Hidden Costs of Justification in Your Relationship

communication defense mechanisms defensiveness intimacy justification
Man and Woman walking in field of tall grass

In the tapestry of romantic relationships, the threads of communication, understanding, and empathy are intricately woven together, creating a pattern that's both complex and beautiful. As a couples therapist, I've observed how these threads can become tangled, often due to a common but overlooked habit: justification. Justification, in its essence, is explaining away actions, feelings, or decisions in a manner that defends personal behavior, without truly acknowledging the impact it may have on our partner. 

Justification sounds like…

“I was just trying my best! You gave me such a long list to do and I couldn’t get it all done.”

“I wanted to make sure everyone was happy, so I didn’t tell you.”

“I yelled at you because you weren’t listening to me!”

Justification is a defense mechanism. It’s a strategy to protect the more vulnerable parts of ourselves. While it might seem harmless or even necessary at times - a commonly sought after desire to feel seen and heard in relationships - justification can silently erode the foundations of trust, intimacy, and connection that relationships are built upon. 

Let's explore the impact of justification and how we can navigate away from justification towards healthier communication dynamics.


The Emotional Divide. At the heart of justification lies an emotional divide. When we justify, we prioritize our perspective and feelings over our partner's. It’s an attempt to find who is “right” and who is “wrong.” This creates a wide gap where empathy should reside. Instead of acknowledging and validating our partner's feelings, justification sends a message that our stance is more important than their emotional experience. It says, “I’m choosing my ego and need to be right over our relationship.” Over time, this can lead to feelings of isolation and neglect, making our partners feel unseen and unheard.


The Erosion of Trust. A close relational concept we need to consider alongside attachment security is trust. Trust is the bedrock of any romantic relationship. It's built on the belief that we can rely on our partner to consider our feelings, listen to us, and be honest with us. Justification, especially when used to skirt accountability, can chip away at trust. When we justify our actions, we're often sidestepping responsibility. This can leave our partners questioning our integrity and whether we truly value the relationship as much as we say we do.


The Negative Communication Pattern. Justification often triggers a cycle of defensive communication. It's a dance where one partner's justification leads to the other's defensiveness, creating a loop that's difficult to break. The slow erosion to the connection in our partnerships stem from unmet needs and longings and increased negative emotions. Justification contributes to both partners not feeling seen and heard, only trying to get the other person to understand their perspective. This cycle can stifle open and honest communication, making it nearly impossible to reach a place of understanding and resolution. As defensiveness builds, so does resentment, leaving both partners feeling frustrated and disconnected.


Breaking the Cycle

The good news is that it's possible to break the cycle of justification and move towards healthier communication patterns. This journey begins with self-awareness, the first step in building differentiation in your relationship. Differentiation is a necessary skill to building an interdependent relationship. By recognizing when we're justifying our actions or feelings, we can start to understand the underlying reasons for our defensiveness. Are we afraid of being vulnerable? Are we struggling with feelings of inadequacy?

Once we understand our triggers, we can begin to practice active listening. This means truly hearing our partner's perspective, validating their feelings, and expressing empathy. It's about shifting from a mindset of defending our position to understanding their experience. If you’re struggling to step out of your negative communication cycle and identify your triggers, learn alongside me in my relationship program, Be Connected. Members learn how to feel close again, break through the repeating disagreements, and toss resentment.

In addition to self-awareness, learning to take responsibility and accountability for your actions can transform how you feel together. Instead of saying “I did this because you…” or “Yes, but you…” shift into acknowledging how you impacted your partner, which sounds like “I can see how that hurt you, I’m sorry” and “I see how what I did led you to feel that way. Can you tell me more about it?” This approach invites openness from your partner, building trust, and paving the way for a deeper connection. Remember that owning our mistakes is not tied to our sense of worth or enoughness. You are a good person, and you make mistakes that impact the other person.

Breaking the cycle also requires you to sit in uncomfortable emotions. The reality of relationships is that we will inevitably upset our partners. Our job is not to dismiss their feelings or come up with reasons why we did the things we did. Instead, our key role is to be responsive to their experience. Practice longer pauses filled with slower breaths that will allow you to make space for uncomfortable feelings from both you and your partner.

Finally, practice empathy over justification. Empathy sounds like “I hear you,” “you’re struggling with this,” and “this is really hard.” One of the most powerful aspects of empathy is the ability to not judge or dismiss the other person’s experience. Unlike sympathy which offers pity to someone, empathy sits beside your partner showing compassion and understanding for their experience. 


Remember that justification does not allow space in the relationship for both partners to feel seen. Instead, it breeds emotional fusion and codependency. It layers on the desire to have our partner mirror our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, losing the separate “I” and need for autonomy. By doing so, this often backfires in our deepest desire to create closeness. Emotional fusion ultimately ends up pushing people away.

The focus in relationships, instead, needs to shift on building differentiation. Differentiation uproots the need for justification, because you’re comfortable knowing that your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are true to your own needs and experiences. It also knows that neither person is “wrong or right” and that you are both inherently good people. As two confident individuals in a partnership, you can hold space for differences.

As a final reminder– you are only responsible for how you respond to others, and for how you share your thoughts and feelings. Justifying is a form of communicating that immediately divides the room into two teams, so whether you are responding or initiating, keep in mind the healthier alternatives listed above.