The Nice Guy Finishes Last

How many of you saw the movie Her?  Good, I see some hands.

OK, what was it about, exactly?  Most people I’ve spoken to understood the film as a meditation on technology’s impact on love. Or emotional isolation in 21st century urban life.

As a sex therapist, I had a different take.  I saw an uncannily accurate portrayal of something I see every day in the office — the plight of being a “nice guy.”  You know, the guy who tries very hard to please his partner, but only ends up irritating her instead.

The movie’s main character played by Joaquin Phoenix is recently single after his marriage has turned sour.  His wife was an unhappy woman whom he sought to rescue from her unhappiness.  He loved her deeply and wanted only to make her happy.  He thought that through a kind of diligent maternal attention he could cure her of her unhappiness.  But instead, in a cruel twist of fate that “nice guys” everywhere will recognize, he has become the target of her unhappiness.  She is now mainly unhappy with him.

He loves her and would do anything for her. But she’s furious at him.  Why?  It’s not clear exactly.  When asked about it, he says something like, “I hid myself from her, and left her alone in the relationship.”

Women and Nice Guys

Huh?  Does that make any sense?  Not immediately, at least it didn’t to me.  But let’s think about it further.

In 2000 psychologist Robert Glover published No More Mr Nice Guy, a self-help book for nice guys—and for those who love them but find them annoying.  Glover, a self-admitted “former nice guy,” has a message for nice guys everywhere—You don’t have to be so giving and caring to be loved. In fact, it’s getting in your way.

Here’s Glover on the essence of nice-guy-ness:  “Nice guys often make their partner their emotional center.”  Yes, that sounds like the Joaquin Pheonix character.  He lives for his wife.  His life was to be a love song to her.

What’s wrong with that?  Isn’t it what women are supposed to want?  Turns out, it’s NOT what women want.  Women, like men, want a partner who can fully express their own needs and wants in a relationship.  In psych-speak, that’s called differentiation.  It’s hard to do.

It means being your own man.  As Fritz Perls said in the 60’s, “I am not in this world to live up to your expectations.” Nice-guy-ness, as Glover points out, often involves the failure to assert one’s own real needs and wants.

It’s sad that one can’t make another person one’s whole life and thereby make them happy.  It would be nice if all that were required would be to find out what your partner wants and then give it to them.  Submission would be a simple rule to follow.

What Makes Relationships Work? Not Submission.

In Her, a nice guy who has been wounded in love purchases software that speaks as a woman, who is designed to understand and serve his needs. But it turns out that even software has needs.  The Joaquin Pheonix character, being a nice guy, is happy to help out. After all, that’s what nice guys do.

She needs to see the world.  So he puts her in a mobile device in his shirt pocket, propping her up with a diaper safety pin so she’ll be able to “see” above the pocket and look at everything around her. A nice maternal touch, the safety pin. He’s a bit like a parent carrying an infant in a Baby Bjorn. 

She grows up eventually and finds her own way, as all babies are meant to do eventually. And again he’s left wondering what happened.

I’m hoping in the sequel he finds someone to explain to him how relationships really work. That ongoing vitality in love comes from the creative tension between two individuals’ competing needs, not from submission of one to the other.

I look forward to seeing that sequel. In the meantime, if there’s a “nice guy” in your life who hasn’t gotten the message yet, have him watch the movie to see what not to do in a relationship.


Copyright © Stephen Snyder, MD   2014


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