Frank and Debra and the Assassin of Love

We come now to the final part of our series on self-justification, as articulated in […]

David Zahl / 11.17.11

We come now to the final part of our series on self-justification, as articulated in the stellar book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, and I think you’ll agree that we saved the best – certainly the most crucial – for last. (Part One, Part Two and Part Three).

As we’ve hopefully demonstrated, the drive for self-justification lurks behind an absurd amount of misdoing, hypocrisy, and, well, sin. It leads us to compromise our values, edit our memories, deceive others and ourselves, even to wage war, globally and domestically. We will do just about anything to shore up our view of ourselves, regardless of whether said view is positive or negative – to prove that we’re right. And nowhere does the rubber hit the road more destructively or prevalently than in romantic relationships. It should come as no surprise, then, that the highlight of Mistakes Were Made — mandatory reading in fact for anyone looking to relate to another human being — comes in chapter six, “Love’s Assassin: Self-Justification in Marriage.” Those who were able to join us for the recent conference in Birmingham will recognize where I’m heading with this.

If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “That’s just how I am” or, “It won’t happen again” or, “All relationships have their ups and downs,” or “It’s not my fault” or, “If you found something I said hurtful, I’m sorry,” then you are familiar with self-justification. Author Jonathan Franzen wisely described love as having to do with “bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are.” Self-justification might be seen as the agent that causes our hearts to harden against the entreaties of empathy, i.e. I am right and you are wrong. In this light, a great deal of our conflicts and quarrels and misunderstandings (and definitely our stand-offs) are not actually about the point of contention itself; the issues at hand only escalate when self-justification is pulling the strings. This might explain why couples explode over seemingly minor issues, e.g. a stray sock that didn’t find its way into the hamper, an unlocked door, an excessive purchase, etc. The underlying narrative of self-justification goes beyond the deed itself, becoming a commentary on the person. I am the right kind of person and you are the wrong kind of person. What we have here is nothing more or less than the assassin of love. Aronson and Tavris explain it this way:

The kind [of self-justification] that can erode a marriage, however, reflects a more serious effort to protect not what we did but who we are and it comes in two versions: “I’m right and you’re wrong” and “Even if I’m wrong, too bad; that’s the way I am.”… I am the right kind of person and you are the wrong kind of person. And because you are the wrong kind of person, you cannot appreciate my virtues; foolishly, you even think some of my virtues are flaws.”

We give ourselves credit for our good actions but let the situation excuse the bad ones. When we do something that hurts another, for example, we rarely say, “I behaved this way because I am a cruel and heartless human being.” We say, “I was provoked; anyone would do what I did.” Or “I had no choice.”;… Yet when we do something generous, helpful or brave, we don’t say we did it because we were provoked or drunk or had no choice, or because the guy on the phone guilt-induced us into donating to charity. We did it because we are generous and open-hearted.”

The primary case study they provide is stunning, and if you can’t relate, well, you’ve probably already stopped reading. It’s  he-said/she-said account of a night out. It is the story of Frank and Debra, taken from the book Reconcilable Differences, and while definitely on the longer side, it’s very much worth reading. That is, I strongly believe my transcription is justified! First we hear from the lady of the house, Debra:

[Frank] just plods through life, always taking care of business, preoccupied with getting his work done but never showing much excitement or pain. He says his style shows how emotionally stable he is. I say it just shows he’s passive and bored. In many ways I’m just the opposite: I have a lot of ups and downs. But most of the time I’m energetic, optimistic, spontaneous. Of course I get upset, angry, and frustrated sometimes. He says this range of feeling shows I’m emotionally immature, that “I have a lot of growing up to do.” I think it just shows I’m human.

I remember one incident that kind of sums up the way I see Frank. We went out to dinner with a charming couple who had just moved to town. As the evening wore on, I became more and more aware of how wonderful their life was. They seemed genuinely in love with one another, even though they had been married longer than we have. No matter how much the man talked to us, he always kept in contact with his wife: touching her, or making eye contact with her, or including her in the conversation. And he used “we” a lot to refer to them. Watching them made me realize how little Frank and I touch, how rarely we look at each other, and how separately we participate in conversation. Anyway, I admit it, I was envious of this other couple. They seemed to have it all: loving family, beautiful home, leisure, luxury. What a contrast to Frank and me: struggling along, both working full-time jobs, trying to save money. I wouldn’t mind that so much, if only we worked at it together. But we’re so distant.

When we got home, I started expressing those feelings. I wanted to reevaluate our life—as a way of getting closer. Maybe we couldn’t be as wealthy as these people, but there was no reason we couldn’t have the same closeness and warmth they had. As usual, Frank didn’t want to talk about it. When he said he was tired and wanted to go to bed, I got angry. It was Friday night, and neither of us had to get up early the next day; the only thing keeping us from being together was his stubbornness. It made me mad. I was fed up with giving in to his need to sleep whenever I brought up an issue to discuss. I thought, Why can’t he stay awake just for me sometimes?

I wouldn’t let him sleep. When he turned off the lights, I turned them back on. When he rolled over to go to sleep, I kept talking. When he put a pillow over his head, I talked louder. He told me I was a baby. I told him he was insensitive. It escalated from there and got ugly. No violence but lots of words. He finally went to the guest bedroom, locked the door, and went to sleep. The next morning we were both worn out and distant. He criticized me for being so irrational. Which was probably true. I do get irrational when I get desperate. But I think he uses that accusation as a way of justifying himself. It’s sort of like “If you’re irrational, then I can dismiss all your complaints and I am blameless.”

Now it’s Frank’s turn:

Debra never seems to be satisfied. I’m never doing enough, never giving enough, never loving enough, never sharing enough. You name it, I don’t do enough of it. Sometimes she gets me believing I really am a bad husband. I start feeling as though I’ve ever let her down, disappointed here, not met my obligations as a loving, supportive husband. But then I give myself a dose of reality. What have I done that’s wrong? I’m an okay human being. People usually like me, respect me. I hold down a responsible job. I don’t cheat on her or lie to her. I’m not a drunk or a gambler. I’m moderately attractive, and I’m a sensitive lover. I even make her laugh a lot. Yet I don’t get an ounce of appreciation from her—just complaints that I’m not doing enough.

I’m not thrown by events the way Debra is. Her feelings are like a roller coaster: sometimes up, sometimes down. I can’t live that way. A nice steady cruising speed is more my style. But I don’t put Debra down for being the way she is. I’m basically a tolerant person. People, including spouses, come in all shapes and sizes. They aren’t tailored to fit your particular needs. So I don’t take offense at little annoyances; I don’t feel compelled to talk about every difference or dislike; I don’t feel every potential area of disagreement has to be explored in detail. I just let things ride. When I show that kind of tolerance, I expect my partner to do the same for me. When she doesn’t, I get furious. When Debra picks at me about every detail that doesn’t fit with her idea of what’s right, I do react strongly. My cool disappears, and I explode.

I remember driving home with Debra after a night out with an attractive, impressive couple we had just met. On the way home I was wondering what kind of impression I’d made on them. I was tired that evening and not at my best. Sometimes I can be clever and funny in a small group, but not that night. Maybe I was trying too hard. Sometimes I have high standards for myself and get down on myself when I can’t come up to them.

Debra interrupted my ruminations with a seemingly innocent question: “Did you notice how much in tune those two were with each other?” Now I know what’s behind that kind of question—or at least where that kind of question will lead. It always leads right back to us, specifically to me. Eventually the point becomes “We aren’t in tune with each other,” which is code for “You’re not in tune with me.” I dread these conversations that chew over what’s wrong with us as a couple, because the real question, which goes unstated in the civil conversations, but gets stated bluntly in the uncivil ones, is “What’s wrong with Frank?” So I sidestepped the issue on this occasion by answering that they were a nice couple.

But Debra pushed it. She insisted on evaluating them in comparison to us. They had money and intimacy. We had neither. Maybe we couldn’t be wealthy, but we could at least be intimate. Why couldn’t we be intimate? Meaning: Why couldn’t I be intimate? When we got home, I tried to defuse the tension by saying I was tired and suggesting that we go to bed. I was tired, and the last thing I wanted was one of these conversations. But Debra was relentless. She argued that there was no reason we couldn’t stay up and discuss this. I proceeded with my bedtime routine, giving her the most minimal of responses. If she won’t respect my feelings, why should I respect hers? She talked at me while I put on my pajamas and brushed my teeth; she wouldn’t even let me alone in the bathroom. When I finally got into bed and turned off the light, she turned it back on. I rolled over to go to sleep, but she kept talking. You’d think she’d have gotten the message when I put the pillow over my head—but no, she pulled it off. At that point I lost it. I told her she was a baby, a crazy person—I don’t remember everything I said. Finally, in desperation, I went to the guest bedroom and locked the door. I was too upset to go to sleep right away, and I didn’t sleep at all. In the morning, I was still angry at her. I told her she was irrational. For once, she didn’t have much to say.

Have you taken sides yet? The truth is, both Frank and Debra are right and both Frank and Debra are totally wrong. “Because each partner is an expert at self-justification, they each blame the other’s unwillingness to change on personality flaws, but excuse their own unwillingness to change on the basis of their personality virtues.” By the end, self-justification has not only driven an emotional wedge between them, it has them (not) sleeping in different rooms.

For a brilliantly funny example of this on TV, look no further than the second episode of this season of Modern Family (“When Good Kids Go Bad”), in which Claire Dunphy’s compulsive need to be right (“a disease”!) puts her at odds with her loved ones in a big way. It’s simply undeniable: if self-justification is the bottomline, when you’re wrong, you’re wrong and when you’re right, you’re wrong. As much as we might wish it weren’t so, life often resembles a courtroom…

Of course, it is not just horizontal love we’re talking about. If the Bible is right, then self-justification also keeps us from being able to love God (or from “using” our deeds to attempt to leverage His love for us). It guards us from repentance. It resists the one thing that God requires in order to raise us: our death. Yet we hear in the New Testament of a God who justifies the ungodly. A God who saves those who cannot save themselves, even those who are addicted to their own attempts to do so. Some protest the notion that God operates according to “petty legalities” – some view the “glorious exchange” of Christ’s substitutionary atonement as a juvenile paradigm – I can’t help but see it as a miracle, as the one thing needed: the assassin of self-justification. And that, my friends, is Good News.


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9 responses to “Frank and Debra and the Assassin of Love”

  1. Jim E says:

    Wouldn’t you say self-justification is the root of our sin nature?

    • David Zahl says:

      J- Hmmm… While I’d be hesitant to reduce ALL of sin to self-justification, I’d also be hesitant to downplay its insidiousness. So it’s pretty close. At least, as far as I can tell. What do you think?

  2. Jim E says:

    I think it’s pretty darn close to the core, and explains why we are all pelagians at heart.

    Letting go of our self-justification is just about impossible. Even when you get a grip on how it works in your heart, you can’t control it. The only way to put it down is just to die. And that puts us back at the cross, where our silly vain self-justification melts away like a vapor in the morning sun.

  3. Gwen Martin says:

    Self justification is my “default” manner of operating – took repetitive
    exposure to Paul Zahl’s sermons to even begin grasping my constant, insidious self-justification. I choose to label the guilty statements as “explanations” but, thanks to Mockingbird I’m getting better at seeing the truth about myself.

  4. sherin says:


  5. Kay Preston says:

    “Irregardless” is not a word. To regard is to notice. RegardLESS is to NOT notice. Therefore, irregardless is to NOT not notice, a double negative. Good article though….thank you.

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