How often have you found yourself saying…
“He’s such a jerk”?
You’re sitting with your girlfriends, and you just can’t hold it in any longer. You’ve got to tell them what he’s done this time. You love the guy, but honestly? He does your head in.
Surely there’s nothing wrong with that. You’re just calling a spade a spade!
Besides, when women get together, they tell it like it is. If their man is failing them, the sisters are gonna hear about it.
But thinking of your guy as a jerk—even in the privacy of your own mind—puts you on the slippery slope to couple trouble.
It turns out that calling him anything unflattering will bite you later down the line.
Not because you didn’t feel it was true at the time…
But because the labels you slap on him have power. They create the very behaviors you’re condemning. You’re not describing him so much as putting a curse on him, ensuring you’ll see more bad behavior.
How can a simple little word have that kind of power? (Especially when it’s not even the worst thing you’ve ever called him?)
Here’s how it works.
1. Whatever you call him, it’s wrong.
Let’s say you’re complaining to your girlfriends that your guy has been such a jerk lately.
But how often is your guy a jerk?
Is he a jerk all the time, or only on rare occasions?
Chances are, he’s a good guy a lot more than he’s a bad guy—otherwise, you wouldn’t be with him.
So he’s not a jerk after all. He’s a good guy who sometimes does inconsiderate things.
You can’t generalize about someone on the basis of occasional behaviors.
You know this intuitively.
If you forget something, that doesn’t make you forgetful. Maybe you were in a rush or had too many things going through your mind. You had a good reason for it.
Similarly, if he forgets something, that doesn’t make him forgetful. But do you assume he was in a rush or had too many things going on? Or do you take that mistake and use it to make a broad, sweeping statement about his character? “You never remember what I ask you to do!”
We don’t just do this with our partners, by the way. We do it with almost everyone we meet.
“He’s so rude – did you hear what he told her?”
“She’s so lazy. I asked her to help out and she refused.”
“He didn’t even ask me what I wanted. He never thinks of anyone but himself.”
“Notice how she never talks to anyone? She thinks she’s better than the rest of us.”
This kind of thinking has a name:
Fundamental attribution error.
It’s an error, because the way someone is acting doesn’t tell us who they are. It just tells us how they are acting at that moment.
How often have you judged your partner’s character based on his occasional slip-ups?
2. Labeling him won’t motivate him.
For some crazy reason, we think that telling our partner his failings will motivate him to try better next time.
You never do this and you always do this, and I’ve had it up to here with you!”
Does it work?
You know the answer.
It doesn’t work because labeling anyone means you see their personality as fixed. Unable to change. This is who he is, and he’ll always be that person.
Researchers have found that thinking we can’t change who we are makes us unhappy. If you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, that poor old dog is stuck. But if you hold the belief that it’s possible to change and grow, you feel more hopeful and positive.
So why would you tell your partner he’s THIS and he’s THAT? How can he do better, if that’s really who he is?
3. Swap criticism for constructive complaints.
All well and good, you might be thinking, but how DO I get him to change his behavior if I can’t tell him how lazy he’s being?
Dr. John Gottman recommends swapping criticism for complaints.
Dr. Gottman defines criticism and complaints in a very specific way. Criticism targets on the person, while complaints target the behavior.
Criticism: “I don’t like who you are.”
Complaint: “I don’t like what you did.”
Criticism is what we’ve been talking about thus far. Dr. Gottman considers it one of the four worst behaviors in a relationship. He found that high levels of criticism predict divorce.
Complaints, on the other hand, are crucial to staying in harmony. You need to be able to tell your partner when his behavior isn’t working for you. You also need to work on your delivery, so you can phrase your criticism in a neutral, constructive way that elicits his cooperation.
What Dr. Gottman doesn’t mention, though, is that not all men can see the difference.
In a healthy relationship, couples can come to one another with problems.
In an unhealthy relationship, that doesn’t always happen. He may treat all constructive complaints as criticism. When you say, “I felt hurt when you said that,” he hears, “I hate you and think we should break up.”
In that case, maybe he’s too invested in who he is to want to change. Maybe he sees himself as an old dog who shouldn’t have to jump through hoops for his new woman.
And maybe that should be taken into the equation when you decide whether or not this relationship has lasting potential.
Being careful with your words doesn’t mean you should never call out your man.
It just means you call him out on his behavior, not who he is.
And you do that even if you’re safe among girlfriends, who’d support you no matter what you had to say about him.
Yes, he acted like a jerk. But he’ll always be the man you love.