A while back I heard someone talk about how to have difficult conversations, the kind where you really care about someone but disagree with a major decision they’re making. He started off by saying, “I love you, but I disagree with your decision to do x.”
What struck me about his script was that by saying “but” he took the focus off of the love and put it all on the disagreement. After being told something like that, I would not feel loved at all. I would hear something like: “I mean, I would love you, and I kind of do, but my love is contingent on you behaving in a certain way. Unless you change, there’s going to be an asterisk next to my love for you.”
And that is not a nice message to receive, especially when the person sending it is genuinely trying to help.
So why do genuinely nice people express themselves that way? I think it’s because they are trying to have a difficult conversation, and they want to ground that difficult conversation in the fact that they love the other person. They want to reassure the other person of their love, even in the midst of conflict. But again, this particular phrasing doesn’t achieve these goals. Instead of establishing the love, it relativizes and weakens it.
There are a few ways to get around this problem.
The first is to not bring up the fact that you love them at all. That way, your love doesn’t become part of the equation of the discussion. Instead, assuming that you have a truly loving relationship with this person, you can go forward knowing that they know that you love them and focus on the issue at hand. You can lead with, “Hey, I’ve been worried about you,” or “Can we talk about this issue?” And then just discuss the actual issue.
I realized that when I want to ask Andy to change something, I will use the “I love you, but” phrasing. “I love you, but could you throw your dirty socks in the hamper?” or whatever. And really, it’s kind of ridiculous. I say that because I’m worried that by making “demands” (no matter how reasonable or winsomely expressed) he will doubt my love for him. But I should know that he loves me, and he knows that I love him, and it’s ok to ask for things in a relationship. I can just ask for the socks to be in the hamper.
Another way to avoid the problem of making it sound like your love is threatened is to substitute love for the thing that is actually threatened. Let’s say you have a really good friend who needs help with with childcare, and you’ve offered to watch their kids, but they are always really late getting back to pick their kids up and it’s disrupting your plans. Instead of saying, “I love you, but you have to start being on time,” you can say, “I really enjoy taking care of your kids, but I can’t do it when the actual schedule is so unpredictable.” You love your friend, and you will keep on loving them. But to keep helping them, something needs to change.
Or you might be in a romantic relationship, and your boyfriend is spending a lot of time with another woman and it seems like he is really into her. If your romantic love is truly threatened, it’s totally ok to say, “I love you, but this relationship isn’t going to work if I always feel like you like her more than you like me.” The only thing you should put before the “but” is the thing that could be lost by the other person if the behavior doesn’t change. That way, everyone knows precisely what the stakes are.
And finally, another option is to avoid saying “but” at all. Replace it with “and.” “I love you, and I’ve been really concerned about x.” The “and” test is good, because it helps make it clear if your concern is really flowing out of your love for that person. If you say, “I love you, and I’ve been really worried about your drinking,” it expresses the fact that your concern for someone is an outgrowth of your love for them. But if you consider saying, “I love you, and I really want you to put your socks in the hamper,” it makes it clear that you wanting them to put their socks in the hamper actually has nothing to do with your love for them. Best in that instance to just leave the love part out.
Now, I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule that I haven’t thought of. And probably lots of people in the world aren’t as sensitive as I am to the implications of “I love you, but...” But to stay on the safe side, for the most part, say “I love you, and” or best of all, just plain old, “I love you.”