Therapy Blog

The Problem with “But” – Reframing Relationship Conflict

Posted on Sunday, November 15th, 2020 by Cristina Vrech

Reframing Relationship Conflict

Most of us have been there – arguing with a partner who we feel misrepresents our feelings or thoughts, or simply misunderstands us.  Our interlocutor is angry or hurt and is expressing those feelings, possibly at great volume.  We may even agree with what’s being said, to a greater or lesser extent.  However, if we could just interject one small point.

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Figure 1: You can improve your arguments and manage your relationship conflict

“I get what you’re saying but…”

As soon as “but” is uttered it slams down a wall on communication.  What this innocent-looking preposition does is express, to the angry person “you’ve had your say, now listen to my opinion”.  The seeming motive in using such a word is to ignore the emotional import of what’s just been said in favour of a lawyerly clarification.  Even if what follows the “but” is an attempt to offer helpful advice, this may not be what is required.  Two types of conflict are inherent in the problematic use of this word.

Empathic Failure

When someone is complaining vociferously about a wrong done to them, even if you are the source of that wrong, they are primarily asking you to understand how they feel.  If this is someone with whom you share intimacy, then mere sympathy won’t be enough.  In such cases, real empathy is required if there is any hope of de-escalating the fight. 

The Cambridge Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation”.  Note that “what it would be like to be” takes empathy far beyond the external understanding of a sympathetic response.  

Here at the Leone Centre, we acknowledge that empathy is hard work, particularly when one feels under attack and when every animal instinct tends towards fight or flight.  Empathy is also necessary if you want to move away from merely adversarial arguments towards any kind of mutual understanding.

When “but” is uttered, you ringfence the empathic response you began with.  You put any subsequent clause in opposition to that response.  You are effectively saying, “I can allocate this much space for understanding”.  Laying down limits on empathy may invalidate the effort in the eyes of the person receiving that understanding.

Defence as Offence

What follows the “but” might be a counterargument, a clarification, or a seemingly innocuous suggestion.  The function of “but”, however, is a logical one.  It sets up an opposition to whatever has just been said.  Although oppositional, this is essentially a defensive strategy, an attempt to reframe oneself as the object of empathy.

But love is not chess.  What is required to end an argument is not any kind of “move” at all.  In a sense, arguments are never won or lost, simply abandoned, because to win would imply that you have inflicted some kind of defeat upon the other party, and in an intimate relationship, this could breed resentment, anger and frustration.  

As Dale Carnegie famously put it:  “You can’t win an argument because if you lose, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it. […] hurt his pride, insult his intelligence, his judgment, and his self-respect, and he’ll resent your triumph.”

Any defensiveness in a fight can be interpreted as an attack.  This is because what your loved one really wants is for you to understand their feelings and take responsibility for causing them.  When you divert attention to your own hurt, this move can be seen as an attempt to “guilt-trip” the other.  Does this mean you need to roll over and surrender?  Not necessarily.

However, a first step towards peace is simply to jettison oppositional language, including logical constructs such as “but”, which tend to reduce emotional harm to an intellectual puzzle that can be solved with disputation.

And not But

It may seem counter-intuitive and strange at first, but sometimes simply substituting “and” for “but” may be all that is required.  Compare the following two sentences:

“I understand that you’re hurt, but I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“I understand that you’re hurt, and I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

The first sentence relates the loved one’s pain back to one’s suffering.  It effectively says, “You wouldn’t feel so bad if you understood what I meant”.  The second sentence, which contains exactly the same two clauses, simply adds one truth to another.  It is far less objectionable because it isn’t oppositional at all.  It offers empathy and then invites it in return.

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Figure 3: Reconciliation

In other circumstances, a straightforward linguistic substitution won’t work.  “I know I lost my temper with your mother, but why must you always take her side?” can’t be fixed by substituting “and” for “but”.  Here the content of the second clause must be examined.  Criticism is being levelled at the interlocutor in response to a received criticism.  An attack for an attack.   In this kind of tit-for-tat argument, the second clause is ALL “but”.  

If you cannot use “but” or “however” or any similar preposition, then a severe limitation is applied to your ability to be oppositional.  This becomes a handy brake to prevent runaway escalation.  

At the very least, you must pause and construct your next thought with care.  This gives you a chance to cool down a little and perhaps shelve the next argumentative utterance altogether.   Eventually, you may get to the point, in a “but less” conflict, where the oppositional counterpoint is revealed as the fruitless strategy it really is. 

But What About Me?

It may seem like this article is advocating a sort of spineless subjugation, a refusal to fight back when under attack.  That’s really the opposite.  When one partner is hurt and angry, and the other can’t comprehend why, then what is required is more understanding, not better weapons.  

“But” is a shield, and shields are weapons too.  

It can be all too easy to fall back upon unhelpful patterns of behaviour, and relationship conflict can be tough to talk about, even with your closest friends and family members.  

Here’s what Leone Centre integrative counsellor Chloe Hedley has to say on the subject of asking for help: Reaching Out and Counselling.

Bear in mind that your ultimate goal is a cessation of negative emotion for both parties and a return to mutual caring and empathy.  Thinking of relationship fights as if they were intellectual debates or fencing matches that can be won or lost is at best unhelpful and at worst, potentially disastrous.

Counselling and better ways of handling conflict

If you’re considering relationship counselling to look at better ways of handling conflict,

Our associate’s relationship counsellors are available seven days a week, in person, with practices located in Fulham and very easily reachable from Belgravia and Putney, Battersea, Chelsea and Wimbledon.

We also offer confidential and private relationship counselling online via the safe and secure Zoom platform.

Get in touch to start understanding and working with your anxiety so that you can improve the quality of your life today.

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