Adapted from a recent online discussion.
When is a reason not just an excuse?
Chicago: What is the difference between a reason and an excuse?
Carolyn: What you're hoping to accomplish by providing it, I guess. Reasons help the injured party feel better, and excuses help the culprit feel better.
Re: Reason vs. excuse
Anonymous: What do you do when your spouse asks for your reason, and then when it doesn't comport to her world view, or her method of doing something, dismisses your "reason" as an "excuse"? It may sound petty, but it gets tiring to be asked, "Why did you do that?" or "Why do you think that?" and answer honestly, only to be dismissed no matter what you say.
Carolyn: It's not petty, and I think you have to say exactly how you feel when this happens. Keep your cool and say, "I feel very angry/frustrated/diminished when you ask me for a reason and then dismiss it as an excuse. This is what I think, and I ask that you treat my opinions with the same respect that you treat your own — even when you disagree with them."
If you're honest about your feelings, patient in talking about them and calm in your demeanor, then you have a good chance of making some progress without professional input. It will be especially helpful if you listen to her carefully and indicate to her that you're doing so: "I hear you saying (what you think she's saying here)." That way she has either satisfaction or a chance to clarify something you've misunderstood.
Your exasperation is showing and her dukes are high, so the primary task for you now is to keep from emotionally checking out. This disengagement is the phenomenon well tracked by John Gottman: www.gottman.com. If you're already there, then consider ongoing counsel, especially if you make no headway in asking for respect.
D.C.: Great question on reason vs. excuse. What if there is no clear injured/culprit — meaning, how can you tell if someone is just incredibly sensitive? For example, one person, and no one else, finds something offensive. I try to find out why so I can avoid offending again, but I'm accused of giving an excuse. Am I just supposed to apologize every time s/he is offended?
Carolyn: No. Just say, in response to the perceived offense, "X is certainly not what I intended; I meant Y. I can see why you would find X offensive." That way, you validate the feelings in response to X while not apologizing for them, since you never intended anything but Y.
Now, if you were sloppy and left room for people to interpret X, then apologizing for giving the wrong impression is a good-faith gesture.
Often the best approach is to decide how close you want to be to the person and work from there, because some people look to take offense; it satisfies something in them. If it's someone you value a lot — or if there's a purpose served by keeping things steady, like keeping things peaceful at work — then a sincere "I'm sorry I upset you" serves the greater good as long as you don't feel diminished by saying it. If apologizing rankles, or if this person's presence in your life is optional, then kindly hold your ground and see what happens.