It is perfectly good English to use the conjunction “but” to introduce a contrasting idea to what has just been said. Working with families and couples, I have found that this is a common word when loved ones converse. We say “I love you, honey, but ____” or “I’m sorry, but _____.” While the speaker often is genuinely expressing love or apologizing, the phrase that comes after “but” is often given more emphasis, and this is what the listener hears. As my grandpa once told me, “Only listen to what comes after the ‘but.”’ As we hear it, “but” implies an “either/or” situation, in which one or the other statement is true, rather than a “both/and” situation, in which both of the statements can be true.
“And” Instead of “But”
In many of the above situations, try using “and” or “at the same time” in place of “but.” Therapists call this using a “both/and rather than either/or.” Both statements can be true, even if they are seemingly in contrast to one another (either/or). Replacing “but” with “and” in the aforementioned statements might sound something like this: “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, and I still disagree with you.” Both statements are true.
One wise and well-intentioned mom I worked with found this practice very helpful. She was having a hard time connecting to and communicating with her pre-teen daughter. At home, the mother reported saying, “Sweetie, I love you, but you need to clean your room.” In this situation, the “I love you” is all but lost, and the “but” that comes after it almost negates the sentiment expressed in the first phrase—as if the mother’s love were predicated on her daughter cleaning her room (which it’s not). I encouraged the mom to slow down when speaking to her daughter, to catch this little, seemingly harmless word and replace it: “Sweetie, I love you, and you need to clean your room.”
For the same mom, this word replacement proved even more important when trying to maintain discipline in the midst of her daughter’s emotional upset. Every night, the family—this single mother and her two children—ate dinner in the dining room together. This was a wonderful family ritual.
The mom had been dating someone and had been very intentional about carefully introducing him to her children, respectful of their boundaries and hesitancy. After a while, she invited her boyfriend for dinner at her home with the children, letting her kids know ahead of time. Her daughter responded by insisting that she eat dinner in her own room, away from the visitor, that night. The mom, frustrated and embarrassed, took a deep breath before going into her daughter’s room, remembering what we had discussed.
She told her daughter, “Honey, I know you’re upset. I can imagine you feel anxious and uncomfortable with Mike (name changed) here for the first time. At the same time, you need to come eat with us in the kitchen.” This mother did a beautiful job acknowledging her daughter’s feelings (the first phrase) followed by maintaining her discipline (the second phrase). Her statement included a validation, followed by a challenge.
When we replace “but” with “and” in our conversations—with our friends, children, significant others, even with ourselves—we create space for both things to be true. In relationships—particularly in difficult conversations—first validate the other person’s feelings by acknowledging them, like this mom did. This first step helps the other person feel seen and heard, and often helps her let down her defenses. Then, using “and” or “at the same time” (not “but”!), state your challenge—it may be maintaining discipline with a child, expressing a hard truth to a significant other, or stating your feelings to a friend. Your validation followed by a challenge could sound something like this, “Hey Jane, I know you worked so hard on this project and I appreciate all your efforts. At the same time, I feel frustrated because it doesn’t appear that you took my suggestions into account.”
In Describing Feelings
Another area in which replacing “but” with “and” can have a powerful impact is in describing feelings. This could be in acknowledging our own feelings or those of others. We are a culture that tends to see situations as good or bad, happy or sad. However, a person can feel happy about one thing while simultaneously feeling upset about another. When we fail to acknowledge or accept this, we fail to see the complexity in life. We thus limit ourselves or others to being one or the other, instead of allowing both to be true.
For example, I had a client in therapy who was opting to change schools for personal and academic reasons, even though she had a great friend group at her current school. While this was her decision—and one she was excited about—as her last day at her current school neared, she became sadder and sadder about leaving her friends behind. When she expressed this sadness to her mom, her mom cheerily responded, “But you have so much to look forward to at your new school!” While her mom wasn’t wrong, she failed to acknowledge her daughter’s sadness. My client was excited about all that was to come at her new school—and she was simultaneously sad about leaving her friends. Both of these feelings could co-exist; they were simultaneously true!
Such examples are all around us. Expecting parents often cannot wait to meet their newborn face-to-face and feel simultaneously anxious and unprepared for their child’s arrival. Adolescents going off to college feel both thrilled about their newfound independence and nervous about being on their own for the first time. The same situation can elicit mixed feelings in all of us.
This is not all to say that “but” does not have a place in our language. Certainly, there are times when a situation is “either/or,” black or white. You can’t always have your cake and eat it, too. But (see, it has its place!), if you slow down your thoughts and automatic phrases, I bet you’ll catch yourself about to say “but” when you really mean “and.” When you make this intentional change in your speech and thoughts, you will open yourself up to improved communication with loved ones and kindness toward yourself.