How Can You Change Your Boyfriend Without Him Getting Insulted?

Oh crap. What did I just do?

I’ve been dating this guy a few months and I’d say we’re pretty close to each other. Intimate enough to be honest with one another. And normally he’s a mellow, genuine guy. Tonight, though, his older brother was in town, and for some reason, he became a huge braggart and it made me really uncomfortable. He was talking about nothing but himself and showing off all sorts of things around the house – from the big tv to his microbrew collection in the fridge, to how he’s trained his dogs. Even the brother looked bored. It was a little sickening to see him ingratiate himself to his big brother. Personally, I think my guy is better than his older brother, who is stuck in the fifties with a housewife at home and 3 kids in parochial school.

After he dropped his brother back off at the hotel, I had a word with him about his behavior tonight. I tried to be really gentle and to get him to see things from his brother’s perspective. I tried not to sound like I was criticizing him. I asked him what he thought a conversation should be, and whether or not he thought he’d been really exchanging ideas with his brother or just talking at him. I said it was understandable that he’d grown up as the kid brother and so he’d still feel eager to please his older sibling. I wanted to make him feel I understood him and that I accepted him no matter what.

Long story short, he got mad at me for bringing it up at all. He said he didn’t appreciate me psychoanalyzing him. He said I ruined his night and then went to bed mad at me. I’m now typing alone in his spare room and I think I’ll end up sleeping here tonight just to give him some space.

Evan, I know women aren’t supposed to try to change men. In my mind, I honestly did first try to make the distinction between a) asking him to change himself without reason; and b) suggesting that he become more aware of the thought or intent behind the things that he says.

I know I screwed it up along the way tonight. Any pointers as to how I should have handled this?


Ready for Lasting Love?
Ready for Lasting Love?

Dear Jules,

I love your question because I don’t really know the answer. But that’s never stopped me before.

Why You’re Still Single points out the subtle difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism.

Constructive criticism is given for the benefit of the recipient. “You might want to get less emotional when asking your boss for a raise.”

Destructive criticism is given for the benefit of the speaker. “Your constant complaining is making me very unhappy.”

So because YOU were uncomfortable with his behavior, HE had to listen to a lecture psychoanalyzing his motives for acting that way.

While I have no doubt that you intended to teach your boyfriend a useful lesson, unfortunately, what came across was that YOU felt that he was being immature and unlikable. So because YOU were uncomfortable with his behavior, HE had to listen to a lecture psychoanalyzing his motives for acting that way. Your criticism was designed more to improve him so that he doesn’t embarrass you, as opposed to him asking why you thought the night was so tense.

Your letter makes it clear that you’re self-aware and that you were really doing your best to tread lightly on this sensitive area. And yet, he STILL got upset at you. What’s a well-meaning girlfriend who wants to change her boyfriend to DO? …

I’m teasing, Jules, because asking our partners to become who we want them to be is a very subtle exercise. We’re wired a certain way from childhood, and, for the most part, the only reason we ever change is because WE decide to change.

You don’t lose weight when your mom says, “You need to lose weight.”

You don’t stop smoking because your best friend thinks its disgusting.

You don’t get a new job because your boyfriend thinks you need to earn more.

We change because WE discover that something is wrong and we want to make it right. Which is why all “constructive” criticism — as truthful and well-intended as it might be — comes across as destructive


What you think: “I want him to be happier, healthier, more self-aware, better-adjusted, wealthier.”

What he hears: “She doesn’t love me the way I am.”

What you think: “I want him to be happier, healthier, more self-aware, better-adjusted, wealthier.”

What he hears: “She doesn’t love me the way I am.”

I’m not just writing this from an “expert” perspective. I’m writing this as a guy who’s wrestled with this in a few relationships.

I had one girlfriend who constantly wanted me to change. She thought it was awful that I sometimes looked at porn on the internet, or glanced through Maxim magazine at the airport. She was stricken every time I talked to another attractive woman at a party. Despite the fact that I was in love with her, she called me everything from “chauvinist” to “sociopath,” in an attempt to shame me into changing. The change didn’t take. We broke up after seven months and I swore I’d never go out with a woman who criticized me like that again.

The next girlfriend knew about the previous girlfriend, and made a concerted effort not to criticize me. The problem was that she had some valid concerns about me. I was moody. I was anxious. I was financially unstable. And just as I thought we were going strong, she dumped me. All because I stifled her impulse to tell me what was on her mind. It wasn’t out of the blue at all; I just didn’t want to hear her concerns. This was my own past coming back to haunt me.

Now I’m in a relationship with a woman who lets me be myself. She doesn’t flip out that I find other women attractive. She doesn’t berate me when she feels I’ve done something wrong. If there’s ever any unrest between us, we talk about it, like adults.

It’s never, “You were wrong for making plans without including me. You must not really love me,” but rather “I felt hurt that you didn’t want me to come out to meet your friend.” That subtle shift between placing blame and letting me know how she felt, makes the same point much more palatable.

So, Jules, put yourself in his shoes. Ask how you’d feel if he dissected your behavior. Ask how he could criticize you without offending you. It’s not that easy. People are sensitive — especially if a criticism hits too close to home. No one will ever be perfect — you’re not either. And I trust you’d rather feel accepted for your flaws than to be with someone who wants to iron all of them out.