How Can You Change Your Boyfriend Without Him Getting Insulted?

How Can You Change Your Boyfriend Without Him Getting Instulted?

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. 31

    Whenever initiating what MAY be understood as difficult criticism, RULE 1 – keep it short. The longer you continue to talk, the more buttons you may inadvertently be pushing from someone’s past.
    RULE 2 – be vulnerable yourself, rather than being critical of the other.
    In this case you might have simply said, “I felt pretty uncomfortable tonight. That was an awkward evening with your brother. How are you feeling ? “

    1. 31.1

      I know, I know ! I know the answer..
      Well, not really, but I’ve got an opinion and damned you’re going to hear it.. NOW !!!
      I agree with Ethan above..
      The boyfriend might have opened up. No, really? Opened up? Geesh who’da thought?

      There was HUGE room here to learn.

      She says “You’re brother is very sweet, and humble”

      He says “What, my brother, you don’t know my brother.. why he.. ” or
      “I knew it I knew you’d like him”

      Suddenly we get dialog and information.

      But once a man has been shamed. The recovery is a hard road.
      If she apologizes and let’s him know her observations jumped the gun, he might be open to her again.
      But he might question her ability to have respect for him.. ooo that’s like “how does my butt look in these jeans” territory..

      It can go either way now, it’s open season on their future. Depends on their negotiation skills and their desire to learn about each other.
      Desire and communication.. now that’s a thought.

  2. 32

    Selena : I dont need this amatuer psychobabble..

    It’s ok to think that as long as, at some point, you get past the defensive initial response and actually take a good hard look at yourself. We get the best feedback from people who care about us.

  3. 33

    The biggest problem with this scenario is giving advice that was never asked for, especially right at the time it happened. Better to wait awhile, and let your own feelings about the matter have time to settle, because what you really told him is that you think he was pathetic and sad for behaving the way he did (which you may very well have felt). You did not convey to him that you care about him; what you told him is that any inadequacies he feels around his brother are quite noticeable (embarrassing to have you point that then, isn’t it?) and that you are embarrassed by his behavior. Gee, when my ex-husband did this kind of thing to me, it made me feel 2 feet tall. Like an idiot kid. And it didn’t endear him to me, either. Don’t do this a lot if you want to preserve this relationship. Instead, ask yourself why his behavior with his brother (with whom he has a lot of history with that you don’t know anything about) bothers you so much.

  4. 34

    I’ve come to realise that people are often different when they are around their peers, brothers/sisters, friends, than they are with their boyfriend or girlfriend, including me. I become giggley, chatty, probably a bit silly, with my girlfriends, and talk about all kinds of things I would never talk about with my boyfriend. I wouldn’t want to be judged for this.

    And yes, my boyfriend is different when he is with his brother or his friends than when we are alone, but I have learnt to let this be like water off a duck’s back. From reading Jules’s letter I couldn’t really see how her boyfriend’s behaviour with his brother had directly affected her, and hence I didn’t really see a problem or a reason to bring it up.

    When it comes to asking people to change, Evan is absolutely right, tread very carefully, and if you absolutely must say something approach it from “I feel” rather than “you should”.

  5. 35

    Jules asks, how should I have handled this?
    Why not trust your boyfriend to handle it in his own time and his own way? When we truly accept people as they are, we also trust that person to process his/her issues in his/her own time (as opposed to our timeline, which is usually now, because of our discomfort with where that person is). By not intervening, your loved one gets an opportunity (because, it really always is an opportunity to be a Learning Moment) to experience the consequence of his/her action. This will teach him/her much more fully than anything you could say, and allows you to be his soft pillow of support when he experiences his ouch. Even better, this takes you out of criticism and judgment, and lets you move right into compassion and love.
    Saying you are “intimate enough to be honest” to me also implies “intimate enough to trust him to be a grown up, competent person who will change if and when he is ready” and “intimate enough to trust yourself to either make sure all your needs are met (whether in this relationship, via friendship, or meeting your own needs) or trust yourself to step out of that level of commitment if it’s not working for you”.
    My rule of thumb is, keep your lip zipped unless the other person makes a direct request for intervention (as in, what did I do wrong, please help me, tell me what I did). By waiting for that person’s request, you are lovingly allowing them to show you when they are ready and willing – the time when they are most ready and willing to hear what you have to say.  If they don’t, it does not mean they are not dealing with the issue. It may just mean they have another source they feel is more able to help them with that, so don’t take it personally. For example, I always asked my Dad to help me with financial questions, because he was very knowledgeable and skilled in that area. His advice about dating, not so much.
    Trusting yourself to do what is right for you is a great step toward trusting that your loved ones are capable of doing the same. If you can accept what he is offering, then great. If you can’t, but make no change to meet your own needs outside of him,  it becomes an issue of why are you willing to accept less than what you want.
    Either way you can move toward what you want – which is much more about you than him.  

  6. 36

    Well I can agree with most of you on here…I am going through a situation where my bofriend of 8 months feel he knows everything and feels the need he has all the good advice in the world but he can take advice from someone else without getting offended or irrate. So I have learned something from here..I decided to let him make his own decisions and consequences and I am not saying I should deal with the immature behavior but I am a firm believer in a grown man learning from his own issues and changing on his own. I have my own life and I bring myself joy with God so maybe one day he will get it together but in the mean time I’m gonna live my life and  either he will see what I am doing as an example and change or keep hitting dead ends in his life…his decision.

  7. 37

    It shouldve been obvious by observing her boyfriend’s unusual behavior, that there were some deep seated issues with his relationship with his brother. Knowing and seeing the discomfort and pain, seeing he was not being himself, her response should have been kindness and compassion, not a critique.  She couldve just looked the other way, not poked at his open wounds.  Knowing that is an issue he struggles with, help and support him. Of course women need to be able to express their feelings freely but first see the big picture.

  8. 38

    He was immature and unlikeable. You saw it and now you don’t respect him. Break it off and move on.

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