Meaningfully distinguishing between explanation and justification is deemed essential in several branches of philosophy. Their differences have frequently been discussed in mathematics as well. But strangely, my research on this important differentiation turned up virtually nothing on how these two related concepts relate to psychology and psychotherapy, as they’re relevant to intimate relationships. In this post, I’ll suggest why there could be great value in doing so.
It will be helpful here to start with some dictionary definitions of these complementary but sometimes contrasting terms, in order to better understand their divergent psychological overtones.
To "explain" something is simply to clarify it, whether it be a situation, problem, or idea. It involves discussing facts or viewpoints in greater detail. And that’s why synonyms for "explain" include spell out, clear up, make plain, elucidate, explicate, illustrate, shed light on, and interpret.
Typically, to "justify" goes significantly beyond simple (or even elaborate) explaining. And the key to understanding this term is knowing that it originally comes from the Latin, basically meaning “to act justly toward.” Etymologically, this root definition takes us in a different direction from "explain," for it involves providing a rationale for something in order to make it ethically, or logically, correct. So a common definition for "justify" is “to demonstrate or prove to be just, right, or valid.”
What this characterization, however indirectly, suggests is that justifying something could relate both to reasonableness and rationalization, with all the mixed meanings this latter usage implies. Note that one synonym for "justify" is actually “to explain away,” as in “to make excuses for.” And note, too, that Wiktionary’s definitions include this final alternative: “to justify an immoral act or illogical behavior.”
This is precisely where things get increasingly relative, subjective, and psychological. Take this example from The American Heritage Dictionary, elucidating the term by referring to “an outburst justified by extreme provocation.” And note that this instance could be argued both ways. That is, a case could also be made that nothing justifies an out-of-control, and possibly terrifying, outburst—and regardless of the level of provocation.
Enough said. Now let’s look at explaining and justifying in the context of couple relationships:
If your central motive in explaining something to your partner is to expand on something that may not yet be evident to them, then your motivation can be seen as practical, helpful, benign. But if instead, your intent is to justify what you’ve said or done—which, at the least, may be debatable—then you’re coming from a very different, and less honorable, place. In this instance, you’re literally striving to “make just” that which might more accurately be perceived as objectionable. Basically, you’re trying to persuade your partner that your behavior wasn’t morally culpable, that even though what you did may have been wrong or bad, it was nonetheless okay because of how energetically you're defending it.
Distinguishing between explaining and justifying is key to understanding what makes for a healthy relationship. In many, if not most, instances when you’re focused on giving your partner persuasive rationalizations for what you probably shouldn’t have done, you’re insinuating that they should let you off the hook, that it would be wrong for them to blame you. Your alarm didn’t go off (i.e., you’re not bad, your clock is), or you humiliated them only because they so antagonized you, or you didn’t reimburse them for the money they lent you because you forgot you had a car payment due.
Or, at its extreme, that they may have found indisputable evidence that you committed adultery, which earlier you’d vehemently denied. But you really couldn’t help it because you were seduced by a woman “rightfully” to be understood as an irresistible temptress—and any man in this situation would have succumbed to her. And so on, and so on.
Despite how convincing you might think you sound, you’re still rationalizing or making light of your faulty behavior—behavior intimating that you’re unreliable, insensitive, heedless, or untrustworthy. And because the message you’re giving your partner is that they should somehow overlook, or minimize, the seriousness of your misbehavior, they’re likely to conclude that because you don’t regard your behavior as being that unacceptable, you’re all the more likely to repeat it. It’s not that different from a person with chronic anger problems telling his abused spouse: “Look, that’s just the way I am! You know I feel strongly about things and you shouldn’t be trying to change me!”
The problem with making excuses (or lame apologies) in general is that such rationalizations can go on ad infinitum. And sooner or later your partner is bound to see you as trying to deceive or gaslight them—as conveniently absolving yourself of any responsibility through fabrications that can't but feel increasingly doubtful to them.
On the contrary, explanations as such aren’t employed to excuse errant behavior. They don’t go beyond illuminating your ethical lapse. Nor do they imply that your behavior, if not exactly innocent, is nonetheless exculpatory. So they can’t be seen as a hedge—a crafty, underhanded way of ducking responsibility.
Moreover, an explanation for wrongdoing not principally driven by a need to get yourself out of trouble—or to deny personal agency for your behavior—can’t be seen as manipulative. Rather, it’s about clarifying a situation that’s compromised your partner’s confidence in you. And it suggests your willingness to hold yourself fully accountable for behavior that you yourself recognize as unwarranted, or unjust.
So you wouldn't say to your partner: “Hey, it’s not my fault that now it’s too late to keep our plans for dinner out and a movie afterward. Harry just wouldn’t let me get off the phone.” Rather, you’d say, “I really messed up here. I let Harry keep me on the phone so long that at some point I totally forgot about our plans to go out for dinner tonight and catch a movie afterward, and that I absolutely needed to be home by 5:15. I’m so sorry. Is there some way I can make this up to you?”
On the one hand, you’re putting the blame on someone else, avoiding accountability for your partner’s being ready, waiting, and anxious for you to get home—while on the other, you’re apologetically explaining how it was that you so disappointed your mate, without shifting blame onto anyone else. You know you really let your partner down and you’re taking full responsibility for your forgetfulness.
But on the contrary, if you’re intent on advocating for yourself, or pardoning your careless behavior, you can’t help but give your partner the message that your wrongdoing doesn’t matter that much to you—and that, frankly, it shouldn’t to them either. However deviously, you’re telling them that your error wasn’t a big deal, implying that they’re making too much of it, that they’re overreacting, being too sensitive, or judgmental. Realistically, in such instances, how could your partner hope that your fallible behavior is likely to change, that you’ll be more careful and conscientious in the future? You might even be seen as implying that it’s their (over)reaction that has to change.
As already suggested, what it comes down to is a matter of agency. If your self-justification indicates that you don’t believe you could have acted otherwise—that something or someone else was responsible for your behavior, or even made you do it—you can take comfort in your alleged victimhood. Or you could go even further and attribute your (culpable) behavior to your parents’ abuse of you when you were a helpless child. That’s yet another way of abdicating responsibility for personal wrongdoing. But ultimately, taking adult responsibility for your dysfunctional “programming,” despite its possibly relating to parental mistreatment, is a sign of maturity, a willingness to take ownership for your conduct when, after all, it’s now you who are guilty of mistreating another.
If you want your partner to be more understanding of and empathic toward your shortcomings, you first need to show compassion for having hurt or provoked them. It hardly matters how much your past environment may bear on your errant behavior. You can’t justify being hurtful or inconsiderate toward your spouse solely because your parents were hurtful toward you. That circumstance won’t ever make “just” your choice to take it out on them.
What your partner needs to know is that whatever your misconduct, you’ve now learned your lesson. And that you’ll make every effort to ensure that you won’t let whatever hurt them happen again. If, instead, your energy is devoted not to sincerely apologizing for your bad behavior—which contributed to their anger, sadness, or anxiety—but getting them to excuse it, then whatever doubts they’ve come to have about your concern for them won’t be alleviated. They’ll be intensified.
So ask yourself: When you’ve disappointed, discouraged, or emotionally harmed your spouse—whether through failing to keep a promise or meet their (quite reasonable) expectations—have you experienced guilt or remorse, and been able to take as much responsibility for your misconduct as might have been appropriate?
To sum up, if you do something wrong or bad, and your partner calls you on it (or even if they don't), it's far better to explain why you did it without seeking to vindicate it. If you can simply apologize, you’ll be better able to emotionally resolve the situation, ameliorate your partner's hurt feelings, and begin to restore their trust in you than if you request (or, indeed, insist on) their giving you a “pass” on it.
© 2019 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.