Myths of the Nice Guy

A friend of mine posted a link to this article, saying that a guy she had been on a few dates with had posted it with clear passive-aggressive notes that it was about her. It’s rare that I actually read something sincerely written that extols the Nice Guy(TM), and I had sort of forgotten that these are myths that a lot of people still buy into. What makes it more interesting is that this article was apparently written by a woman. The core myths that sustain the “Nice Guys undeservedly lose women to assholes” trope are not just perpetuated by the rejected males; they’re pervasive in our culture.

I want to break down the core myths, the false beliefs that are at the heart of this trope.

1) A person can deserve another person’s romantic interest.

Discussion about dating and relationships is fraught with this idea of being “enough”: pretty enough, wealthy enough, charming enough, sexy enough. When facing rejection, a natural impulse is to look at yourself and think, Where did I fall short? What aspect of myself is lacking, where did I fall below the standard? This is a boon to a capitalist culture, where rejection naturally drives consumption as people strive to become “enough” that someone will want them.

But it’s all a myth. There’s no standard of beauty or achievement or goodness that inoculates a person from romantic rejection. There is no level someone can reach that means they can have whoever they want. If you don’t think movie stars get their hearts broken, think again.

The truth is that romantic interest — and still more sustained love and commitment — don’t come when we’ve reached a certain level of merit, whether that merit is superficial or deep. They come when we set off fireworks in someone else’s head and groin; when actually being together (as opposed to the ideas and fantasies we have about being together) is joyful and fulfilling for both of us. There are a lot of factors that contribute to whether that happens, but most of it is the chance of compatibility: something about me pings with something about you, and when we’re together it’s good. Sometimes it makes sense and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s not something you can fake and it’s not something you can earn.

The myth of merit in love is destructive on so many levels. A lot of people stay in bad or just unfulfilling relationships, simply because they can’t come up with anything “wrong with” their partner… because they feel like they don’t get to walk out of a relationship that’s not making them happy unless the partner has fallen below a certain merit standard. Or, in order to feel justified in leaving, someone will magnify and distort the other person’s flaws and weaknesses, rather than just accepting that the joy of intimacy just wasn’t there and didn’t feel recoverable.

It’s much healthier all around to just acknowledge that the vast majority of people won’t feel that spark of desire, that pull toward intimacy, with you, just like you don’t feel it toward most people. And in declining to begin or continue a romantic connection with you, they’re not taking away something you’ve earned: they’re doing both of you the favor of not faking something they don’t feel.

2) Women (and optionally men) who don’t want long-term commitment are broken.

This one is all over the above-linked article. The Nice Guy(TM) typically wants a girlfriend, possibly a wife, definitely not just a fling. And he’s obviously the best prospect for that! He might not be the most exciting one-night-stand out there, but he’ll be a great boyfriend and buy you flowers and make you breakfast in bed, and that’s what you really want. If you reject him in favor of the hot one-nighter, it’s a sign of how damaged you are.

There is no room in the Nice Guy mythos for the idea that a woman might not be interested in settling down to flowers and breakfast — maybe not this year, maybe not ever. There’s definitely no room in the Nice Guy mythos for the idea that sometimes a girl just wants a good shag. She might think she wants that, but that just goes to show that she hasn’t experienced real love, the kind only Nice Guys can dish out. If she’d stop and give him a chance, she’d suddenly realize that he’s offering what she wanted all along, no matter how much she thought she loved flirting and casual hookups and the freedom of single life.

Which brings us to…

3) The Nice Guy knows what’s best for you.

This paragraph gave me the heebie-jeebies:

He ignored your fears and forced you to grow; he fought for your passions when you were too busy writing them off. He forgot your wants and focused on everything you needed. Then you walked away because he was too nice.

At its best, this is the tale of codependence. At its worst, it’s a picture of emotional abuse.

A good partner doesn’t ignore your fears: a good partner understands and shows compassion for them. A good partner doesn’t force you to do anything, even grow: a good partner encourages and supports your growth, and makes sure that it’s in the direction you’ve chosen for yourself. A good partner doesn’t rank their lover’s desires into “wants” and “needs” so that they can discard whichever ones they’ve deemed inessential. Nor do they decide unilaterally what their partner needs and push them into it.

The paragraph became slightly less creepy when I realized it was written by a woman, but it’s still disturbing. Maybe you didn’t walk away because he was too nice. Maybe you walked away because he was controlling and domineering, because he felt like he had the right to decide what you needed and how you needed to grow and how you should be investing your time and energy. Maybe there was something in the pit of your stomach that said, “This isn’t right, I don’t feel whole and myself in this relationship, I have to get out.” And maybe he’s so successfully spun his “Nice Guy” narrative that in time you came to believe it, to believe that walking out on him was a sign of how broken you are, to believe that the best thing you could hope for was to get him back. (And maybe, if he did take you back, he would use every scrap of that shame and self-judgement you internalized to keep you believing that yes, he deserves the amount of control over you, and that if you’re not happy and feel stifled and small in the relationship, it’s your fault.)

Maybe not. I don’t know this writer’s life. I do know that Nice Guy rhetoric can go beyond the normal entitlement and denial of a woman’s right to have her own feelings and desires, and become a smokescreen for emotional abuse. When everything in a relationship is framed in terms of how much he deserves and how little you do, or how wise and good he is and how broken you are… here be dragons.

A good partner respects your autonomy. A good partner is not invested in working on what’s wrong with you: they recognize that as your responsibility and your right, and only help out when invited. A good partner — or potential partner — lets you want what you want and doesn’t seek to rank or categorize or judge your wants. A good partner isn’t using you for wish fulfillment. A good partner recognizes that your love is a gift, freely given, not something that they earn by getting a certain number of merit points. A good partner wants you to realize your desires, even if those desires take you in a different direction.

As Red says, nice is different than good.

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