How Can You Change Your Boyfriend Without Him Getting Insulted?

couple arguing in the kitchen

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?


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.

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  1. 1

    We guys generally don’t take kindly to being told by our girlfriends that we’ve misbehaved. It makes us feel like we’re being lectured by our mommies.

    1. 1.1

      Well, Marc …
      here’s the thing.
      If a man breaks an agreement with his girlfriend or wife, and his failure to keep it harms the relationship between them, or damages the family’s welfare — then he isn’t the only one who’s affected.   It’s not all about him anymore — he has hurt other people at that point.
      So how would you prefer the woman in the relationship, when that happens, express her hurt (because he did hurt her) and concern (for the relationship and family unit) to the man?

      1. 1.1.1

        When you figure this one out can you let me know?     I think it is one thing if your man has annoying habit, there are somethings you just have to deal with.   But what you mention is a big problem. A situation where your male (its usually men) partner is hurting you with his behavior, but continues to engage in that behavior because he does not think you should be hurt by it.        I have tried being nice, being constructive, yelling , asking and nothing works.     The first five times I ask I am going to be nice, but by the 25th time yes I am frustrated and angry.   I often feel like it’s a power struggle.

  2. 2
    darren ved

    I think when the gurl are concern about their boyfriend behaviour, attitude and action, it determine that the relationship in on for queit sometimes because one already understands his/her character. As a guy, for me it is good to express opinion on certain circumstances that just happen but make sure it is not in the same day or just couples minutes after the event. It is better if the conversation regarding the matter conducted in other day and time in a more suitable place and environment ..Thank You…

  3. 3
    mrs. vee

    Sorry to hear about the fight you had with your boyfriend, Jules.
    Yeeouch, that was a tough one.

    My personal opinion is that there genuinely are times when a person would benefit by being corrected. This may not have been one of those times. In this case, YOU were the one who had the strong reaction to your boyfriend’s behavior – not him, not his brother who’s known your boyfriend all his life. His conduct offended your sense of propriety. And when you’re coming from a place where it’s your “manners rulebook” being violated – no matter how universally offensive his behavior may be or how irritated it makes you – it’s hard not to appear as though you’re imposing your own code on the other guy.

    I realize you intended to reason with him, but you did what a lot of clever women do, which is to wrap your personal preferences in logical packaging in the hopes of getting him to accept it as absolute. Ultimately, he saw past the rhetoric and it had the net effect of making him angry and possibly embarrassed. Afterall, you’re his new girlfriend. He’s still probably not beyond the stage of wanting to impress you. So for him to be lectured by the one person whose mind he still cares about blowing, whose socks he still aspires to knock off… I’ll just bet he went to bed feeling pretty demoralized.

    The truth is that shame is a pretty powerful and reliable tool to effect change…the same way that dropping the A-bomb was a pretty powerful tool to broker the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, if you catch my clumsy drift on destruction vs. benefit. Feeling ashamed for our actions is an unpleasant enough sensation to make us stop doing whatever it was that made us feel that way so we never feel it again. But as his girlfriend – the one who’s supposed to support and comfort him and make him feel accepted – do you really want to be the person delivering that painful sensation? When he could eventually learn to associate that negative feeling with you?

    True, people learn most from their mistakes. Criticism more often than not does spur transformation, but change takes time, and, if you’re the one always doing the criticizing, you probably won’t be around to enjoy the positive effect of your influence.

    I know, perhaps there’s that nagging voice in your head that tells you, if you stand aside and say nothing, he’ll never improve. But here’s the thing: While you’re busy debating yourself about his self-improvement vs. his self-esteem, you’re ignoring another vital question, which is, “If his behavior is so unacceptable, what am I doing with this guy?” On top of that, you’re courting an even larger trade-off: having him in your life vs. NOT.

    Take it from me – a very accomplished fault-finder who’s still learning to suppress her hypercritical tendencies. All the relationships I’ve had with men whom I’ve felt compelled to reform, polish or improve have just turned competitive and sour, totally losing the spirit of “mutual nurturing” that love is all about.

    I’m not saying you need to do anything drastic, like leave your boyfriend just because he puffed himself up around his brother. I’m just saying that the second you feel yourself turning into a disapproving, clucking mother hen in a relationship is the precise moment you need to start asking yourself if you can hang in there and tolerate even his cringe factors. If not, maybe you need to gracefully bow out of the relationship.

    And given that your boyfriend doesn’t sound like a repeat offender who’s all that bad, I don’t think you want to start thinking of an exit strategy just yet. 🙂 I hope you came up with a sincere apology to smooth things out.

    Good luck!

    1. 3.1

      Wow, I read this thinking it was from a guys perspective until I saw it was a woman…SPOT ON!!! I’m impressed this came from a woman, you’re extremely intune.

  4. 4

    It sounds as if Jules saw a side to him that bothered her and felt close enough to him to say something. The alternative would have been for her to act passive-agressive or play games. That said, without having been a fly in the wall it might have been the way she approached him, and some guys tend to get defensive about this stuff.

    Either way, relationships are a growing experience. Jules, the fact that you’re questioning your behavior speaks loads, and if your boyfriend really cares about you he’ll eventually be open to talking this out after he calms down. So I ask you 2 questions – how old is your boyfriend and what’s his relationship track record? It sounds like a maturity issue on his part.

  5. 5
    Kat Wilder

    We often think we’re being gentle and nonjudgmental when we’re actually being very judgmental, and trying to change someone, as Evan points out, is never a good idea.

    Some friends and I were just discussing non-violent communication yesterday, and it’s really hard to do it. But we should do it anyway. It makes us a little more mindful of what we’re saying.

    Instead of trying to get him to see it from his brother’s perspective, and thus sounding like you were Ms. Freud. you might have made an observation: “You seemed a little nervous tonight. Was it weird to have your brother over tonight?” or something like that. asking instead of telling (or lecturing, as my teen would say), makes your comments less threatening. Your boyfriend most likely knew what he was doing inside, even if he didn’t know why. That’s why he got defensive when you pointed it out.

    Best thing to do now is to acknowldge that, in your attempts to be helpful, you realize you weren’t, and reassure him that you won’t do that again. Then, you know, throw in a nice BJ …

  6. 6

    You sound like you were pretty reasonable to me, as athough you were trying to couch your words to take away any sense of blame.

    But oh well. You can’t control how other people react to bad reviews. Still, you have a right to get things off your chest. I personally can’t stand naked male swagger, myself.

    If he’s cool, he’ll say he’s sorry for over-reacting. And then you’ll say you’re sorry for nitpicking at him, and you two will learn from this exercise.

    What good is having a relationship if we don’t grow from one another?

  7. 7

    What we men tend to do is dump the girl who is doing the criticizing (secretly pocketing her nuggets of wisdom for us) and change for the next one who comes along.

    So take heart that your little “pep talk” might still take effect, but you might have lost your boyfriend in the process.

    1. 7.1

      Apparently a bruised ego is too much to bear. Why does a woman have to walk on egg shells because some guys are too damn proud to face their problems head on like a real man. If you think he’d break up with her for that, then you must be the kind of guy who’d do something so weak and petty yourself. Here’s a nugget, grow up and learn to take constructive criticism. Get over yourself!
      Evan: Yes, it would be ideal for her to be perfect at constructive criticism, but wth, now it’s her fault and she should learn to appease his petty childish behavior? Why should there be no allowances for her imperfections while his are completely tolerated? I guess you have to be a certified psychologist to know how to treat your boyfriend. You can’t be honest and expect him to be accepting like an adult should be. Not a fan of the advice, too focused on the guys feelings and it comes from a very insecure male perspective. Btw, if she had a problem with you being a perv, like most men are trained to be, she had every right to feel the way she did. What’s so hard about giving up unnecessary, unhealthy habits for someone you love? Maybe it says to her: you’re not worth it, your not enough, i don’t respect you and my needs are more important than your feelings and your needs. Do you use your own advice Evan in your relationships?

      1. 7.1.2

        It often takes the woman just getting fed up and leaving for there even to be hint. Even that is iffy.   But I guess if folks want to keep going around the same mountains, they gotta do what they gotta do.

  8. 8
    Becky King

    Dear Jules, please take care! personally, I don’t think he is a very good man for you, he is bad-tempered, and uncommunicated. Normally, men do not want to be changed. Maybe giving up the other person before anything really bad happens IS called love. My ex left me about 1 year ago, but I think it’s ok for me, you see I am now happy and I feel good, really. The most important thing is make yourself happy, you know?

  9. 9

    While people generally see the futility and frustration that comes with fundamentally trying to change another person, I still think “You’re trying to change me!” is an overused defense by insecure people.

    Jules wasn’t asking her boyfriend to convert religions or switch political parties. She was just making him aware of the fact that maybe he didn’t come off as smooth as he’d hoped he would. That’s great feedback a person could only hope for from family or one’s closest friends.

    My boyfriend calls me on my bullshit all the time, and I totally love him for it. In fact, most recently it was in a situation very similar to Jules’, when my folks were in town. I was doing something stupid like exaggerating my job responsibilities to sound more important. After they left, my boyfriend noted that I forgot to add “Supervisor of Horticultural Irrigation” to my list of titles. His comment stung a bit and I sulked for 5 minutes, and then we had a good laugh about my behavior. Because, ok, I am sensitive about the fact that I haven’t lived up to my parents’ expectations of me, but the fact that my boyfriend knew me well enough to call me on it in a non-judgmental way more than made up for the tiny embarassment I felt at being busted for embellishing the truth.
    People are way too touchy about receiving pointers. Telling a friend he interrupts too much in conversation, that she’s too clingy, that he invades personal space or gives unwanted backrubs – those are all useful opinions that friends should be able to say to one another, and certainly people who are intimately involved with one another should be allowed to share openly.

    At a certain point in the lifecycle of a romantic relationship, you’re gonna have to accept that your partner will see the “for worse” in “for better or worse”, which means you have to prepared for feedback. Going to bed mad is not the mature way to handle this.

    Jules, I guess you really touched a nerve.

  10. 10
    bryan burns

    All you ladies out there who have such strong opinions about flowers, condoms and who pays first on the first date (you know who you are) – you must have something to say about this topic.

    C’mon. Let’s hear it:
    In a perfect world a man…

    1. Does/doesn’t woo you with flowers

    2. Brings/leaves behind protection

    3. Must/may grab the check from out of your hands

    …and finally,

    4. Should/shouldn’t be open to receiving your grievances.

    So, what is your answer to number 4? Tens of readers are dying to know.

  11. 11

    As usual, I’m completely impressed with Mrs. Vee and her compassionate, level-headed take on things, although I must give kudos for Chiara’s mature attitude towards continuous improvement too. (I think the Japanese call it “kaizen”; it’s an adorable word and a kickass way of being if you have the temperament for it.)

    My only other comment – that Mrs. Vee already touched upon – is that INCOMPATIBILITY IS TOO OFTEN OVERLOOKED AS THE CULPRIT for grievances between lovers. Like, if the guy you’re with is giving you the willies or making you feel embarrassed for him, it’s not necessarily that he’s in the wrong or you know better than him. What may be actually happening is that the differences between you two are starting to show up and cause friction in your relationship.

    In this case, Jules’ boyfriend felt it justifiable to show off his big screen, while Jules thought it was distasteful, immodest and “sickening”. I think neither of them was right, and this was just a difference of opinion.

    Stereotypically, however, in couples where one partner is constantly showering the other with criticism, the criticizer always looks like the bad guy. Personally, I’d sooner get out of a relationship than see myself become the nagging shrew. So when I find myself in Jules’ position, where I’m put off by something a guys says or does, the first thing I always ask myself when I notice myself feeling that revulsion is: “Can I live with this?” If I can live with it, I force myself to internalize my acceptance of whatever it is, and remain tight-lipped. But if I really, truly can’t live with it (and I have a pretty high tolerance for people’s imperfections), I know I won’t be able to resist the urge to set things straight, and it’s far more preferable for me to break things off than try to correct things and risk feeling like a pushy bitch.

    Jules, this isn’t you that I’m describing by a long shot, seeing as how this was probably the first fight you’ve had with him of this kind. All I’m saying is that this exchange with your boyfriend has that sort of “you’re-the-mommy” flavor to it. And if situations like these keep happening, it may become necessary to re-evaluate whether you’re really a good fit with one another.

    When you’re already in a relationship, actively trying to make things work and making tiny, micro-adjustments for each other, it may seem unthinkable to re-visit the whole compatibility enchilada. But keeping the big picture in mind, when you think about the singularity of each person and the dizzying uniqueness of the experiences each individual goes throug in a lifetime, is it really that outrageous a proposition that the man sitting next to you might not be THE ONE?

    So it may seem overkill to mention incompatibility now, but just remember that, instead of trying to force things to work, walking away is always a valuable option. And hopefully the walking away happens long before anyone gets too frustrated or hurt.

    (And, Bryan, I’m sorry, but I don’t have a strong opinion regarding flowers, rubbers or who foots the bill.)

  12. 12

    So what’s a gal to do? We hear that men respect women who challenge them and don’t play games, yet when we’re honest and direct they flip out.

    Jules, next time your boyfriend does something that bothers you try going all drama queen on him like this: give him the silent treatment, then he’ll notice, come around and ask you what’s up, you can cry like the damsel in distress (‘the way you acted scared me and I didn’t know what to do, it reminded me of this time when I was little…blah blah). This way he’ll be open to discussing on his terms and feel as if he’s the one in control.

    If this isn’t your style then move on and find someone who’s more emotionally mature. Drama breeds drama.

  13. 13

    oh, and one last thing Jules – sounds like you wrote Evan JUST after this happened. Don’t overanalyze or beat yourself up. See what happens, he might just come around.

  14. 14

    I still don’t get it.

    How was she trying to change him?

    If someone is being rude or too noisy and I ask that person to stop, am I trying to *change* that person?

  15. 15

    I’m with Chiara. I think people who say “you’re trying to change me” in response to criticism are immature and just trying to buy themselves leverage in an argument that they don’t even need to start.

    I guess I’m the flip side of Evan’s story. I once went out with a super-defensive guy who wouldn’t listen to any objection I raised about him, and countered each one with “I am who I am and you can’t change that”. It was his knee-jerk response because he claimed all his ex-girlfriends had complaints about him. The reality of it was that the guy truly was insecure, whiny, argumentative, vain and always pressed matters to have things his way, so it was no surprised this difficult person was always hearing about his flaws.

    Interestingly, I felt the more insightful my comments were, the more violent his reaction would be to them. I ended the relationship after seemingly hundreds of the same stupid fights and because it seemed obvious to me that the guy was too busy avoiding any balanced introspection to share openly in a relationship.

    Since then, I vowed I’d never go out with a guy who couldn’t handle facing himself with honesty.

    Hate to say it, Jules, but your boyfriend’s response reminded me of my ex-guy.

    1. 15.1

      ”  “I am who I am and you can’t change that”.  It was his knee-jerk response because he claimed all his ex-girlfriends had complaints about him.  ”
      If ALL his exes had complaints, and dude doesn’t see – or, perhaps, isn’t willing to see – the common denominator there …?

  16. 16

    I enjoy reading your articles!

  17. 17

    great advice – don’t try to change someone else, they need to want it on their own for it it actually every happen.

  18. 18

    This reminds me of that scene in Mystic Pizza where Julia Roberts’s rich boyfriend taks her home to meet his family and he’s acting like a jerk in front of his parents…it embarrasses her so she walks out and calls him on his behavior. It turns out he had an issue with their perceived social class differences….but whatever. I know it’s just a movie but the point is, if you want to have a happy relationship you need to be honest with yourself and don’t take any bullshit.

  19. 19

    First, was this really necessary to bring up? So dude has some issues with his big brother. Everyone has some issues. It’s not like they got into a fistfight or something. I have a bigger issue with this woman’s judging of the older brother. “A housewife at home and three kids in parochial school”…and? How the F is that a bad thing? Here’s a suggestion for the woman in question, stop judging everyone else and worry about yourself.

    1. 19.1

      Why not bring it up Markus??? Big man can’t handle honesty? Oh, maybe she should never express herself and hold onto all the negative feelings until she is absolutely disgusted by the thought of him and there’s no connection or attraction. I been there… tried to just be compassionate and forgiving and let “little” things go because he had a lot of kinks and guess what?? Boyfriend who wants to get married is not changing and I literally am disgusted by him and it’s been a bane on my life. The only way to grow is to share things, be challenged and step up to it. My bf however would always confess he was in the wrong, but I’d never see anything done about it and after veryyyyy long periods of time. Who wants put faith in someone who constantly let’s you down and disappoints you. If a man can’t step up he needs to step down.

    2. 19.2
      Runner Girl

      I agree with Markus. His relationship with his brother does not concern her – who knows what their life was like growing up together and how they treated each other? She was not there, and they have not been together long enough for her to know the answer to that, so for her to tell her boyfriend that she disapproved of his behavior was insensitive, disrespectful, bossy, and over stepping her bounds. It sounds as if she is making assumptions based on her opinion of how a person should act, without understanding the nature of her boyfriend’s and his brother’s relationship. Coming from a large family (6 kids) where there is jealousy among some siblings, as well as other siblings who act like they are better than others, Jules’s boyfriend probably feels a little insecure and maybe like he’s not good enough, so he felt the need to impress his older brother, in order to please him and feel good enough. It is a psychological feeling of wanting to be liked and accepted. Who knows? Maybe his supposedly old-school “fifties life” brother has torn him down and puts himself on a pedestal? Jules should have ASKED him about their relationship, and listened and been supportive of his feelings, instead of making assumptions that her boyfriend is simply being a show-off. She stated that he never acted that way with anyone prior, so shouldn’t his behavior with his brother be a clue that something was wrong? I am on the boyfriend’s side. Either Jules is an only child or simply does not understand sibling relationships, but acting like his mommy and chastising him because SHE felt weird was clearly not taking his feelings into consideration, and she should have left his sibling relationship between him and his brother. Also, Jules sounds very opinionated and judgmental, judging both him and his brother’s life. She needs to grow up a little and develop some self control to learn to keep her not so nice opinions to herself. What purpose did she think criticizing him would serve? If my fiancé criticized me for how I interact with any of my siblings, then I would be pissed off, too. My personal relationships with my siblings are between me and them, and not anyone else’s business. Jules will be lucky if her guy does not dump her, and hopefully will learn a valuable lesson in picking her battles next time.

  20. 20

    She obviously worried about herself enough to write her letter, Markus.

    I don’t think she was trying to say the brother was a bad person. The way I read it was that she only felt the brother wasn’t all that great – not enough to show show off to, anyway.

    The traditional scenario of housewife at home and kids in Catholic school is not everybody’s cup of tea, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

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