What’s the difference between an explanation and a rationalization?

Let’s start with the dictionary.com definitions for each:

Explanation:  a statement made to clarify something and make it understandable.

Rationalization:  the act or process of ascribing one’s actions, opinions, etc., to causes that seem reasonable and valid but are actually unrelated to the true, possibly unconscious and often less complimentary ones.

Whew!  That’s a lot to unpack!  I’ll try to lighten the load by quoting from one of my all-time favorite movies, “The Big Chill,” when the character played by Jeff Goldblum says, “Rationalizations are more important than sex.  Ever go a week without a rationalization?”

So, yes, we all rationalize.  We offer them up in order to convince others that we’re right.  “I’m sorry I slammed the door, but you made me mad” is a juicy rationalization that was actually said to me once upon a time.  An explanation might have been, “I was angry, so I slammed the door.”

And just because they can explain it doesn’t mean that we should excuse it.  

Let me repeat that:  just because they can explain it doesn’t mean that we should excuse it.  What would make all the difference in the world?  How about an apology?  And how about if that apology was followed by forgiveness?

I could write a lot more than a three-minute blog about apologies and forgiveness.  (And I have, and I will.  But not today.)  For now, let me say that at least to me, an apology makes a difference.  Of course, it needs to be both appropriate and sincere, and if so, that apology may excuse the juiciest of rationalizations.  

Apologies are not always appropriate nor are they warranted in some circumstances.  Explanations, on the other hand, help a whole lot more than they hurt, especially in my world of conflict resolution.  And that’s because an explanation is likely to lead to an understanding.  When I am helping divorcing spouses to communicate their fears and/or hesitation to compromise, understanding is key.  It’s that “light bulb moment” that immediately precedes peace.  Many years ago, I was working with a couple who seemed to be stuck at how to divide a retirement account.  While the simple solution was to cut it in half, each spouse wanted more.  I listened to the wife’s rationalization, (“It’s my retirement account. I worked my butt off to earn it.”) and then I listened to the husband’s rationalization (“It’s community property. I’m entitled to half.”)  I decided to delve deeper and asked the former stay-at-home mom to explain what motivated her to go back to work.  She then described her husband’s gambling addiction and the debt which caused them to file for bankruptcy relief. 

I decided to keep my mouth shut (no easy task, by the way).  What happened next was monumental.  The husband turned to his wife and, with tears in his eyes, apologized for the angst his addiction caused.  I’m sure you can guess what happened next.