Nice guys finish last. Girls like “bad boys”. This is something all guys hear or think at one point in time or another.
We hear this often enough that guys are often led to believe we have to be cocky, act like jerks and treat women badly. This idea is used in romance movies, which depict scenes of guys worrying about how long they should wait before calling someone, or how to show they are interested in someone without coming across as too interested. Maybe they should play hard to get, or appear interested in someone else in order to try and make the person jealous. We are taught that if we learn to “play the game” we will be able to get the girl we want.
And if we don’t get the girl we want?
Well, then we either don’t know how to play the game or it’s not really our fault. It’s because we are “a nice guy”, and that’s not what she really wants. After all, nice is boring, and she wants a bad boy. So nice guys finish last.
Is this really true? I guess there is some element of truth to it or the perception wouldn’t exist. But do women really want to be treated like crap, or have guys treat relationships like some sort of game?
Disclaimer here – I’m not a woman so I really don’t know. But for some reason I doubt it.
Maybe there are some women who do, but even if that WERE the case, as a guy would you really want to be with a woman who wants to be treated badly? If a woman respects herself, why would she put up with that kind of treatment? Does she believe she deserves it? If so, why would any guy really want a woman who thinks that poorly of herself?
No, I don’t think it’s treating someone badly that matters. Maybe I’m naive, but I think women do want to be treated with respect and kindness.
However they probably also want someone who is confident in themselves. Someone who knows what their values and boundaries are, and is willing to establish and enforce them.
What Would You Do For Love?
Have you ever heard the saying “I would do anything for you”?
Sounds great right? Sounds romantic? Maybe it makes someone feel special, or important; and let’s face it – we all like to feel special and important.
But if you would do anything for the other person, what is that REALLY saying?
It’s saying that YOU don’t matter. It’s saying that what the other person wants and needs is more important than your own wants and needs.
And that is really unhealthy.
This does actually happen in relationships. People try to be what they think the other person wants instead of just being who they are. And maybe they don’t actually know who they are, so they are trying to find that through someone else.
But to be in a healthy relationship you need to love and respect yourself first, because you matter too.
What do you want?
We are all driven by wants and needs, so what do you want? What do you need as part of your relationship in order to be happy? What is your primary love language? What level of closeness are you looking for in your relationship?
How do you want to be treated, and more specifically what are some things that bother you, and are things that you simply can’t accept in a relationship?
These are things that are part of what makes you YOU, and they are independent of who you are with. They would apply with any partner.
These are your boundaries, and they are important to your own sense of identity.
We don’t often think about what our boundaries are, and I suspect most people can’t articulate theirs. At some level though we all have them and know them. When we are hurt, or disappointed it is often because someone has violated or not respected our boundaries.
I think people who have a strong sense of identity have a better idea of what their boundaries are, and are more willing to enforce them (than people who don’t have a strong sense of identity).
And that’s the part where the stereotypical “nice guys” get it wrong. They either don’t have strong boundaries, or they don’t value themselves enough to enforce them. They want to be loved, and they want to be accepted (which I suppose we all do to some degree). But “nice guys” are so eager to please someone else that will constantly put the other person’s needs ahead of their own.
But wait a minute…
Aren’t we supposed to give? Aren’t we supposed to put our partner first?
Yeah, not so much.
I mean, we ARE, but not at our own expense (at least not consistently). Instead of putting our partner first, I like to think of it as we should be putting them on the same level as ourselves.
Their needs and wants had damned well better matter to us. At the same time though, their needs and wants don’t trump our boundaries. For a healthy relationship, we need to find a way to make both of these things work together.
It makes sense in theory (to me anyhow), but in practice finding that balance can be very difficult.
What About Nice Girls?
If the negative connotations of being a nice guy come from someone trying to be what they think the other person wants (due to a lack of self-confidence, assertiveness and poor enforcement of boundaries), is this just a problem for guys?
Aren’t there women out there with the same issues? If so, why do we hear about “nice guys finishing last” but we don’t often hear something similar about nice girls?
It seems clear that there are women out there with the same issues. But “well, she’s nice” is usually guy-code for “she has a nice personality” aka “yeah she’s nice but I’m not attracted to her at all”. So the issue there seems to be more one of attraction. Maybe it is the same thing though, because a lack of confidence, boundaries and assertiveness really isn’t very attractive.
Perhaps another reason you don’t hear as much about “nice girls” is due to differences in the way guys and girls are raised.
Quick note – generally I don’t buy into gender differences (they exist, but I see them as more resulting from socialization than from any core differences). Plus, I don’t believe anything can be painted with broad brush strokes – so I’ll think of this more as gender “trends” than actual differences.
That said, I think women are commonly raised with more of an expectation of being nurturers than men. It doesn’t mean they necessarily lack self-confidence, but I do think women are likely to be less assertive and have more fluid boundaries. They are more likely to make personal sacrifices “for the betterment of the relationship, or the family” than men – often to their own detriment.
Due to this, I suspect those traits are just as common with women as they are with men, but for some reason they are less likely to be seen as “a problem” with women.
Just Be Yourself
Personally, I think genuinely being a nice guy is largely a good thing. It means you actually care about those around you. But being someone who lacks self-confidence and either doesn’t know what their own personal boundaries are or doesn’t enforce them is unhealthy; as it means you don’t have a strong sense of self.
For any potential nice guys (and girls) out there, a few unsolicited words of advice:
No one wants a doormat. Sure people want to be loved and supported, but I think people also want to be challenged. And they want someone who is willing to call them out (nicely of course) when they are wrong.
Be yourself, whoever that is (and if you aren’t sure who you are, then that’s a bigger problem). There’s really no point in trying to change yourself to be what you think someone else wants. If someone doesn’t like you for who you are, how in the world does it help you to try and be what they want? Because that means what they want isn’t actually you.
For a relationship to be successful you will ultimately need to grow and accept influence from the other person. But if you are trying to be what you think the other person wants, the relationship is really being built on false pretenses. Eventually you will grow resentful for having spent your time playing a role (though it will largely be your own fault). And your partner may not be very appreciative when they find out your aren’t who you were portraying yourself as.
And lastly, remember that loving someone doesn’t mean doing anything for them. Wanting to do things for someone else is great, but you matter too. Know what your boundaries are, and be willing to enforce them. Saying “no” sometimes doesn’t mean you love the other person any less. It just means you love yourself more.
9 thoughts on “Why “Nice Guys” (and Girls) Finish Last”
Great post – very articulate. 🙂
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Interesting post. I think it all depends on how you define “nice”. Many men have a far more generous definition of that term for themselves than merited in my opinion.
“And if we don’t get the girl we want?
Well, then we either don’t know how to play the game or it’s not really our fault. It’s because we are “a nice guy”, and that’s not what she really wants. After all, nice is boring, and she wants a bad boy. So nice guys finish last.”
For example, the entitled sense that since a nice guy wants to date you that she “should” pick him because he’s nice after all. If she chooses someone else? Well it’s not about her agency but a proving some idea about nice guys finishing last or women playing games or liking bad boys or whatever.
I don’t think you are saying this but I do think a sense of entitlement and lack of a proper emphasis on women’s autonomy underlies the whole idea. What do you think?
the definition of nice is definitely up for debate – and it means different things to different people.
When I think of the negative connotations of a “nice guy”, I see it as I described here – someone who is eager to please others, and as a result is a bit of a yes person. They put the needs of the other person ahead of their own, have issues with assertiveness and have poor boundaries.
I’m sure there are countless other definitions, but that framework kind of works for me based on what I’ve observed.
Often my version of a “nice guy” feels they are doing everything right, and then find themselves confused and hurt when things don’t work out the way they want and/or expect. With women, and with life in general actually.
There can be a sense of entitlement (I did this so you *should* do that in return). But I think these guys frequently are more hurt at the apparent rejection than disrespectful of a woman’s autonomy. They understand that a woman doesn’t *have* to pick them, but wish she would, and would try to do things differently if they only knew what to do.
I figure, be yourself. Believe in yourself. If you have to pretend to be someone else, then you aren’t going to attract someone who wants “you”. And if no one ever wants “you”, well then take a good look in the mirror and try to understand what it is about you that people aren’t interested in (my whole thing about accountability) instead of trying to be what you think they want.
Just be the best version of you, as often as you can. Respect yourself, and have boundaries. Then when/if you do have a relationship, it has a chance to be a healthy one.
The other types are pretty much doomed to failure or unhappiness as soon as they have began.
I agree with you that a subset of “nice guys” just need to work on their self esteem and confidence and relationship skills.
I guess I am thinking of the broader way that we socialize men to think of being a nice guy as a sort of unspoken, unconscious contract. I am nicer than those jerks so you should be attracted to me and be appreciative for all I do in my side of the secret contract the woman didn’t negotiate or sign.
By the way, how many men have you ever met who DON’T think of themselves as nice guys? Even abusers will say they are nice guys. Something wrong with the bell curve math here.
It is a cousin of the same idea that men think that their wives should be happy because they’re good guys who go to work, don’t cheat on them, drink too much, or beat them. The unconscious contract again. She doesn’t deserve the right to have her own thoughts and feelings. Even when she overtly expresses them, he doesn’t believe her because it makes not sense in light of the contact and he feels entitled to the terms of the contract.
Of course this is a broad generalization, but I think it is socialized into men from birth. It’s a hierarchal ranking combined with video game ideas of working hard to win the princess in the end. Game over! One sided contract. When the princess wants to date someone else or divorce you? Anger and disbelief. Sometimes the long awaited accountability happens then. Sometimes not.
I am sympathetic to men, my son is a shy guy who is anxious asking girls on dates. In our society, it is still the man who is usually expected to vulnerably make the first move. I understand why the certainty of a formula would make all that easier. But it’s still really, really dysfunctional for both sides.
I also think the subset of women who prefer bad boys is a female manifestation of the unconscious contract. They are also lacking self esteem and confidence and relationship skills. Females sometimes buy into the unconscious contract of wanting a strong leader who will not require her own accountability.
She adapts to his bad boy ways because the contract says she can win him over with the strength of her love. Beauty and the Beast. But that’s really, really dysfunctional too.
It’s really the same common patterns seen in many dysfunctional marriages of “nice guys and girls”. He thinks he’s nice when he’s not, she adapts too much until she can’t take it anymore and then they get divorced. Both lack relationship skills. Of course there are other patterns but this is a common one that starts in dating or even in preschool.
Here’s an interesting article with some of these themes.
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I had never thought of it like that, but your comment about people considering themselves “nice guys” is probably true. Everyone probably thinks of themselves as a nice guy, even when the evidence sometimes would indicate otherwise.
However I’m even more interested in your thoughts on the “unspoken, unconscious contract”. Isn’t that really our own internal expectations (which likely have been created in us due to our socialization)? If so, do you see these expectations or contract as a bad thing?
I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking and writing on expectations. There seems to be a lot of push back against expectations, and a sense that they are a bad thing. That’s not my stance.
I see expectations as tied to boundaries. I see them as positive and necessary for healthy relationships. At the same time however I distinguish between expectations and entitlement. I may expect something from you, but that doesn’t mean I am entitled to that thing from you. As you said, women (or just the other person) has a mind of their own. They also haven’t negotiated or signed any contract.
Gaps between expectation and reality are sources of disappointment and hurt – and can become sources of anger and resentment (creating a toxic environment). But that STILL doesn’t mean to me that expectations are bad.
Expectations not being met periodically is just part of life. You accept it, and move on. Expectations consistently not being met seems to indicate a deeper issue. And that issue may be that the expectations are broken and need to be adjusted, or it could also mean that the relationship is one that is not working. If you examine your expectations and they seem reasonable (to you), and you think you are being empathetic to the other person then I see nothing wrong with standing by your expectations.
A few posts back in Matt’s blog, there was a discussion on sex. I think that’s a perfect example here, as it tends to be a source of conflict in relationships.
If you are in a committed relationship with someone, is it reasonable to expect sex to be part of that relationship? Sure. Is it reasonable to expect your sex life to meet your criteria of what it “should” look like? Not at all – to me that would be a sense of entitlement. However expecting it to be part of the relationship seems reasonable.
When there are big gaps here, it’s up to the couple to figure them out in a way that is acceptable to both – no one person should be setting the rules and conditions for what their sex life looks like (unless the other person is alright with it). And if they can’t? They either accept that this will always be a conflict point with them, or it becomes an unresolvable item that will damage the relationship and put it at risk of failure.
I love the fact that you used the term unspoken, unconscious contract as I see that as a root of all sorts of relationship problems. We all have expectations of what our life and relationship “should” look like. Often we don’t even know what those expectations are (we only know when they aren’t being met). And we meet someone, who has their own sets of expectations. Usually enough things line up that the couple is alright for the first while. But we don’t do a good enough job of discussing these things and getting them out in the open. We just kind of assume that because there are a lot of areas that match up well, the others will too. And then we find ourselves hurt and disappointed when they don’t.
Communication and dealing with conflict is probably the greatest relationship skill we can learn, but no one teaches us this. So instead we ignore things, while inside we start to grow resentful and disconnect.
I read through the link you provided, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there. It all seems to come down to low emotional intelligence though. I have a lot of interest in avoidance, and passive aggressive behaviours – which to me are hallmarks of emotional immaturity and low emotional intelligence. A buddy of mine has dealt with depression and an anxiety disorder, and sometimes we talk about the mindset he used to have and it’s at once fascinating and disturbing (I posted some of it last year https://thezombieshuffle.com/2015/03/04/the-breakdown-of-self-love/). Like the article you mentioned says, there’s a fine line between acceptable expectation and entitlement, and I think we all sometimes straddle that line – but some people seem to live in their own little universe where everything revolves around them.
You said: “However I’m even more interested in your thoughts on the “unspoken, unconscious contract”. Isn’t that really our own internal expectations (which likely have been created in us due to our socialization)? If so, do you see these expectations or contract as a bad thing?”
Thanks for giving me the chance to swap ideas with you. I think you have some great points about expectations, entitlements and should. These are idea me I am wrestling with to try and figure out what healthy is. I read all sorts if different conflicting things so I’m trying to sort it out.
I agree with you that expectations are often normal and healthy. I like to think of it in terms of behavioral economist Daniel Kahenman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow. My brain does fast thinking most of the time to get through the day efficiently. I expect things to happen based on patterns and previous experiences and societal expectations. Most of the time that works ok.
In your sex example, I expect to have sex when I get married. That is a reasonable expectation based on patterns of normalcy in our society currently. But what happens when the spouse’s behavior or needs don’t line up with my fast thinking?
That’s the real question we are asking. Do I have the ability to engage my slow thinking? The part of my brain that is all about understanding that patterns and expectations are simply first passes at seeing a situation. The real work happens at the slow thinking level.
So many times, we fail because we get rigidly stuck in thinking that my expectations or societal expectations are the final word. That I can logically argue my spouse into agreeing with the rightness of the expectations and they will then magically transform their point of view. That is how I incorrectly approached things for years.
Because it is using a wrong premise. Assuming there is a correct point of view. And the fact is that most of the things that people argue about are just different styles, needs, and preferences. There is no wrong or right answer for most things. It’s important to get the premise right, I sadly got it wrong most of the time.
Taking the sex example again, how much sex is normal? Is it 1,3,or 7 times a week? There are huge variations according to research for frequency of sex in couples with good see lives. There are couples who have very infrequent sex and are happy. The problem becomes when there is a difference in expectations AND when that is combined with unhealthy ways of dealing with the differences.
Seldom will two people have similar libidos over time. It changes for all kinds of reasons, often it will flip back and forth over the years. It’s only a problem if either or both aren’t mature in how they treat each other. Both needs matter equally, the only patterns that matter are the two people involved.
Don’t compare your current marriage to movies or your friends or what you expected. Just work to make it better. Sometimes this is a painful process and requires huge maturity on both sides.
Accepting influence and healthy boundaries. Underlying deep friendship, individual accountability. All of this stuff is the slow thinking. It requires effort and work but most importantly it requires a basic understanding of what the goal is.
Healthy expectations as a starting point, flexibility and accepting influence, healthy boundaries when the spouse will not be flexible and accept influence.
Just rambling a bit here, this is somewhat a work in process for me.
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always love to hear your thoughts on things. And like yourself, many of these ideas are things I am trying to figure out and work through on my own.
I’ve never heard of fast thinking vs. slow thinking before, but from what you describe it sounds a bit like basic scientific theory/research methods. Not that I’m a scientist per se, but in my job the same thinkings is important.
We start with a theory, or belief. Then we look for evidence that will support our theory, and the more evidence we find the more we feel our theory is supported. The problem is when we stop there.
We can’t just look for things that support our theory, we need to also look for negative tests, or things that would disprove it. We want to TRY to break it, so see if it holds up. If it doesn’t, then something is wrong with the theory. But this is actually a good thing, because acknowledging when it’s wrong allows us to refine and improve.
I kind of see the same things play out in relationships. Couples get themselves in trouble when they buy too strongly into thier own thoughts and beliefs, and refuse to see or accept that a different viewpoint can be equally valid.
The question we need to ask ourselves is what’s more important, being right or improving ourselves? I would compare a need to be right, or simply not being open to other viewpoints as like your fast thinking. Trying to improve both individually and as a couple however seems like the slow thinking.
Here’s a quick video that summarizes system 1 (fast thinking) vs system 2 (slow thinking). I agree with you that this has a lot of application for relationships. It is vastly undertakes about.
This is much more important than Mars/Venus gender differences or communication tips because it is about how our brain works in relationships.
There will be gender differences in the fast thinking messages and patterns we have been taught (women are teachers, men are firefighters) and gender differences in slow thinking too (not being taught accepting influence or setting boundaries) but most of that is socialization differences in my view.
For example, the nice guy syndrome we were talkIng about has absorbed messages and has an often than unconscious expectation that the girl he has chosen should pick him as a reward for him being a nice guy and doing nice guy things. Because he has this unconscious expectation, he will often respond with anger when it is not met.
He has to engage his slow thinking to examine this and uncover the unconscious expectations. Otherwise, he will add another pattern to his fast thinking about how girls like bad boys or nice guys finish last. Possibly he will eventually join the red pill men on Reddit.
Or he may begin to feel learned helplessness and think the system is rigged against him and become a self fulfilling prophecy of being rejected as his fast thinking thinks nice guys finish last. The girls fast thinking interprets this lack of self confidence as unattractive for a romantic partner and puts him in the friend zone. Very little of this is conscious slow thinking on either side.
I think this stuff has so much application in marriages. So much of our thoughts around being a wife or husband or mother or father is unconscious fast thinking about messages or models we have seen. It takes a lot of willpower and effort to engage in conscious choices to understand and overcome these fast thinking patterns it is so easy to default to.
On a personal note, this explains to me how my husband and I defaulted into stereotypical patterns around chores despite sharing egalitarian views and my many protests otherwise. I just couldn’t understand it, but i really think in his case there was a lot of unconscious fast thinking involved. I’m sure in my case too.
Because we put both put a lot of energy into slow thinking in parenting, we did much better there. But all that slow thinking depletes the willpower and can make you blind in other areas.
I’d be interested in your thoughts.
Here’s another thing drives me crazy. The proper use of “should”. I had a very difficult time finding an individual therapist who would understand was talking about when I said “should” is a very helpful concept.
As you know “should statements” are one of the 10 basic distorted thoughts in Cognitive Therapy. And of course it can be a problem. But where I find it helpful is in understanding what the proper goal is in treating ourselves and others well.
There are some “shoulds” involved.
I should take care of my children.
I should treat others with respect.
I should take my marriage vows seriously.
I grew up in a kind of generally loving but Orwellian environment. Sometimes basic shoulds were see as optional.
So I developed a strong sense of “shoulds”. It was helpful. It still is helpful to me as part of being mature when everything in my fast brain wants to lose my temper and scream at people. I “should” treat people with respect, so I don’t (most of time anyway 😉
But of course this is a crude tool. And many different interpretations are out there for the meaning of treating people with respect as an example. That I understood but what shocked me was going to individual therapy and being told there are no shoulds. Everything is relative, subjective. Sigh. I just think that is so dysfunctional. Our society now has changed and needs the right kind of shoulds.
Not the stupid kinds like I should be a size 4 or have a successful career to be worthy of love. But the kind of shoulds about basic relationship skills and love. Taking care of each other even when it’s inconvenient.
Our responsibilities to others and ourselves. Those kind of shoulds. We can discuss and debate the details but we “should” at agree there are some healthy shoulds.
I have found Bill Doherty’s point of view so helpful to validate my thoughts. I have given up on finding a therapist who does. They are trained to not agree with this. I think it causes a lot of suffering and stupid divorces and cut offs in family relationships when things get hard.
Here’s a short clip of him talking about values therapy