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The Fifth “Horseman” : Overjustification/Explanation

The Gottman Institute model of Four Horsemen of the (relationship) Apocalypse posits four behavioral signs of doomed relationships, and offers antidotes.  

Briefly, the four horsemen are:  Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling.  The Gottmans say they can predict quickly whether an interaction will come to a positive conclusion, and also whether the couple stay together, based on watching for these behaviors.  An important part of Gottman work is helping people to recognize when the “horsemen” are present, teaching skills to shift in their relationships away from those behaviors, and coaching them in applying their behavioral “antidotes.” 

In my work with couples, I have observed these to be highly relevant, and have found that there is a fifth (and also a sixth – subject of another blog post):  Overjustification and explanation.   

What it is: In a state of anxious agitation driven by insecurity about having our feelings, wants, and needs understood and validated, the speaker launches into a defensive narrative about why what they are saying is valid and should be accepted.

Many people overdo explaining why they feel as they do, what they want, and why they want it, believing that doing so is good communication. But like the other horsemen, when overdone even slightly (as is the case with the vast majority of couples I treat), it is unproductive, destructive, alienating, and toxic to a healthy relationship and to both individuals.

Paradox:  The wish and the reality

Over-explaining masquerades as asserting, persuading, standing up for oneself, presenting why you are right, helping the other person to understand you. But he meta-message to both the speaker and and listener is that the speaker’s feelings, needs, or wants are not valid without hard-earned external validation. We vainly hope that we will convince the other person (or people) by presenting our “case” in whatever way corresponds with our habitual style. That might be by explaining thoroughly, intelligently, loudly, softly, angrily, apologetically, and/or intellectually, for example.  In practice, here’s what actually happens:

What it does to the speaker:  

Lowers status: First and foremost, over-explaining or justifying has the surprising impact of meta-communicating that the speaker is in a lower status than the listener.  That is, in the interaction, the speaker becomes a supplicant, petitioning someone in higher authority to accept what they are saying.  It is disempowering, and worse, the psychological threat associated with being in this lowered position (instead of equal) increases agitation.  It invariably leads to the speaker feeling angry, afraid, frustrated, or hopeless.

Dilutes the message: Succinctly stating one’s feelings and needs in response to what someone else has said or done is powerful and impactful.  Many dyads I’ve worked with, when I have helped them boil a  message down to these simple components have reported being surprised at how strongly they experienced it, saying things like, “Wow – that had the strength of a locomotive coming down the track, “ or “That felt so clear and strong coming out of me – I’ve never experienced that before.  It’s a bit overwhelming.”   An abundance (or often any) of justification takes away from that power, and the most important parts of the message get lost in the deluge

Exhausts: Being in a state of emotional agitation is enervating and depleting.

Cuts off information: While the speaker is busy justifying and explaining, they are missing non-verbal and verbal information the other party (or parties) can provide, which would be useful – and information is power!

Makes it a competition: A contest over whose facts are better, who has better logic, who has witnesses or documentation, can quickly supercede the speaker’s agenda of understanding one another, getting closer, making plans, or resolving conflict.

Provides something to argue about:  There is very little to dispute (or even be offended by) when you tell someone your emotional state, what you want, and what happened that led to that state and want.  Nobody is a better expert on the speaker’s feeling than the speaker is, nor does anyone have more insight about what the speaker wants.  But the explanation/justification usually provides lots of fodder for disagreement.  

Escalates: Often, as the attempt to get acceptance and validation of wants and needs fails, repeated bids become more awkward, unskilled, and unsuccessful.

What it does to the listener:

Provokes/invites defense: Unfortunately, often the “reasons” are provided in the form of complaint against the listener, or reasons why “any reasonable person” would interpret the listener’s behavior in a negative way ergo want something different.  

Triggers “stonewalling: Many partners fall silent in the face of this “fifth horseman” for two reasons, each of which can be triggering for the explaining/justifying partner.  Hearing justifications for feeling the way one feels, when the justification lapses into criticism is overwhelming, and recalls feelings of hopelessness from being criticized as a child.  It also stretches capacity for empathy.  When your partner is telling you what they feel in response to a specific behavior, that is quite impactful – attention-grabbing, and ideally invokes curiosity.  The opposite occurs with too much “text”.  

Alienates:  Too much explanation ends up sounding like, “me, me, me…” and discourages the listener from believing that they will get a chance to be heard.

Discourages: In the face of too much explanation, it is hard for the listener to discern what it is that the speaker wants, and loses hope that they will be able to succeed in aligning with the speaker and repair the rift. 

Example:  Lupe and Terry have been struggling over how to rekindle their physical intimacy. Lupe is reticent to be vulnerable, and is over-justifying, rather than just asking for what they want.

Lupe (Speaker):  Yes of course I’m interested in sex, but how do you expect me to be ready at the exact moment you want it? (accusation)  You woke me up this morning with your bad breath and razor stubble and I’m supposed to be in the mood immediately? (insult and defense)  Sure, I can comply and give you what you want, but don’t expect me to be enthusiastic.  You know that I have issues about feeling attractive because of my bad foot. (diluting the message)  I have felt this way since childhood, and I’ve come to a point in my life where I’m okay with accepting that maybe I’m just not that attractive. (generalizing and providing too much context) And besides, I’m not a morning person. (pleading to be understood, but making it harder to keep focused)  Sex at night always helps me relax into sleep, but in the morning, it’s hard for me to get going – I always just want to go back to sleep.(too much context)   It’s always been a problem – my parents used to … My previous partner played into this by saying…. (temporally moving away from the specific moment, making it harder to keep focused)

Terry (Listener):  Well “complying”  would be better than nothing, I guess, but it’s not much fun for me if you’re just doing it as a chore.  

Lupe:  I give up then.  You used to touch me, give me compliments, ask me how I teel, do the things I like, and now you have nothing but criticism and demands.  

Therapist:  Just a minute.  It will probably help if you talk about a specific incident – are you referencing this morning?

Lupe:  Yes, but it’s all the time. 

Therapist: Okay, so tell Terry specifically and briefly what happened, sticking to this morning. I understand that you want to address a broad category, but we actually repair the broad patterns by addressing specific moments.

Lupe: Sure:  Specifically –  I was asleep and you woke me up and asked if I wanted to make love.

Therapist:  Okay good.  That’s specific.  And now tell Terry briefly how you felt.

Lupe:  I felt… a combination of hopeless and burdened because Terry has had a good sleep and I haven’t. I enjoy getting physical more at night when I am not tired, when we’ve had a glass of wine, and when we are both showered.  

Therapist (Modeling I-message):  So, you feel burdened when Terry approaches you in the morning for sex, and you would rather be approached in the evening.  Is that right?

Lupe:  Well yes, i guess it boils down to that.  

Terry:  Wow – why didn’t you just say that?  Sure – let’s do it at night then.  You always have a book in your hands and a pissed off look on your face at night when we are in bed.  How am I supposed to make the leap to believing that’s when you want to get intimate?

Therapist: Terry, can we maybe shape that into an I– message, saying what you feel and what you would like?

Terry:  Okay it feels contrived, but I can see how it sometimes help.  Lupe, I feel… intimidated and maybe cold when I get in bed with you and you are already reading and don’t look away from your book.  I would like you to put the book down for a minute and face me and acknowledge me when I join you in bed, because it would make me feel like you are interested in me.

Therapist:  Lupe, can you…

Lupe:  yes, I know, use active listening, right?  Sure:  Terry I’m hearing that you find it the opposite of appealing when you get in bed and I just keep reading.  That makes sense to me, and is reasonable.  I can do that.  But then, if you want to make love, you should talk to me a bit and start slowly rather than 

Therapist (interrupting):  Okay, you’re on a good track, but you are about to veer into explanation, justifying and criticizing.  Can we stick with what you do want?  

Lupe:  I can see that.  Yes. First, Terry, did I get it right?

Terry:  Yes, exactly.

Lupe:  Okay – I would love to enjoy our physical relationship in the evening, maybe even going to bed earlier.  

Terry:  That would be great.  And, you know… you could initiate sometimes too….

The couple is now heading in the direction of feeling closer, and finding solutions to their mutual dissatisfaction.

Where it comes from: Childhood invalidation of feelings, parental or other caregivers’ using blaming language in response to your wants (You’re selfish, foolish, ungrateful, crazy for wanting that/feeling that way), as a way of compensating for their own discomfort in denying what the child asks for.  That is, rather than acknowledging that the parent won’t be providing everything the child wants, criticizing the child for wanting it; and rather than providing empathy for the child’s feelings, deflecting or criticizing those feelings.  

As of this, many people grow up frustrated, and have a habit of thought that, unless they present an iron-clad case of why they feel as they do, or why they want or need what they do, they will be invalidated, criticized, and/or denied.  Unfortunately, this pattern of communication is self-reinforcing because the very behavior of over-explaining and justifying repeats the dynamic wherein the speaker actually does get ignored, invalidated, disputed, and denied.

What to do:  First, see my post on I-messages/assertiveness. Briefly, the I-message looks like this:

I feel (Name an emotion)  Be careful to keep it simple and specific.  Avoid “I feel that you.”

When you (Describe specific behavior) Avoid generalizing or characterizing

Because I (Briefly say how you are affected) This is optional, and should be very brief and about YOU.  Don’t overdo it!

I would like (Share your wish)  You may or may not get it, but you have let the other person know without creating an argument.  You are giving valuable information.

As the listener, ask ,  “What would that do for you?” in order to understand the other person’s need/want, convey that you are interested, and leads you in the direction of identifying compromises might meet both your interests.  

Try noticing how many times per day you over-justify.    Watch for warning phrases like:  “Please understand,”  “In my situation,” “ I have an issue with,”  and generalizing like, “You always/never,” or citing multiple examples. Once you identify your habits of speech, you can also identify physical feelings – tightness, pain,  aches that you associate with the habit of overjustifying or over-explaining, and use that as a warning sign to stop and try a self-soothing intervention (see my mini-mindfulness blog post) to pause, center, and reset, then focus on communicating simply what you need and how you feel.  , 

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