(Note – The following post is written from a heterosexual perspective. I suspect that at least some of the concepts apply to non-heterosexual couples as well. However, because I have only dealt with these concepts in heterosexual couples I have written from that perspective.)
There is a certain pattern I’ve been seeing a lot of lately. It mostly shows up in men but there is a variation that shows up in women, too. It looks something like this. The guy is a nice guy. He is pleasant, helpful, caring. He knows he is nice. Sometimes he’ll even harp on the point, making sure I understand just how hard he works to be nice. He knows he’s nice because people tell him he is. All of the time.
So what’s the problem? His partner says he isn’t nice. She says he is controlling and frustrating. He can’t understand how that can be. He helps around the house, he tries to do what she wants, allowing her to make most choices like where to eat or what movie to watch. And all of her friends tell her how lucky she is to have such a nice guy…so he must be nice, right? For some reason she just can’t see it. She used to, but something changed.
So what is going on? The guy is “nice.” So nice that he is unwilling to ever express his wishes or desires. He puts them second. It doesn’t matter what he wants because he is nice and will do what she wants. That sounds great, doesn’t it? Someone that puts you first and themselves second? And it is…at first.
But here is what happens. Even though he doesn’t express his wishes and desires or create the expectation that they should be met sometimes, he still has them. And time after time after time his being nice fails to result in him getting what he wants. And the truth is part of the motivation for being nice is the expectation that he’ll get treated nicely in return and get the things he wants.
But ironically, being nice with the expectation that he’ll get what he wants in return often doesn’t happen…because being nice by not expressing his wishes means that the other person doesn’t know what he wants! So even though he wants something in return, even just affection, validation or attention, she doesn’t know. Because he is too nice to say it.
So what happens? Often it is this. Nice guy starts getting hurt and frustrated that he isn’t getting his wishes and needs met. Because he is too nice to do it directly, he starts manipulating in subtle ways. It might be saying the right thing but doing something slightly different. It might be acting hurt or frustrated but claiming nothing is wrong. There are tons of ways it can happen. But they all involve “being nice” and never directly stating needs or desires.
And what is her reaction? You may have guessed it. She starts to feel controlled. And she tells him he is controlling. This guy that never chooses where to eat or where to go on vacation or what to do for fun is controlling. It doesn’t make any sense to him.
The situation can even get worse from there. When she has to make all of the decisions it gets tiring. Sometimes we just want someone else to make a decision so we don’t have to. She will say “you pick the restaurant.” But nice guy wants to be nice and says “no, where do you want to go?” Besides, she has told him he is controlling, so if he picks he’s proving her right. But what does she feel? He is controlling because he is controlling who makes the decision!
You can see how this is a downward spiral. Once it starts it can just keep going further down and down. And the solution isn’t very intuitive. He says, “just tell me what to do.” And often she does. But that just repeats the pattern. He is just doing what she wants and not honoring his own needs and desires. And it doesn’t solve the problem, so he says “tell me what else to do.” And she does…or she gets tired of telling because it never solves anything. The downward spiral continues.
Surprisingly, the answer is what seems most counter-intuitive. It is for him to assert himself more. He needs to state his needs and desires and set boundaries related to them. He needs to own his own “stuff.” He needs to be more authentic.
This is frightening to a nice guy. Because if you state your own needs and desires and express them, the other person may not like them. And nice guys think if someone doesn’t like something they did or gets hurt or angry, then nice guy wasn’t nice. But that isn’t true.
There is a big difference from being a jerk and being authentic. There are polite, respectful, kind ways to be authentic and to set boundaries and express desires and expectations. And when those things are done in that way, it is being nice. It doesn’t mean that people may not react badly, because they may. But if you are polite, respectful and authentic then their reaction is on them, not you. You cannot control how other people react, no matter how hard you try. Only they can.
There is another way that being direct and authentic is nicer than being a “nice guy.” It actually gives the other person more power. Think about it. If someone knows what you think, what you want, what you expect, then they have the information they need to choose how to react. When you hide or deceive or obfuscate, they make decisions on partial information. You are expecting them to read your mind. They can’t…and what often happens is they react in a way that you don’t want because they didn’t have all of the necessary information.
Are you a nice guy? Do you know one? A guy that is always doing things for others, honoring their wishes, their desires and putting them ahead? A guy that tries and tries but isn’t really getting what he wants out of life, out of relationships? Maybe it is time to reconsider what it means to be nice.