Excuses, Excuses: How to Move from Defensiveness to Understanding in Relationships

Written by: Alice D. Hoag, Ed.D.
Excuses, Excuses: How to Move from Defensiveness to Understanding in Relationships

Fred: “What’s the big deal, anyway? Why do we have to keep rehashing this? Just let it go!”

Joan: “No! I can’t just let it go. You hurt me and all you do is keep making excuses!”

Fred: “But I was just trying to…”

Joan: “There you go again! Making excuses so you can excuse your behavior and blame me for getting hurt!”

Fred: “You’re just too sensitive and you take everything the wrong way!”

This is a common scenario in my office when I work with couples. One individual (Joan) will be offended or hurt by something said by the other (Fred); Fred will then attempt to excuse his behavior, or worse yet, blame Joan for being hurt in the first place, and Joan will escalate her sense of being hurt.

Perhaps Fred felt his motives were misunderstood. Perhaps Fred believed he made a poor choice of words and didn’t convey what they really meant. Perhaps Fred thought his well-chosen words were misinterpreted or twisted to convey a meaning that was not intended. “What I meant to say…” or “If you’d just listen to me…” or “You’re so thin skinned!” Those are all excuses; a doubling-down of what he said the first time which was received as hurtful.

Regardless of why Fred did or said whatever was done or said, Fred’s excuse is an attempt to justify his behavior. This leads to hurt. In the excuse, there is no room for acknowledging the hurt or offense done to another, and no room for reconciliation to happen.

When someone has been hurt, Joan in this case, regardless of the reason, the hurt has to be acknowledged and accounted for. Fred must acknowledge that Joan has been hurt. Not that Fred “caused” Joan to be hurt, but that Joan is hurt. In a relationship of care and empathy, there will be sadness when the other person is hurt. This requires humility.

At this point, I like using the words, “I’m sad” that you’re hurt, rather than “I’m sorry” that you’re hurt. “I’m sorry” indicates some sort of responsibility in the other person being hurt, and that’s an assumption that may or may not be valid. “I’m sad that you’re hurt. Would you help me understand what hurt you?” This opens up a conversation which could lead to reconciliation, a coming back together again, a stepping toward each other with care. Joan is given an opportunity to share with Fred how she was hurt by what he said.

With a humble acknowledgement that Joan has been hurt by what she heard Fred say, Fred can then express sorrow that Joan was hurt by what he said, and he can ask for forgiveness for being the instrument of that hurt. “I’m sorry you got hurt by what I said.” Only after this humble expression of sorrow for Fred’s role in this conversation can an explanation ensue. “That’s not what I had hoped would happen. I never want to see you hurt. I love you. What I meant to say was…” or “What I was trying to convey was….” Now Fred can express what his kind intentions were in his original communication to Joan. Since she knows his motives for communicating with her, Joan will be less likely to be hurt by his words.

So, what is the difference between an excuse and an explanation? The bottom line is that an explanation comes after a genuine and humble apology for any hurt that was created by the behavior/words in the first place, while an excuse does not. An excuse is a defense meant, in this case, to get Fred off the hook for having hurt Joan. An explanation would be Fred apologizing for having said what he did in a way that hurt Joan, then sharing the benevolent motive for what he was attempting to express in the first place (assuming he was trying to be helpful, kind, thoughtful, or loving). If there was no benevolent motive, then Fred has some heart work to do on his own, and Joan will lose even more trust in Fred as her life partner, and will create greater distance between her and Fred to keep from being hurt yet again.

Note: this dynamic does not apply in codependent or dependent relationships, or where one of the partners has no empathy. That’s a blog for another time.

If you find that you and your spouse have fallen into a pattern of wounding each other with your words, thoughtless or intended, a counselor can help get your relationship back on track, and help you find that enjoyment factor again. It takes only one to work on a marriage or to find contentment in life. I’d be honored to come alongside and help you hurt less and enjoy your relationship more.