The But Sandwich

Posted on September 6, 2016


You have been served a but sandwich whether you recognized it as such or not.  Whether it is in close relationships or at work, but sandwiches are frequently on the menu, and they seem to get served though no one ever orders them.

Let me define this for you.  A but sandwich is a complaint or criticism in the guise of a compliment or expression of appreciation.  It often sounds like this, “Thanks for doing x, but…”  On the one side you have an apparent expression of appreciation.  On the other is the complaint or criticism.  Sandwiched in the middle is “but.”

“Isn’t this a good way to give feedback?” I hear you ask.  “You say something positive and then you point out the problem.”  Think about the experience of getting served a but sandwich and you can probably answer your own question.  When someone served you a but sandwich, did you feel affirmed?  Did you feel that you just got a stroke or did you feel criticized?  Chances are that your experience was one of being criticized and not affirmed.  The but sandwich tends to have the effect of negating the positive part of the statement.

The research on couple’s relationships[1] indicates that for relationship health, five positives are needed for every negative[2].  That is just to break even on relationship health.  A but sandwich is, at best, 1:1 and at worst comes off as “I didn’t really mean the first part.”

In close relationships, this effect can become more pronounced when the relationship is in “negative sentiment override.”  This is the point at which enough negativity has built up in the relationship such that the default perspective through which we interpret all interactions is negative.  In negative sentiment override, every remark begins to sound like criticism.  “It’s a beautiful day out” can land as “You lazy bum, why don’t you get off the couch and mow the lawn?”

In a marriage, you have to be able to complain.  It just goes with living with another human being that sometimes you need to be able to complain.  It is important to do this without criticism or contempt as these are particularly damaging to the relationship.  How to complain in healthy ways is a topic for another post.  This post is about the need to regularly express appreciation and do it well.  This is not optional.  For relationship health, you must affirm your partner.

It’s important to know how to express appreciation, and how not to.  No But Sandwiches.  Early on in therapy (usually during the first session), I will ask couples about their courtship, what it was about your partner that first attracted you, and what it was about your partner that caused you to say this is someone I could spend my life with.  If you have been in negative sentiment override for a long time, these can sometimes be difficult questions.  In distressed couples, it can become difficult to recall what it was you really loved and appreciated about your partner.  If you step out of the current distress and recall those early days, there are positive things you can appreciate about your partner.  When you give them voice, for your partner hearing appreciation can be like water to one who is dying of thirst.  If you have been hearing “you are a colossal disappointment” for a long time, hearing that your partner sees something good in you is hugely impactful.

A few years ago, The Love Dare was a popular self-help marriage book in Christian circles.  The premise was to provide a 40 day guide for how to make your partner feel loved unconditionally.  Day 1 is simply “Don’t Say Anything Negative Today.”  I had a client in a very distressed marriage try it out.  The next week she reported that by day 3 her husband was singing in the morning.  She had only gotten through applying the first two days from the love dare.  In our most intimate relationships, we thirst for some appreciation.  Getting it without the negative is transformational to the relationship and our sense of wellbeing.

Here’s my money saving tip.  You can save a lot of money on marital therapy (or alternatively divorce attorneys) if you get good at this.  When clients first come in for their second appointment, we start by debriefing on their progress during the week.  Often, one partner will notice the other partner making an effort to respond differently.  For illustration purposes, let’s say that the wife notices that the husband has been making an extra effort to engage with her in the evenings.  While I am highlighting the progress and exploring what this was like for the wife to have him more engaged, she’s in the mental kitchen preparing to serve up a but sandwich.  Behind the “but” is “It wasn’t enough” or “he just did it because you suggested it” or “why did you take 10 years to start paying attention to me?”  When the but sandwich gets served what does he hear?  It is not “I really see you trying, and it means so much to me to have you trying to connect with me.”  He hears, “You can’t win.  Whatever you do will never be enough.”

My grandmother used to say, “You can catch more flies with honey than you can vinegar.”  I am not particularly interested in catching flies, but Grandma’s point is well taken.  The sweetness will be much more helpful than the sour.

One final point here, “you’re great” is not a helpful affirmation and is likely to be perceived as disingenuous, particularly if the relationship has been characterized by negativity.  A helpful affirmation is more specific to positive traits you appreciate about your partner and the evidence of those traits.  “I appreciate how hard you work for our family,” is a much more helpful affirmation.  “I really appreciate how you did x, because you know it is important to me,” works well too.

Here’s the message.  Let your compliments be your compliments and your complaints be your complaints.  For relationship health, the positives need to outnumber the negatives by a 5:1 ratio.

[1] You can find the data in a number of books by John and Julie Gottman.

[2] I have always thought this number was way low.  I want way more than 5 positives from my wife before I am ready to hear the negative, but maybe that is just me.