How many times have you used one of these excuses to explain why your partner did something that upset you?
“They’re just super stressed right now.”
“I know this is a tough time for them.”
“Their family drama is zapping all of their energy.”
“Work is insane and they’re under a lot of pressure with their new boss.”
“They just have a lot on their plate.”
“I can tell they feel so bad about the whole thing.”
Maybe they didn’t call like they promised. Maybe they canceled plans last minute—again. Or maybe they’ve been emotionally distant, signaling a big shift from how things used to be.
Whatever the situation, it made you uncomfortable but instead of addressing it, you found a plausible yet unverified explanation to reassure yourself that it’s not a big deal and everything is ok.
Your explanation could be accurate; for example, your partner’s short attention span with you might indeed be caused by more stress at work and not some bigger issue in your relationship. However, explaining away your partner’s behaviors in this way is unhealthy and problematic, and there’s a name for it: it’s called the explanation trap.
Robin Stern, Ph.D. psychologist and expert on gaslighting at Yale University, states that the explanation trap occurs when we “explain away behavior that disturbs us” with “seemingly rational explanations to prove to ourselves” that nothing is wrong.
We usually fall into the explanation trap because of good intentions: we’re invested in a relationship and want things to work out; we’re eager to win someone else’s approval, and we want to think the best of people, giving them the benefit of the doubt.
These explanations soothe us in the short-term, but consistently minimizing an S.O.’s questionable behavior with overly favorable narratives means it will take more time to realize that person isn’t a good match for us. In other cases, our ability to ignore reality makes us prime targets for others to manipulate us through gaslighting.
Here are a few behaviors you can practice in your relationships to avoid falling into the Explanation Trap:
1. Focus on Actions, Not Words
Sure, your S.O. might tell you that work is preventing them from meeting up with you for weeks, but if they’re making time for everyone else, being busy at work probably isn’t the issue. Even small inconsistencies between someone’s words and actions can clue you into unhealthy patterns like mind games and gaslighting before they have the chance to escalate. For this reason, one of the most important steps you can take to avoid the explanation trap is to identify and stay laser-focused on any questionable behavior that appears no matter what words your partner throws at you. Words can be used to distract you from something a manipulative partner doesn’t want you to see so instead, look to their actions to tell you the truth. Paying attention to what they do, rather than what they say, will more accurately tell you what’s going on and prevent you from explaining away behaviors that bother you.
2. Ask Questions
Have you ever had a sneaking suspicion that something was amiss in your relationship but chocked it up to something else? One of the key indicators of an unhealthy relationship is an inability to ask questions or bring up your concerns. When gaslighting or manipulation is at play, it’s hard to distinguish between reality and what a manipulator wants you to believe, leading you to doubt what you thought you knew about a situation. Before you discount an unsettling feeling as unwarranted or imagined, get curious about why that feeling showed up by asking your partner questions without assuming you already know the answer. We can’t control if the responses are honest, but how someone answers and whether or not they answer directly or deflect to another topic can be very telling. The important thing is to focus on gathering more information to illuminate a situation with facts versus filling in gaps with what you assume or hope to be true.
3. Include the Whole Truth
When you’re talking to your friends about an issue you had with your S.O, are you carefully selecting which details you tell and which ones you keep to yourself? You don’t need to tell your friends about every hiccup that happens in your relationship, but you shouldn’t purposely leave out information to make your S.O. look good. Picking and choosing which details are important enough to include in your version of events almost guarantees a biased interpretation. When you’re chatting up a friend about your partner, ask yourself if your explanation leaves out a crucial part of the situation. Using “the whole truth” is key to ending up with “nothing but the truth.”
4. Honor Your Needs
More important than anything else is making sure your needs are recognized and respected. Communicate your needs at the beginning of a relationship—for example, predictability, reliability, and transparency. Then remain steadfast in protecting them in every conversation and interaction with your partner. Assessing their behavior based on whether it violates or supports your needs will help you understand what’s truly okay for you and what’s not, while acting to enforce your needs prevents you from explaining away their unhealthy behaviors.
These practices are helpful in evaluating different situations, but they’re not foolproof. Some of us are so good at crafting explanations that we whiz through this checklist and still end up with an inaccurate account of events.
How can you make sure you’re staying grounded in reality? Check in with how you feel. “A genuine explanation brings the relief of understanding and compassion,” says Dr. Stern, while “an explanation trap often feeds the very anxieties it’s meant to squash.”