What's the Matter with "Nice Guys"?

Why don't nice guys succeed with women? The new movie HER might hold some clues.

Posted Feb 10, 2014


Why “Nice Guys” Don’t Make Out Any Better in the Future Than They Do Now.

I looked forward to seeing Her, nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture, for its vision of the future of sex and romance in a world where computers are capable of love and attachment and seem almost human.  

Instead I saw an uncannily accurate portrayal of something quite familiar from my sex therapy practice in the here-and-now. I observed Joaquin Phoenix playing the late 21st Century version of what’s known in our era as “a nice guy”---and it turns out nice guys don’t fare any better in the future than they do today.  

Psychologist Robert Glover wrote the definitive self-help book for nice guys in 2000 with No More Mr Nice Guy—a sort of field guide to the North American nice guy. The Joaquin Phoenix character in Her is fairly representative of the species Glover describes in No More Mr Nice Guy.  

He is a kindly and decent man who is recently separated from his wife. The separation was her idea, and he’s desperately unhappy about it. You see, he loved her deeply. Too deeply. She was his emotional center—an unhappy woman whom he wanted to make happy. But it didn't work, and she's now mostly unhappy with him. She probably would have been unhappy anyway, but now at least she has this nice guy to accept all the blame. Sheesh.

His next love is, yes, an electronic computer operating system—but a late 21st Century version with a personality and feelings. You’d think he’d by now have learned to claim some power in a relationship. Especially since he could just settle any argument with her by hitting the “off” switch or rebooting. But instead, he becomes her human love-slave and gives her everything he has. She enjoys it and then moves on—leaving him alone again. 

What? What is this guy’s problem? Let’s turn to our field guide—Glover’s No More Mr Nice Guy:

 “Nice guys are attracted to people and situations that need fixing.”  Yep.
 "Nice guys often make their partner their emotional center.”  Check.
 “Nice guys are often more comfortable relating to women than to men.”  Hmmm.  Interesting. Yes, the Joaquin Pheonix character in Her does seem to hang around exclusively with women. What’s that about?

According to Glover, nice guys are conflicted about expressing their masculinity. A challenging and intriguing notion, since opinions might differ on what masculinity is, exactly. But he does seem to have some kind of deficit in this department. Gentle and soft-spoken, hidden behind his glasses and mustache, he’s too much yin and not enough yang.  

See related articles:
Wolf Love in the New York Times
What Turns Women on, Really?
Sex Therapist at the Academy Awards:  HER

Psychologist Lori Gottlieb in this week’s New York Times Magazine wrote “Sexless but Equal:  The Egalitarian Marriage Conundrum,” about how egalitarian marriages often end up erotically challenged. Our sexual souls seem instead to want passionate difference.    

Do men in egalitarian marriages have something in common with Glover’s “nice guys?” Is there a reason both kinds of men tend to leave women cold?  

Late 21st Century urban North America in Her is a relatively safe world---much like our own early 21st Century version. There are no immediate day-to-day physical threats to survival. But our instincts were designed for a much more violent and dangerous world. Until recently in human history, it might have been a pretty good idea for a woman to partner with the most aggressive man she could find. Could it be that nice guys and dish-washing husbands leave women cold because they seem . . . harmless?  

Power corrupts, in relationships as well as in politics. A man who loves a woman too much gives her too much power. Better that he should keep some power for himself. 

I guess that’s one more reason a man should never date his computer operating system. Someone with access to all of your files is too likely to feel they have all of you. Eros requires something else—an element of mystery and yes frustration that perhaps only a human being can supply.

Copyright © Stephen Snyder, MD
2014  New York City