Validation and Empathy in Thought Word and Deed


In Gary Chapman’s intriguing book, “The Five Languages of Love,” he explores how people express and receive love in different ways.  He identifies five major categories of what he calls love language:   words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Which language we are most comfortable with depends on who we are – on our personality, our history, even our genetic make up.  The Imago Getting the Love You Want Workshop encourages couples to explore all five of the love languages through dialogue, caring behaviors, loving gifts and behavioral change – to find ways of expressing our love both verbally and behaviorally.

In the therapy office, however, the emphasis often gets stuck in the verbal.  The primary tool of Imago therapy is the Intentional dialogue which is primarily a verbal experience.  When used with compassion and courage the dialogue has the potential to be a powerfully bonding experience.  However, the connection is often limited to the arena of “the word”.  We let our partners know that we have heard what they said by mirroring their words.  We then use words to let them know how they make sense to us, and we again use words to express our empathy for their emotional reality.

This summer I had a “light bulb” moment in which I experienced what validation and empathy feel like when they are expressed in behavior or deed rather than through verbal expression.

A little background.  Two days before we were supposed to board an airplane for a long planned and much needed vacation I fell and broke my foot.  The look of regret on the doctor’s face said it all – the vacation was not to be.  After some initial cursing and crying we regrouped and undaunted, cancelled the vacation and began to search the web for less ambitious options within driving distance.  The next day, armed with a portable wheelchair and my newly acquired crutches my husband and I set out to explore the beauties of New England.  While we had traveled often together, traveling in a wheelchair was a brand new experience for both of us.  What was normally easy, such as dashing through the rain to use the restroom in a McDonalds, became a huge challenge.  For those of you who have lived with disabilities I do not need to tell you how it changes your reality – each potential restaurant or hotel had to be vetted for accessibility.  We soon learned the difference between what might technically be labeled accessible, and those facilities that truly were easily accessible to us. 

And here is where my “aha” moment occurred.  After a tough experience at the first hotel which was technically accessible except for the almost insurmountable step into the room, we opened the door to the room in our second hotel.  When I saw the spacious, easily navigatable space, the bathroom with plenty of bars, a low sink and a roll-in showe,r something inside of me melted – I felt safe and that my reality had been truly seen and acknowledged.  This feeling reoccurred throughout our trip every time we encountered a space that I didn’t have to struggle to be in.  And I noticed that the feeling was a familiar feeling – it was the feeling I get at that moment in an Intentional Dialogue when I experience the validation step as being truly “on target.”

As my husband and I discussed it I realized that what was happening for me was that when the layout of a hotel or restaurant was truly handicapped accessible what I experienced was that whoever had designed it had really understood my reality and what my world was like.  In the movie, “The Story of Us,” the lead character played by Bruce Willis says, “when I first met Katie I felt like she really got me, and believe me, there is no greater feeling than to be gotten.”  As we meandered through New England I found myself thinking – “I know exactly what he means.”

In the validation phase of Intentional Dialogue we let our partners know that we “get them,” that their world makes sense to us even if it is not our world.  That was what I was experiencing in a very physical way in those restaurants and hotels – that somebody got what my world felt like and had designed the space accordingly. 

So then I began wondering if validation can be expressed behaviorally what about empathy?  Quickly I flashed on the hundreds of people throughout our journey who would take one look at us struggling and move to offer a hand or open a door or rearrange the furniture.  My most powerful memory of what I started calling behavioral empathy was in a crowded rest area in the middle of a nasty thunderstorm when the line of women waiting for the rest room took one look at me on my crutches and almost with one voice said, “Let the lady through.”  I found myself repeating the Blanche Dubois line from Streetcar Named Desire:  “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

So as we went on our road trip my husband Steve and I began to discuss what this idea of behavioral validation would look like in an intimate relationship.  Steve’s analogy is that a relationship is like a house – we decorate it with our words, but we furnish it with our deeds, our behavior on a day to day basis.  Behavioral validation is essential to a well furnished house.

As the trip progressed more and more examples began to emerge for me:

-Your partner likes to sit in a certain part of a restaurant so you ask for that table, even if you don’t particularly care,

-Your partner likes a certain kind of music so you put it on without asking

-Your partner has certain habits or rituals that are important to them so you pace your day accordingly – even if they have no particular meaning for you.

I think the essence of behavioral validation is when one partner truly “gets” the others world = their likes, dislikes, fears, pleasures, etc. and accommodates their behavior accordingly without needing to discuss it.  The more such validation is incorporated into a couple’s daily life, the deeper and safer the connection will be.

Behavioral empathy on the other hand is more about accurately reading your partner’s emotional state and responding accordingly:

          you see the fatigue on your partners face and you take over putting the kids to bed,

          you sense your partners stress level and put off tackling another difficult problem till another time,

          You see that your partner is sad or scared and you give them a hug.

Is behavioral empathy different from the “caring behaviors” we discuss in the Workshop?  I believe so.  Caring behaviors are things we do that say, “I love you.”  Behavioral empathy on the other hand are things we do that say, “I sense that you are feeling ____________and I want to help or support you with that.”  And sometimes the two will overlap, but not always.

Now that I am back to hobbling around my own home I am left contemplating this summer’s hidden gift:  that the validation and empathy we express verbally through intentional dialogue can also be expressed behaviorally through our actions, Indeed, I believe that part of what John Gottman would call a “sound marital house,” is furnishing it with validating behaviors and empathic deeds.  Happy Decorating.

Copyright:  Laura Marshall, LCSW

August, 2009

Posted by Laura

Laura Marshall, LCSW, is the founder and director of the Sagebrush Center for Relationship Therapy. Her experience spans thirty years of supporting couples and individuals to create healthy and meaningful lives and relationships. She is also adjunct faculty for the New Mexico Highlands School of Social Work. She lives with her husband Steve and five sons in Farmington, New Mexico.

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