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My boyfriend (been together 4 years) will always respond with "I didn't mean to!", when someone points out to him he did something wrong. It always sounds slightly accusatory when he says it, like he wants to say: "I'm only human, stop blaming me!".

Examples: He stepped on my bare foot with his boot. I said a genuine "ouch", because it hurt quite a bit. His reponse: "I didn't mean to!" Another time, he was asking me for photography tips. He was taking a photo and I heard his shutter time was too long to use without a tripod, which results in blurry photos. I gave him some feedback on shutter times, to which he responded again: "I didn't mean to!" A different time, he went to get take-out and got us something extra that I really like. I said, happily, "Oh, you got X!" He: "I didn't mean to!"

He doesn't just do it to me. He does this nearly every time someone points out he did something. In some cases, I feel an apology is more warranted, like with stepping on the foot, in other cases, just an "okay", would be enough, like with the photo. In even different cases, I feel the response is completely out of place. I think this response may be partially my and my mother's fault. He'd previously say "sorry" in similar situations, but we would often tell him to "stop saying sorry for everything".

His reaction feels off to me. I'm an aspie and I don't always 'feel' people as well as others, but I can tell his reaction is at least different from the norm. It confuses me and I don't know how to respond to it. He is not diagnosed with any form of autism, but he shows some traits. He is aware of that. Note: I am 100% certain that it isn't some kind of joke or meme.

The outcome I desire:

It seems the problem stems from deeply rooted anxiety. I would like him to stop apologising (saying "I didn't mean to"), for every single thing, especially if not relevant. How can I help him realize that he doesn't need to?

What I've tried

I have mentioned to him that I think his response was unnecessary before, but his response to that was, ironically, "I didn't mean to!

Update: I’m not overly annoyed by his answer. I want to help him with it though.

closed as too broad by curiousdannii, D.Hutchinson, NVZ, Alina Cretu, John Mar 9 '18 at 6:41

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    he went to get take-out and got us something extra that I really like. I said, happily, "Oh, you got X!" He: "I didn't mean to!" - that's not an excuse - that's just weird - he did something nice for you! Does he know what he's saying? The problem might be deeper than you think... – user6355 Mar 4 '18 at 1:40
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    "I feel an apology is more warranted,", "I would like him to stop apologising (saying "I didn't mean to")", ummm? – mcalex Mar 4 '18 at 9:39
  • If you don't want him to feel like he's constantly being criticised, try talking about what he does right? – AJFaraday Mar 5 '18 at 15:30
  • This is an opinion but I have high functioning autism and I have been conditioned to apologize for rambling or stepping over what I think is a line. And often, there is none. I have people (girlfriends) who have been very gentle and gone out of their way to try to condition me back in the other, more positive direction. And I am greatly appreciative of it. – user7320 Apr 4 '18 at 21:57

10 Answers 10

91

"I didn't mean to" is a one-fits-all, automatic answer, akin to the "sorry" he was saying before. It's a sort of automatic protection. For what you tell, it looks like he's a very anxious person. One of my best friends is like that: when I make even some mild remark (like "would you mind closing the window? I'm a bit cold") she always tells "Sorry" with a worried look on her face, even repeating it multiple times in a row ("Oh sorry, I'll close it right away, sorrysorrysorry").

With her I follow the following pattern: I use irony to remark that she's overdoing it ("No, I shall never forgive you for this incredible draught insult! Nor even my children and my grandchildren shall do!") and, after making her laugh or at least smile, I reassure her right afterwards.

You can try this approach with him. Also, to make him conscious of the meaning of what he's saying, tell him something along the lines of:

Him: steps on your bare foot

You: Ouch!

Him: I didn't mean to!

You: Well, it'd be really strange if you meant it! laughter/smile It's not a big deal.

Or:

Him: sets a long shutter time

You: You know, you set a very long shutter time, your photos will be blurry if you don't use a tripod.

Him: I didn't mean to!

You: Well, either you did mean to set that shutter time, or your camera is controlling your mind. laughter/smile You're doing well, actually. Each mistake teaches you something, doesn't it?

Model the degree of irony according to his personality; if you deem fit, avoid this at all. Ultimately, the important part is to try to convey the message that it's okay not to be perfect. We all make mistakes, nobody sets standards so high as to be offended by someone stepping on one's toe. It's in the nature of the mistake not to be intentional.


However, don't expect him to change his behaviour right away. He might even not change at all. Anxiety issues often have deep roots and take time to overcome. Your best bet is to create a welcoming setting. You can also be an example of how to react to a mistake by voluntarily placing yourself in the position of making many: for instance, engage in an activity which you're not proficient in together with him. You will be the one making mistakes then and having to handle them.

Oh, it looks like I didn't {whatever the proper action was}. What a pity! But this way I'll remember it next time. We're here to learn, right?

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    It’s almost like you know him personally! He'd probably respond in the same way regarding the window. I'm certainly going to use some of these. – Belle Mar 2 '18 at 12:39
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    “You're doing well, actually. “ i didn't mean to – DonQuiKong Mar 2 '18 at 15:03
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    I wanted to disagree with the question as I think it's fine to use a phrase to acknowledge blame. However, this answer makes the question useful - a nice way to help others even though they might never change anyways :) – Džuris Mar 2 '18 at 16:39
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    @Belle watch out though, personally I'd feel insecure if someone made fun of me that way. Especially saying something like that and then retracting it by making a joke can be quite irritating. It's worth a try, but try to watch his reactions closely – DonQuiKong Mar 2 '18 at 17:45
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    +1 this is the approach I use in my personal crusade against the use of "sorry" as a meaningless phrase and social shield in those I interact with. The drama/sarcasm/humor level used varies by person/relationship. – spiral succulent Mar 3 '18 at 0:21
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This answer may not please you, but I'm still going to post it because I feel it is relevant.

It may not ever change.

I'm finding myself in your description of the issue there, and even though I'm aware of that issue, I seem unable to change it.

I'm incredibly self-conscious, shy and awkward in the presence of people I don't know. It makes my brain goes through all sorts of hoops when engaging into any kind of interaction when I'm not expecting it, short-circuiting my ability to speak coherently, and makes me default to such nonsense. For instance, I'll open a closed door and someone was about to do the same on the other side, I'll let them pass by holding the door, and say "Sorry!" while doing it. I'm very well aware of the awkwardness of the situation, which actually increases my stress, shutting down my brain even more. However it tends to disappear the better I know the person I'm interacting with, or the more relaxed I am. On the other hand it's quite the opposite when I'm tired, frustrated, angry, which tends to make this issue become more prominent.

The thing is, as I said I'm aware of the issue, and all my efforts so far have been futile. The best I can do is train myself to learn more appropriate "default" answers and then try my best to use the best default depending on the situation at hand. Not ideal at all.

If this is anything like what your boyfriend experience, you may have to be the bigger person and learn to live with that annoyance.

  • I’m sorry you have to go through that. It is very insightful, though, so thank you. – Belle Mar 2 '18 at 16:58
  • @Belle Thank you :). I have to add that I've never tried to see anyone to deal with that issue, so maybe there is a way to get rid of it that I don't know of, might be worth a try. – BlindSp0t Mar 2 '18 at 17:17
  • I don't think your efforts are futile! I believe that your effort, in reflecting on your past interactions and attempting to 'train' yourself to be able to handle similar future interactions in a way that you think is better, is in fact one method to get better at interpersonal interaction. On the spur, there is no time for reflection, so if you feel that you're getting anxious it may be possible to calm yourself down by taking a slow deliberate breath. – user21820 Mar 5 '18 at 7:01
  • I also say sorry for everything! Especialy when scoring point or loosing in any game (ex: ping pong). A Week of pingpong tournament I can reach the 5 digits of sorry. Awkwardness of saying sorry when winning or loosing for every point. After 10 years of competition, I'm "pround" to tell you that I must have miss less than 10 sorry... – Drag and Drop Mar 5 '18 at 10:43
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Most of the answers to date suggest variations on how you respond each time he says this. As a person who it a recovering habitual-apologiser I think this just creates more tension between you and creates seeding points for disagreements between you. While you may be frustrated by each individual occurrence, it is the behaviour as a whole which is the problem and it won’t be solved by picking at the symptoms.

You told him to stop apologising all the time and he managed to change the script to denial instead. The expression of the behaviour changed a little, but the behaviour stayed the same. You got the additional stress of a new annoying behaviour to deal with and he got the stress of having to try and mask/change the behaviour while knowing he was being annoying.

You both got more stress and nobody felt things got any better, it was a lose/lose.

There are two sides to this coin to consider:

  • He does a predictable thing
  • You are irritated by the predictability of the thing

A key thing is to understand that ingrained behaviours are very hard to change and that being asked to change them on what seems like a capricious whim of someone else feels like you get all the work for their pleasure, so they win and you lose. So try to explain that just like he finds it hard not to use these phrases, you find it hard not to be irritated by them.

Therefore I suggest that you find a time to discuss it with him as a problem you share, rather than as a faulty behaviour he exhibits. But try not to make a huge drama out of it.

Look out for a time when the pair of you (and try to leave your mother out of this for now) are otherwise quite relaxed, not rushing anywhere or trying to do three things at once and when he says the offending phrase, don’t tell him not to or laugh at him for it but say something like:

You know, I really appreciated that you tried so hard to stop apologising when we told you about it, but it seems that all we did was make you always is deny everything instead, so you had all the stress of trying not to apologise and I’m still as frustrated as ever, only now I’ve made you feel bad too.

This raises the issue, acknowledges his effort and expresses it as concern for him rather than frustration or anger. Then, depending how he responds, you can try and explain what is annoying about it, which might be something like:

When you used to apologise I always thought you were blaming yourself for things you didn't need to, but now I always feel as if you think I’m accusing you of something. I think we’re making each other feel bad for no reason and I don’t know how we stop. What do you think?

This gives him some idea of your frustration and invites him to join you in a shared solution. Then, hopefully, you can have a conversation about why he thinks he does it, which might include reassuring you that he doesn’t think you are accusing him, or maybe he does in which case you need to explore that between yourselves. But a shared solution would be a win/win.

You cannot single-handedly cure your partner of verbal habits which annoy you, but you can set up a dynamic where he helps you to let go of the irritation and you help him to let go of his stock phrases. I don’t think anyone can tell you just what those strategies will look like, because they will be individual to you and your partner.

Something I can strongly recommend though, don’t talk with your mother about how irritating the phrases are. It isn’t clear that you have done that, but if you are both constantly telling him to change something, he is just going to feel nagged. If you have been in the bait of discussing it with your mother, all that does is reinforce in each of you the concept that he is wrong to say it and make you both even more sensitised to the issue. So once you have spoken to your boyfriend, perhaps say to your Mother something like:

X and I are working on the ‘didn’t mean to thing’ together, but it’s tough for him to have so much focus on it, so let’s take the pressure off and not talk about it for a while.

5

On the positive side "I didn't mean to" is not a denial. Some people never, ever admit to their mistakes. It sounds like he is actually ready and willing to admit to things, which if you think about it is a good trait. He is honest.

On the other hand, this reaction is extremely defensive which suggests that he feels your comments are accusations rather than just helpful advice (in the case of the camera incident).

In the other instance where he stepped on your foot, I have to say the response seems fairly normal and natural. You see it as an apology, but he is also assuring you that it was not deliberate. I wouldn't see the phrase as odd in this instance, but it seems like he over-uses it so much it has lost its meaning to you, and possibly to him too. It may be more of a Pavlovian response than a sincere remark. This is borne out by the fact he said it in response to you telling him to stop saying it.

If it is the phrase you object to specifically then you could just persist in asking him not to do it - after all, you did this with "sorry" and it worked! But as you can see, one phrase gets replaced with another. This may be a symptom of the autism condition you suspect ,and you may find that if he stops saying "I didn't mean to" he just says something else.

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    I don't see how "I didn't mean to" is honest or admitting to anything. He didn't mean to buy that kind of food? He didn't mean to set the time of the shutter? Obviously he didn't mean to step on OP's foot, but that's irrelevant to the pain it caused. It's a terrible phase that deflects all blame. – Kat Mar 3 '18 at 9:46
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It’s empathy you are looking for

You convinced him to stop saying Sorry all the time, and he picked what he figured was the second-best phrase.

The problem is, when confronted with anything that could be construed as criticism, he blurts out a thoughtless platitude that shows no empathy, and shuts down communication.

An appropriate response if you step on someone’s foot is to ask if they are OK. An appropriate response to being told how to stop taking lousy photographs is to thank the person for the info, or better yet, paraphrase the info back to the speaker to prove to them you listened. You’re not getting any of that.

You are guessing the root cause of the behavior is anxiety, and you probably know him pretty well after 4 years — but there might be other reasons. Seeing a doctor or counselor could help, if that’s possible. It’s hard to know the solution to a problem when you don't know the cause.

Seeking a solution

You might let your boyfriend know:

When you always just say the same thing in response to any problem, it feels like you aren’t even listening. I know you care about me, and I care about you — can we work on that together?

If you get buy-in, encourage him to take a moment to consider the appropriate response. You could try some play-acting when you are not upset.

Let him know exactly what to do. For example, for a tromped toe:

  • In this case an apology is appropriate
  • Ask if your foot is OK
  • Offer you a little kiss on the cheek or something
  • Promise to be more careful in the future
  • In a few hours, or at the end of the day, ask if your foot feels better now

While going through this, be as supportive as you can (which is why it’s best to role-play this, instead of trying to do it after an actual foot-tromping incident).

If he does this exactly “just so” every time, that may get annoying too, because in a way it’s just a more complex rote response, like “Sorry” or “I didn’t mean to.” You can refine the process later, but for now, we can hope the words will sink in a little.

If the root cause of the behavior is anxiety, even running through the situation in play can trigger some anxious responses (you might swap roles and pretend you were the transgressor, to help with this). If he’s just bored with this game, then there may be some other cause of the lack of empathy.

Good luck. I’ve found the world to be full of people who ought to know their social graces better. Some of them can be taught.

3

He seems like an anxious person! I have friends who always like to "sorry" this and that.. So naturally, I would have responded "Oh, what's there to be sorry?" - In a way to create the awareness that the person is using this "tagline" often. Maybe he isn't aware that he is frequently using this.

Bringing to his attention can create (1) awareness - but bring it up naturally with the right intention of helping him to mitigate the use of negative phrases and perhaps you may suggest to him instead of using "I didn't meant to" - (2) Frame his mindset - to something else positive/neutral.. or just simply an "oh!" - depending on the context as well.

Awareness is important, choice of words is too. With practise, things will sure get better :)

3

I am going to echo the earlier poster. I am a chronic sorrier. I have had a couple of people tell me to stop doing that. In all the cases I've seen of this it stems from abusive parents who blame everything on their children. All you can do at that age is apologize and if it happens often enough it become a reflex. As a child you don't know any better and you internalize this and it is extremely difficult to stop.
If this behavior bothers you I think this relationship is not for you. I married another sorry person and we are very happy together because we understand each other. I think this is something you need to decide whether you want to accept and understand, or if it's something you just can't handle. I never advise dating with the view you can change someone. You can't.

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I have no experience with aspies so take my advice with a grain of salt.

What does it mean?

It appears that the phrase has become some sort of autoresponse for the situation when he did something he wasn't expected to. Best guess would be him just stating he wasn't doing this to upset anyone on purpose.

And what can I do? How can I respond to it?

First approach: Given you don't just want him to change his response to another phrase that gets repeated on these occasions you might ask him "Well, then what did you mean to?". Be aware of this might coming off passive-aggressive if you put the wrong tune, but it might get his attention on the issue. The intent of this approach is to get a conversation started, where both of you can share their point of view. It is of utmost urgency to have a welcoming, open atmosphere and you are likely to have to listen much more than talk by yourself.

Second approach: Some men prefer to think(a lot) about a topic before feeling ready to get into a discussion about it, so refrain from pushing the discussion. Just hint an expected timeframe, e.g. "Have you noticed you say "I didn't mean to" a lot lately? I don't want to distress you but it's been rubbing me the wrong way. Do you think we could talk about this sometime, maybe in the next two weeks?"

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I really want to answer this, because it is very common. Much more common that you would think so, and much more important that you'd think so.

Your boyfriend is in a very defensive position, because probably (as we all) have always been judged and attacked. You are asking to be heard, which also is a very common need. Sadly, in this society, people think that the best thing to do when you are doing something that hurts other people is to punish yourself, when the best thing you can do is to hear the pain you caused.

It's very important that he doesn't hears demands, that he doesn't hear that you are telling he's wrong. It will be very hard to make him hear that you are not blaming. And if he can't hear that he isn't attacking you, remember it is not your fault.

You can hear more about Nonviolent Communication here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LuPCAh9FCc

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How can I help him realize that he doesn't need to?

This question is premature. Before you should ask how to help him realize that he doesn't need to say it, you first have to figure out whether he does think he needs to say it. While it's possible that he has a conscious belief that he has to say it, there are quite a few other possibilities, with many different variations, and you should focus on figuring out the cause before trying to come up with a solution. You have several questions that you should consider before trying to change him:

  1. Why is he doing this? Does he think he has to say it? Is this a conscious belief, or an unconscious one? Is there some psychological cause, such as anxiety? Is there a neurological issue, such as Tourette's? Is he consciously aware that he's doing it? Is he consciously aware of why he's doing it?

  2. Why do you want him to change? You should try to take a look at yourself and, as honestly as you can, appraise why you want him to change. Is it because it annoys you? Because you think that he would be better off? Something else?

  3. Is it your place to try to get him to change? If it's a manifestation of anxiety, then you can focus on making him feel less anxious: compliment him, phrase things with a more positive valence (e.g. instead of just saying "Oh, you got X!", say "Oh you got X! Nice!"), physical affection, etc. But if you really want to get to the root of this, you are probably going to end up acting in some ways as his therapist. Of course, in a serious relationship, the partners will often help each other through issues, but it should be done carefully. If the two of you are going to work on this, there are serious consent issues: is he going along just to please you, or because he doesn't feel like he has a choice? This is a tricky situation, because ethically, if you start asking him questions about his behavior, you need to make sure that he is giving true consent to that, but to figure out whether he's truly consenting, you need to ask him questions. You need to start out by saying that you want to talk to him about something, and you want to make sure that he feels comfortable talking as much or as little as he wants, and asking him whether he thinks he would be able to let you know if he feels that the conversation is getting uncomfortable.

Once you've laid some consent groundwork (and you should periodically come back and check in with him on this issue), say something like "Are there times when someone mentions something you did, and you start to worry whether they're annoyed at you and want you to apologize?" Have a discussion about the different reason people have for mentioning things another person did, and what assumptions people make about why other people are mentioning those things, etc. Work your way over to discussing his saying "I didn't mean to". Ask him if he can remember what his feelings about various aspects are (When you say something that prompts this response, what is he feeling about the thing you said? What is he feeling about how he should respond? Etc.) Keep in mind that he likely won't have full access to conscious awareness of these feelings. Once you start getting an idea what the issues are, you can start trying to address them.

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