While You Were Sweeping
My boyfriend unplugs my laptop when it’s charging and plugs the charger into his, despite knowing that I need my computer charged for work. This is actually part of a pattern — a general lack of consideration, from constantly being late to always leaving messes for me to clean up to knocking the shower door off the track and then just leaving it leaning against the tub. Recently, my dad emailed him three times without hearing back — in response to a favor he’d asked of my dad! — and I had to bug him to reply. How can I get him to be more considerate?
There are people who go all crazybiscuits if you don’t immediately email them back — confusing the ability to reply nearly instantly with a mandate to do that. Still, there’s a middle ground between frantically responding to every message and taking so long that somebody sends the cops around to peer in the windows for a body.
When you’re romantically involved with someone, it’s kind of a problem if the most reliable thing about them is their unreliability. Granted, we all fail in the follow-through department every now and then — like when my car got ticketed because the registration sticker I’d paid for remained in a pile of unopened mail that had gradually migrated under my bed.
But when somebody has a pretty pervasive pattern of carelessness — when they’re basically an entitlement-infused, corner-cutting slacktastrophe of a person — it points to their coming up short on what psychologists call “conscientiousness.” This is one of the five core personality dimensions (along with openness, extroversion, agreeableness and emotional stability), and it reflects a person’s level of self-control and sense of responsibility to others.
Personality researcher Brent Roberts explains that people who are “high in conscientiousness” “tend to write down important dates, comb their hair, polish their shoes, stand up straight, and scrub floors.” That last one is an unexpected plus if you have dingy grout; however, there’s such a thing as too much conscientiousness — which is cool if your “type” is a rigid, perfectionistic mini-Mussolini.
Meanwhile, on the perennially chillaxed end of the spectrum, people “low in conscientiousness” tend to break promises, cancel plans, watch more TV, oversleep, and see credit limits as credit suggestions. The plan-canceling and promise-breaking reflect something noteworthy — self-centeredness and a lack of concern for how their behavior affects others. (Essentially, they tend to do things halfway — but only when they can’t get away with doing them a third of the way or less.)
Not surprisingly, researchers find that people’s lives work better if they keep their promises, don’t go around with yesterday’s sloppy Joe on their shirt, and get to work at an hour that does not require an explanation that opens with “you’ll never believe what happened this time!”
However, it isn’t just your own level of conscientiousness that impacts your life. Psychologists Brittany Solomon and Joshua Jackson find that having a partner high in conscientiousness makes you likely to have higher income and job satisfaction and a better shot at getting promoted. They suggest that having a more conscientious partner makes for a more satisfying and supportive home life, allowing a person to focus more on their work.
Personality traits are, to a great extent, genetic and are largely stable because of that. However, Roberts finds evidence that people can increase their level of conscientiousness. This starts in the smallest ways, like making the bed and tidying the house in the morning so it looks more “lived in” than “ransacked.” Repeated behaviors become habits, and collectively, our habits form who we are.
Of course, changing starts with wanting to change — valuing conscientiousness enough to be motivated to make it an integral part of everything one does. This sometimes happens when a person gets a tragedy-driven wake-up call. Absent that, your best chance for inspiring your boyfriend to want to live more conscientiously is by using empathy as a motivator — gently explaining to him how unloved you feel and how disrespected other people must feel in the wake of his constant sloppy disregard for anyone but himself.
If he says he wants to change, give yourself a deadline — perhaps two or three months down the road — to see whether he’s making meaningful improvement. If you decide to break up, you might want to make conscientiousness one of the “must-haves” on your “What I Need In A Man” list so your next relationship feels more like a romantic partnership than a remedial finishing school for one. Lesson 36: One should email the girlfriend’s dad back in less time than it would take to deliver the message by pony express — if you first had to get the mare and the stallion to hook up to make the pony.
(c)2017, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or e-mail AdviceAmy@aol.com (advicegoddess.com). Weekly radio show: blogtalkradio.com/amyalkon
Order Amy Alkon’s book, Good Manners For Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck (St. Martin’s Press, June 3, 2014).