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Are You Married to a 'But Guy'? Here's How to Get Him to Sit Back and Listen

It’s another form of gaslighting

A boyfriend mimes "but..." to his girlfriend at a dinner table.
A24

In Where Should We Begin? podcast host, psychotherapist and modern relationships expert, Esther Perel holds one-time therapy sessions with real patients. They’re often brutal and raw, and as a glutton for crying in my car, I’m a frequent listener. But a recent episode with a couple, “I Think I Married the Wrong Person,” stood out when the usually unshakable Perel seemed to finally have had it with a husband who couldn’t stop interrupting his wife. “You’re a ‘but guy,’” she tells him. As in, if you say, “the sky is blue,” this guy says, “but it’s actually more green.” Or, “My feelings are hurt.” “But, you’re over-reacting.” Every time the wife shared something vulnerable, the husband would "rationalize" it away instead of empathizing or validating her—even when it wasn’t about him. Seems like Perel had lots of experience with this type before—and maybe you have too. So I spoke with a clinical psychologist to understand the mechanics of a “but guy” and how to break through without losing your mind. 

Meet the Expert

Dr. Lauren Cook is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, company consultant, author, and speaker. With a doctorate in Clinical Psychology and her Master's in Marriage and Family Therapy, Dr. Lauren appears frequently in the media to provide commentary while also working with companies as well as individual adults, couples, families, and teens to help reduce anxiety and improve personal and professional outcomes. She integrates evidence-based tools from a systems lens, and she speaks internationally, both in-person and virtually. Dr. Lauren owns a private practice, Heartship Psychological Services, serving all clients residing in California. 

“Buts!” Can Turn  Problem Solving Into Mansplaining

The thought process of a “but guy” is as follows: if I can explain to you why your feelings aren’t actually true, you will feel better. So, even though there usually isn’t malicious intent, the impact of a “but guy’s” rationalization feels the same as when your male coworker answers a question you never asked and already knew anyway. Before we write off your “but guy” as a Marvel villain, Dr. Cook tells me that rationalizing feelings away actually comes from a place of "helping" or "making things better." The “but guy” is so uncomfortable with vulnerability and emotion that he essentially panics and attempts to resolve his partner’s pain with “logic.” 

It’s Not You, It’s the “Buy Guy’” 

This “but but but” stuff is most likely a learned behavior. “Oftentimes,” Dr. Cook shares, “folks grow up in homes where they did not see emotions processed in a healthy way. Emotions were either suppressed, ignored, or came out in explosive ways. Rather than communicating about emotions honestly and respectfully, they learn that emotions are scary, unpredictable and something to be tackled, rather than worked through.” 

So, If It’s Not Purposefully Hurtful, What’s Wrong with It?

Per Dr. Cook, “The problem with this is that in this solution mode, the first true form of helping, which is validation, is missed.” Besides invalidating your lived experience, it comes to feel as if no amount of pain is worthy of recognition. “It makes it feel like pain needs to be justified when instead, pain is pain and its acknowledgment is as simple as that,” says Dr. Cook. On top of that, it can make someone second guess their emotions: "Is it me? Am I the problem? Am I over-exaggerating?" This actually becomes a form of gaslighting where the vulnerable person questions their own judgment.

It Corrodes a Relationship Over Time

“But but butting” your way through every conversation erodes a relationship, leading to resentment and frustration from the partner who is expressing hurt. “The only way this dynamic shifts is when the rationalizing partner realizes that their mere presence and acknowledgment of their partner's pain is enough in itself.” So, how do we get there?

Interrupting “But Guy” Behavior

“We call this a corrective experience,” explains Dr. Cook. That’s when when partners can learn that emotions bring us closer rather than drive us apart. “When we see emotions as data rather than daggers or dangers, we begin looking at that differently.” So, if you’re the person getting “butted”, it could be a moment for some coaching. Share how vulnerability is a strength and something to sit with rather than a problem to solve. Doing more emotional labor for your spouse can certainly be frustrating, Dr. Cook contends, but remember that they may not have had the same emotional education as you. 

Words or Phrases Every “But Guy” Needs to Learn to Use

Long story short, to all the “but guys” I’ve loved before,  you don’t have to solve the problem, you just have to make space for the emotion. So, it may be uncomfortable, BUT here are some plug-in-play responses the but guy in your life should have in his arsenal instead of resorting to problem solving or argument: 

  • I hear you. 
  • I'm here for you. 
  • I'm so sorry that happened. 
  • Tell me more. 
  • What was that like for you? 
  • What do you need? 
  • Is there anything that I can do to help you with this or is this about feeling heard and seen? 

What to Say the Next Time You Get “Butted”

Next time you find yourself pouring your soul out to your partner only to hit a wall of "buts," pause, take a breath and repeat after me: "The most helpful thing you could do right now is just listen without commenting." If you hit another "but" in the road try: "My feelings are real. I'm not sharing them so you can talk me out of how I feel. I'm sharing them so I don't have to hold onto them on my own." Now, if the buts are still popping up like Whack-a-Moles, here's a trick to have in your back pocket. Phrase the question where the answer is "no" instead of "yes." For example, "Would it be too hard to try again and just listen?" The answer will most likely be, "No, of course it wouldn't be too hard." "But guys" love saying no, so with this trick, you'll feed into their egos and get closer to where you want to go.

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DaraKatz

Executive Editor, Frazzled Mom, Bravo-Holic

Dara Katz is PureWow's Executive Editor, focusing on relationships, sex, horoscopes, travel and pets. Dara joined PureWow in 2016 and now dresses so much better. A lifestyle...