No matter the context, it’s frustrating to have your words fall on deaf ears. The feeling is compounded when the deaf ears belong to your partner. It’s more than just a failure of communication; it casts doubt on the emotional connection that should be at the heart of the relationship.
Psychological research indicates that people are happier and healthier when they’re confident they’re being understood in day-to-day social interactions. Beyond casual social interactions, being understood gains more importance in intimate relationships. The influential relationship therapists John and Julie Gottman say that mutual understanding, not problem solving, should be the goal of intimate conversations.
One way to make it clear to your partner that you’re hearing what they’re saying is to have some phrases at the ready to help validate their feelings. Such phrases are driven by the principle of reflecting your partner’s language, a simple rhetorical tactic that explicitly lets your partner know that you are locked in. You also take the pressure off yourself, says Amy Mezulis, psychologist and Chief Clinical Officer of the mental health site Joon. “You avoid trying to guess the person’s emotional experience while demonstrating that you were listening closely.”
Using phrases that mirror your partner’s statements prompt them into elaborating on their emotions and meaning. Giving them an opportunity to speak acknowledges the importance of what they’re trying to communicate but also gives you time to figure out what they’re saying and formulate an appropriate response. Note the use of “appropriate,” not “perfect”. You’re not always going to know the exact right thing to say to validate your partner. But don’t worry. As we explain below, it’s fine to ask for help.
1. “That Sounds Like A Lot To Handle”
You don’t have to overthink it. Phrases like “that sounds stressful” or even “that’s a lot” express empathy through straightforward language. “Simple phrases can validate the intensity of the situation without requiring you to be super specific about emotions,” Mezulis says.
2. “That Bugs You? It Bugs Me, Too.
Remember that the goal of the conversation isn’t to solve a problem but to understand the person. Don’t offer advice or observations. Speaking directly to your partner’s concern and demonstrate your support and shared emotional connection. “When it’s an intimate relationship, you want to convey that you’re sharing what your partner is feeling and that you’re in it together,” says therapist Terri DiMatteo.
3. “I Hear You Saying X. Is That Right?”
Like the example above, this phrasing reflects your partner’s words. Moreover, it’s frank, yes or no formulation, gives the speaker opportunity to clarify their meaning, says New York City mental health counselor Alana Carvalho. “Also, it shows we’re putting in an effort to be fully with them and their experience rather than moving to advice giving or fixing,” Carvalho adds.
4. “Wow. Tell Me More About That.”
Prompting your partner to share more with open-ended statements gives you time to figure out their meaning. It also validates your partner by giving them a chance to speak, making it known you want to hear more of what they have to say.
5. “How Are You Feeling About It All?”
This phrase, per Mezulis, “is a great way to make sure that the speaker has the opportunity to label their emotional experience clearly.”
6. “Have I Got It Right?”
It’s easy to fumble the moment by incorrectly guessing at your partner’s emotions or intentions. But this isn’t a final exam. Asking if you’ve heard everything correctly isn’t just allowed, it’s encouraged. “When you’re validating thoughts and feelings, the most important thing is getting the thought or the feeling correct,” says DiMatteo.
7. “That Sounds So Frustrating”
You don’t need a thesaurus to reflect your partner’s words. Repeating the exact words and/or phrasing is fine. For example, if they say “I was so frustrated” saying “that sounds so frustrating” works.
8. “Should We Take A Break?”
This isn’t a validating phrase but it’s helpful nonetheless. When emotions run high, Mezulis advises gently asking if the other person needs something, be it a break or more support. Asked in a nonjudgmental way, it allows everyone to take a beat and reassess the conversation as needed.
While the phrases above are good starting points for making it clear you want your partner to feel heard and understood, it’s important to remember that words are only half the equation. You’re using these phrases to show that you’re genuinely interested in what your partner has to say. They’re not magic words; they’re helpful tools that, as DiMatteo notes, become much more effective when paired with physical signs that you’re receptive to hearing them. Putting down your phone. Maintaining eye contact. Moving closer. Touching hands. Make a habit of this and your message will be clear: You care about what they have to say.