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A But-Free Day

Go through an entire day without using the word but.

According to research by psychologists Shelly Gable, Harry Reis, and colleagues (2004), the way couples respond to each other's good news influences the happiness and stability of their relationships, perhaps more so than how they respond to bad news. This finding is important because so much of couples counseling focuses on resolving conflicts, fighting fairly, and being assertive.

In particular, active-constructive responding is beneficial. When someone comes home with what he or she regards as good news, how does the other person respond upon hearing it? Active-constructive responding is enthusiastic and engaged.

"Honey, I got a promotion at work."

"That's great. You deserve it. Tell me all about it. What did your boss say? I want to know all the details."

There are of course other responses, passive and/or destructive.

"That's nice, dear. What do you want for dinner?"

"Does that mean I'll be seeing even less of you?"

"It's about time. You've been there forever."

"I thought promotions were automatic."

"That's terrible. You know how poorly you handle change."

The recommendation follows that people in relationships should use more active-constructive responding. Sounds simple, but proves difficult. I know this because over the years, I have asked students in my classes to try active-constructive responding for a week, not just with their romantic partners but with people in general.

Mind you, some common sense is needed. If your wife tells you she is so happy because she decided to end your marriage and run off with the cabana boy, an active-constructive response on your part is not indicated. But regardless, my students tell me active-constructive responding is difficult.

One of the barriers to active-constructive responding is sincere. We do not want our loved ones to get their hopes up only to be disappointed, to get big heads, or to somehow get in trouble. For example, when I recently told my friends that I was going to visit Mexico City and give a talk, I was regaled with warnings about kidnapping, disease, weather, traffic, and language problems ("no hablo espanol"). All of these worries were legitimate, I suppose, but they could have been voiced a bit later, after an initial active-constructive response.

Given the difficulty in active-constructive responding, at least for those of us who lack the style in our repertoire, I devised a simpler intervention that can be described as active-constructive light. When someone relates good news, respond without using the word but. The generalized version of this intervention is to go through an entire day without using the word but or any of its close cousins like however, whereas, yet, then again, and on the other hand. I call this a but-free day, which sounds like an exercise video. Rather than toning up your rear end, this exercise should tone up your relationships.

You skeptics reading this may already be mouthing the word "but" to which I say "get a life ... a good life."


Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 228-245.

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