “You’re not spending any time with me” and that will confuse me because I have just spent the past couple of hours sat next to her on the sofa while I solved crosswords or something like that. To my mind that was “spending time with her”. I’m aware of the idiom but it’s only intellectual knowledge: my mind insists on interpreting it literally.
What finally provided the key for me was the advice I mentioned above: by putting a couple of suggestions in a way that made sense to me and the way my mind works my friend was able to set me on what is hopefully a path to enlightenment.
“By Jove! I think she’s got it!” — My Fair Lady, 1964
I’ve yet to try to put any of this into practice, but I’m hopeful that there will be some positive effects. I’ll write a follow-up in a month or so and describe what we’ve tried, what has worked well and what hasn’t. Until then… wish us luck!
* Yes, this is a gratuitous Monty Python quote and not directly relevant to this post. No, I’m not sorry. 🙂