"I Snapped": Is This an Explanation or Rationalization?

An analysis of a frequently used phrase.

Posted Oct 19, 2020

Jack* said that something in him “snapped” a few days after Marjory, his wife, walked out. On the day that she left, Jack had returned home from work and found his home emptied of nearly all its contents. A dining room set and a few kitchen implements were all that remained. Trying to stay calm, Jack told himself that material items could be replaced, but not his marriage. Worst of all, Marjory had taken Kyle, their 3-year-old son, and left a cryptic note saying that she would be in touch.

Now alone, Jack ruminated over all that he would be missing of Kyle’s daily activities – playing games, having meals, taking him to the park, and, most of all, missing out on the child’s persistent inquisitiveness about everything.

Jack’s marriage had been so turbulent that he began thinking that he and Marjory would never have married in the first place had she not become pregnant. They bickered about everything. What they had in common mostly revolved around Kyle.

After Marjory left, their relationship became even more acrimonious because Marjory permitted Jack just two hours a week to visit with Kyle and only on the condition that she or a family member supervise. Marjory claimed that Jack was too unstable to be trusted alone with their son.

Jack’s overtures for reconciliation of their marriage were rebuffed. Overwhelmed by grief and consumed by anger, Jack grabbed his gun, jumped into his car, and headed for a remote area where he could end his life. As he drove, images of Kyle flashed through his mind. The prospect of leaving his son fatherless was too much to bear. He turned around and drove home. He knew he must get help.

Jack initially told his therapist that when he read the email from Marjory limiting his access to Kyle, “something snapped” within him. He said that his suicide plan was out of character and asserted that it was unlike him to react so destructively to a setback or challenge.

The idea of a person snapping implies he is suddenly behaving in an uncharacteristic manner. A careful examination of Jack’s history revealed that he was no stranger to violence. He had threatened Marjory repeatedly and physically assaulted her. During moments of intense frustration and anger, he had thoughts about killing himself.

People respond to adversity in keeping with their basic personalities. If 10 people are laid off by their employer, they will react differently, each “in character.” Responses may include withdrawal and social isolation, lapsing into a major depression, abusing alcohol or other substances, suffering panic attacks, or retaliating against the employer. Or an ex-employee may mobilize himself to begin a quest for a new job. In short, a person’s response to a major setback or trauma is in keeping with past patterns of thought and behavior. Jack’s pattern was to try to control Marjory, then become enraged when he failed. In fantasy and behavior, his objective was to annihilate the source of the problem rather than work patiently toward resolving it.

Roger's* and Pam’s marriage had been volatile. One day, after they had separated, Roger knocked on Pam’s door and asked her to sign tax forms. She refused and, as she was about to shut the door, he shoved her aside and entered the house. Roger pursued Pam into the kitchen and, as she grabbed a phone, he reached for a knife and stabbed her repeatedly.

During an interview with a forensic evaluator, Roger acknowledged that, in his mind, he had killed Pam many times both before and after their separation. He had entered her closet and slashed some of her clothes. Roger had fantasized about drowning her in the bathtub. He told the evaluator that Pam’s refusal to sign the tax documents was the one thing that pushed him over the edge so that he “snapped.”

According to Washingtonian (9/20), Cesar Sayoc, who mailed explosive devices to prominent Democrats used the defense that he was “driven over the edge” by “President Trump and his media cheerleaders.” However, violence, as well as other criminal behavior, was not foreign to Mr. Sayoc. He had been arrested at least nine times for a variety of offenses, including a violent crime. During an argument, he pushed his grandfather down. In a dispute with the electric company, he had threatened an outcome “worse than September 11” if his power was turned off.

Phrases such as “I snapped” or “I was driven over the edge” explain nothing about the thinking or behavior of the perpetrator. These are after-the-fact rationalizations that may sound plausible but only serve as excuses. They provide little in the way of valid information either about the circumstances or about the state of mind of the perpetrator.

*Jack and Roger are actual cases but changed first names are used to protect confidentiality.