“I love you, but you’re being ridiculous right now.”
“I’m sorry you’re hurt, but what I said was true.”
“I’m sorry for what I said about your parents, but they were driving me crazy.”
“I shouldn’t have done that, but you shouldn’t have said what you did.”
All of these statements are ones you may have said or heard in your own relationship, and as well intended as they may be, they are completely toxic. The first part of the statement – the apology or admission of love – is retracted as soon as it is followed up with a contradicting “but.”
The word “but” is: “used to introduce something contrasting with what has already been mentioned,” and therefore is the last thing you want to hear following a compliment or an apology. Yet, so many of us seem to rely on that double-edged tactic.
I hear statements like these a lot in session with couples in distress. As they try to communicate with one another, they struggle to allow themselves to be left defenseless. Years, months, or even weeks of feeling like enemies rather than relationship teammates has left each partner feeling as though if they don’t speak up for themselves, no one else will. If they leave off the “but” part of their apologies, everything in the relationship will be pinned on them, and that is just too scary or unfair of a thought, so the “but”s come every time.
The problem with “but” statements is simple. Such statements mean neither spouse is getting what they feel they need to move past the hurt in the relationship. Apologies can’t be accepted when they don’t feel genuine, and it becomes more difficult for partners to apologize in return, when all they hear is “I’m sorry, but…”
Sometimes I hear justifications like, “I DID apologize, she just didn’t accept it.” The problem is if your partner only apologizes by using a “but,” it’s hard to believe that they feel your feelings are valid at all, and how can you be vulnerable with someone who doesn’t feel your feelings are valid? With every “but” statement that hits, you only have more proof that you are alone and can only look out for number one.
Setting healthy boundaries around using “but” can better the overall relationship experience. By avoiding “but” apologizes you are showing a sign that you care, and lets your partner know they can trust you. This doesn’t mean that you need to just take full responsibility for the wrong behavior in the relationship, nor does it mean you can’t voice your feelings of hurt. Instead, we all need to delete our buts and use some periods instead.
Take the time to try and hear these statements as though they are coming from a friend or romantic partner:
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that, but I felt as though you were attacking me.”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. I felt as though you were attacking me.”
“I really love that you cleaned up, but could you finish putting the dishes away?”
“I really love that you cleaned up. Could you finish putting the dishes away?”
In all of these statements, only one thing was changed, however, the statements with pauses instead of buts sound so much softer and are much easier to accept as genuine.
Granted, this is just the simplest possible way to make your statements softer and more genuine towards your relationship partner, you can also utilize other tactics such as using feeling words and avoiding “you” statements. However, removing your “but”s is a good place to start. Next time you hear yourself offering up a contradictory apology, take a second to try it again, this time with a pause. Allow your “I love you,” or your “I’m sorry,” to stand alone to take full effect. Then follow up with your own concerns. They still matter.
For more advice on how to better communicate as a couple, try taking the RELATE assessment now.
Written by Melece, master’s in Marriage and family therapy. Reviewed by Brian Willoughby, PhD.