How Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Can Help Couples: Part II
In Part I of "How Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Can Help Couples", we reviewed principles from The High Conflict Couple, by Alan E. Fruzzetti, Ph.D., including the interconnection between dysregulation and inaccurate description. We discussed the importance of validating our partners in the midst of conflict, so they are more conditioned to listen and bear the heat, rather than escalating or fleeing it.
Here in Part II, we return to validation, but this time we look at how self-validation lessens the sting of conflict, enabling partners to turn toward each other and relationships to repair.
Engage Don’t Enrage
Fruzzetti referred to validation as “the communication of understanding and acceptance.” Otherwise, if I feel that you will cut me off, ignore me, or diminish what I say as wrong, it’s more likely that Gottman’s Four Horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) will rear their ugly heads, and we’ll find ourselves in the washer machine (an automatic, vicious cycle of fighting). These seeds of destruction don’t bode well for a couple, with contempt being the highest predictor of divorce.
Handout 17 of the DBT Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills teaches us to validate by finding the kernel of truth in whatever another is saying (even if that’s limited to: “I know this matters to you”). The benefits of validation are reduced pressure for either party to prove they are right, decreased negativity, and less anger. Validation is NOT agreement, nor surrender, nor “giving in.” It’s me letting you know “I get it.”
Ways to Validate
We can validate with simple gestures – nodding our head or softly reflecting back key aspects of what was said. Sometimes it’s acknowledging your partner’s difficulty, even when you see things differently (“you’re feeling unappreciated” or “you want us to spend more time together”). Two words that could make all the difference in the world are “me too.”
We can extend validation by acknowledging that another’s position makes sense, given past experiences or past situations they went through or what they learned from life’s lessons. When we validate, we enable another to feel more comforted and soothed, more open to engaging than to rage.
Meeting Invalidation with Self-Validation
While validation keeps us connected and connecting, invalidation hurts. Your partner may turn away, retreat, shut down, or have sudden urges to strike out. Invalidation often begets invalidation. We aren’t only back in the washing machine; we’re piling uploads.
Although we cannot control what our loved one thinks or how they will behave in any particular moment, we have control over our own being and doing, especially when regulated. One helpful way to counter invalidation is with self-validation.
Self-validation involves the same steps we use to validate others: We check the facts to look for the kernel of truth in our points of view and acknowledge that our beliefs have meaning to us and make sense based on prior experience, how we were raised, or the circumstances we are in.
In the midst of invalidation, we soothe ourselves by remembering long-term goals for the relationship and turn our minds toward accepting our partners empathically. This may sound impossible or counter-intuitive, which is why we need to practice, practice, practice. Fruzzetti’s rule of thumb: If you can muster the discipline to validate three times in the face of validation, your partner’s emotionality will almost always subside.
The Key Steps to Self-Validate – DAPR
To remember to self-validate, remember dapper (DAPR);
Drop self-judgment and practice self-compassion;
Admit that invalidation hurts (even when a kernel is true);
Practice radical acceptance; and
Remember, hard as it is, it’s rarely a catastrophe.
To self-validate, we can also pull in mindfulness – mindfully watching our sensations, interpretations, feelings, and thoughts. We can engage in calm, paced breathing and contemplate options that will reduce negativity and help us engage more effectively.
Using a BCA
An additional tool that DBT offers couples therapists is the behavioral chain analysis (BCA), which helps us observe how problematic behavior gets in the way of what we want.
A chain analysis is a process to tease out prompting events, vulnerability factors, step-by-step escalation of behaviors, and consequences of ineffective behavior. We look at how the fight started, who said what, what was going on with each partner at the time, what were they thinking/feeling/assuming, and what was happening to them physically and emotionally. This allows the therapist and the couple to peer behind the constructs of the conflict to explore what’s getting in the way.
BCAs are just one of the dozens of DBT tools and skills available for use with couples. I also recommend clients utilize a pros/cons list, the PLEASE skills (which address physical and biological needs for self-regulation), and the IMPROVE and accept skills (which use images, meaning, prayer, vacations, easy manners, comparisons, encouragement, and more). In sum, DBT tools and skills are a great adjunct to my couples’ practice. They provide one more way to integrate evidence-based learning to help our clients, including couples in high conflict.
If you would like more information or need assistance in your relationship, please call me for a free 15-minute consultation at 954-391-5305.
I provide counseling for couples and individuals in English or in Spanish at our Fort Lauderdale and Coral Springs offices. For more information about my approach to couples counseling, click here.