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I (Don’t) Like Big "Buts"

How saying "but" negates what you say.

Key points

  • There are "buts" in all aspects of our lives, but it’s the relationship "buts" that are the biggest "buts."
  • In our minds, we might be shifting responsibility for our actions to our partner.
  • Stopping before the "but" will make us reconsider what we really want to say.

Clients I see in talk therapy often describe things they said to their romantic partners that either caused or exacerbated moments of relationship conflict (otherwise known as fights) and then explain the reasoning behind their actions. It usually sounds something like, I did X and said Y, which hurt their feelings, but here is why I’m actually justified in what I said and did. What comes before the but is what we admit is true, but what comes after the but negates it. And what comes after the but is almost always the justification for an action or statement that their partner did not respond well to, and that very likely our client knew their partner would not respond well to. We use these buts to justify behavior we feel like we need to justify, which usually means it’s behavior that deep down inside we know we’d be better off not engaging in. There are buts in all aspects of our lives, but it’s the relationship buts that are the biggest buts.

One way our buts get in the way in our relationships is when we say something like, I know you don’t like it when I do X, but this is why I am justified in doing it. Or, I know I said I wouldn’t do X anymore, but let me explain why it’s actually OK that I did. You asked me not to do something, but here’s why I have to do that thing, and the reasons why you shouldn’t be angry. This is where we acknowledge that we know we’re doing something our partner doesn’t like us doing, but we continue to do it anyway. We think we can reason our way out of responsibility for doing something that hurts our partner, but we can’t. In our minds, we might be shifting responsibility for our actions to our partner, but to our partner, we are not. We might feel we are in the right, and that being in the right is enough reason to do anything, but even when we are right, we can make our relationships feel wrong.

Sorry, But...

Another way our buts get in the way is when we say I’m sorry, but. I’m not talking about the I’m sorry, but I asked for no pickles. I mean more like I’m sorry but I had to do it. I’m sorry but here’s why you’re wrong. I’m sorry but everyone else was doing it. We’re using an apology to justify saying something we feel we need justification for. We’re using reason to deal with an emotional situation, and no amount of logical justification will change our emotions.

Then there’s the big one: I love you, but. This one is a killer. Here the but completely negates what comes before it. From your point of view, it might seem like constructive criticism for your partner given in a gentle, caring way. I love you, but could you change this one thing? Being on the receiving end of this hurts. You’re saying you love them, but the but means you don’t really love them that much, because someone who really loved them would accept their faults instead of pointing them out.

There’s also the classic “make up a good thing so you can say a bad thing” move. I like X, but I really don’t like Y. Or, it’s nice that you did X, but I really would have preferred Z. Do you really like X? No, you don’t like X. But you have something to say about what you don’t like, and you want to soften the perceived blow.

Stopping Before the "But"

The thing I work on with my clients in this situation is to stop talking before the but. Just stop after the first half of the sentence. Cut the but. And that means no fancy alternatives to but. You can’t bust out the thesaurus and replace but with however, still, yet, nevertheless, or notwithstanding. It’s common for this to turn into a game of verbal limbo, twisting what we want to say into a different form to make it acceptable. That’s why I prefer the idea of stopping before the but. This will make you reconsider both what you really want to say and what you say before you say what you really want to say.

So when you next find yourself in this situation and you stop before the but, we’ll see if you can be sorry without negating it. Allow yourself to feel exposed without undercutting it. Now you can really consider how what you want to say will affect your partner, and, in considering that, you might zero in more on what you want to say and be able to express it better. See how your partner reacts to the elimination of what follows the but. Learn to not like big buts!

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