This Therapist Is Trying To Cure ‘Nice Guys’
No more Mr. Nice Guy — but what does that mean for women?
I n May 2017, a Reddit user by the name “HelpMePlease” posted a request for advice. He met a 19-year-old woman while working together at their university’s rec center. They had gotten lunch together, and he had given her tours of campus. “We hit it off immediately, and I knew I was in love instantly,” he wrote in the forum. When he asked her out, she said no. But he continued to give the woman gifts, call her, text her, and even follow her to another town, to “show her how much I love her.” She sent him a cease and desist letter.
“What do I do now that she thinks I am a total creep?” HelpMePlease wrote. “I know I have made some mistakes, but I promise I am a nice guy.”
Within a week, the story had been reposted in the subreddit /r/NiceGuys. The forum takes its name from a phenomenon that began to gain prominence in the early 2000s, when feminist websites like Heartless Bitches International published pieces arguing that self-proclaimed “nice guys” aren’t actually nice. Instead, Nice Guys think treating women with a basic level of respect is a bargaining chip that can be exchanged for attention, sex, or a relationship. When Nice Guys don’t get the exchange rate they expect, their behavior can become cruel and even violent.
Fortunately, HelpMePlease’s story didn’t go down that path. In September, he posted again to say that the comments on his post had convinced him to seek therapy, and he now realized he had been “stalking and victimizing that poor girl.”
The update received 33,000 votes and over 2,000 comments expressing surprise and curiosity. Could it actually be possible to treat Nice Guys through therapy?
According to Robert Glover, a therapist with about 25 years of experience, the answer is yes. Glover first identified the symptoms of a disorder he would come to call Nice Guy syndrome in himself.
‘What do I do now that she thinks I am a total creep? I know I have made some mistakes, but I promise I am a nice guy.’
In the 1990s, Glover was working as a marriage counselor when he realized that his own marriage was at the breaking point. His second wife told him he needed to work on his passive-aggressive behavior.
“I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I’m a nice guy. I treat you well…yet you’re never happy, and you never want to have sex,’” Glover explained in a phone call. Glover went to therapy to get better at communicating with his wife. He started to notice his patients expressing the same things he’d felt: I’m a nice guy, so why doesn’t my partner want to have sex with me?
Glover had discovered the pattern of behavior that would soon gain attention in feminist media outlets: men who think that because they act nice, they should get something in exchange. He then set out to help the men he worked with understand and overcome Nice Guy syndrome, work he continues today from his home in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where he is not a licensed therapist.
Glover determined that Nice Guys believe in three “covert contracts” that define their interpersonal relationships: if they’re nice, people should love them (and want to have sex with them); if they meet others’ needs, others should meet their needs; and if they do the right thing, their life should be easy.
“When other people don’t read our minds and meet our needs, or when they don’t like us or want to have sex with us just because we treated them well, what tends to happen for Nice Guys is that builds up a lot of resentment,” Glover explains. Nice Guys try to control the behavior of others with their own. When this doesn’t work, they either become passive-aggressive or hold their anger in until it explodes.
Glover helps Nice Guys manage their own emotions so they don’t feel as much need to manage their partner’s behavior. He teaches men to ask for what they want openly, rather than trying to manipulate someone else into giving it to them through covert contracts.
Where Glover’s therapy gets complicated is in looking at the causes of Nice Guy syndrome, which Glover believes stems from childhood experiences, primarily with women, that made these Nice Guys feel defective in some way. In his own case, Glover says he was negatively influenced by “angry feminism, where women were just lashing out at men, [saying] that basically all men were evil.”
To avoid being called “evil” by women, Glover pivoted in the opposite direction, and, in his words, “tried to be the kind of guy that I thought women would like.” But Glover says Nice Guys, who “tend to seek validation from women,” may need to learn how to “embrace their own masculinity.”
“The main reason that seeking approval from a woman doesn’t accomplish what you want is that your needy traits are ‘feminine’ in nature,” Glover writes on his blog. “The ‘masculine’ is self-validating by through [sic] action.” In Glover’s view, men should be assertive about their emotional and sexual desires to “stay out of the friend zone,” and should avoid feeling fear and anxiety so that women can look to them as a “security system” rather than a “girlfriend with a penis.”
Peter Navratil, a licensed social worker with over 20 years of experience treating domestic violence offenders, says that by fostering these types of stereotypical male behaviors, Glover may be encouraging beliefs that Navratil commonly sees in domestic violence perpetrators. “It’s about the need to win, the need to be right, the need to always be looking good, and the need to be in control,” Navratil says. “What I try to teach in relationships is just the opposite of that.”
Jack Brennick, a licensed mental health counselor who teaches court-mandated classes to men charged with domestic violence offenses, also notes that abusive behavior can be caused by “male entitlement, misogynistic attitudes, and beliefs.”
“Artificial distinctions of what’s ‘man-like’ and what’s ‘woman-like’ are part of what makes abusive behavior more common in men,” Navratil says. “Boys are told to be a man, and that automatically cuts you off to a whole level of learning how to feel and express and communicate and relate.”
Brennick says that conversations intended to address Nice Guy behavior should include these broader discussions of gender power dynamics. He adds that work with abusers “needs to be connected to the women” who are impacted by the abuse.
“In a sense, the men who attend the class are not even the clients,” Brennick says.
That’s quite different from Glover’s self-help model, which positions men as the beneficiaries of their changed thinking patterns. Glover tends to emphasize not how the Nice Guy mindset can harm women, but how it’s ineffective at getting Nice Guys what they want.
‘Artificial distinctions of what’s man-like and what’s woman-like are part of what makes abusive behavior more common in men.’
For example, Glover says he teaches men to stop objectifying women, “not [because] it makes them bad people,” but because “it doesn’t serve them very well” in creating relationships they’ll actually be happy with.
“Beauty is only skin deep, but moody, mean, and bitchy last,” Glover says.
Glover takes pride in the fact that his work seems to make a difference in people’s lives, and he’s trained other licensed mental health professionals about Nice Guy syndrome. His website lists nine other therapists who use his method, which he calls “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” He recently had surgery, and he told me that he’s received hundreds of emails from men thanking him for his work and telling him, “You need to stay alive to keep helping people.”
The popularity of Glover’s work is another way it differs from that of other therapists who work on abusive behavior. Brennick says that almost half of men drop out of the court-mandated program he runs.
Still, Navratil says, the men Glover works with might really need therapy, and as long as Nice Guys work with a therapist who uses evidence-based treatment models, counseling could be effective at addressing their issues. “Treatment is very effective for people who want it,” Navratil says. But he adds, “There’s just a vast number of men who you can see as needing it, and only a very small percentage of men want it.”
Navratil says there isn’t much evidence that involuntary programs create long-term changes in men’s behavior. And for a man who struggles with managing his emotions but won’t voluntarily seek therapy, the other option can be waiting until he’s charged with a crime and sent to a court-mandated program. “It sometimes surprises me that we’re even in business with our pathetic outcomes,” says Brennick.
Navratil believes that going to therapy at all is a big step for some men. He says the idea that “real men’ don’t talk about stuff” can prevent men from seeking therapy. “Sometimes I give men a lot of credit just for walking through my door,” Navratil says. “It takes a lot of courage to come in and talk to a therapist.”
But is walking through the door nearly enough if, as with Glover’s treatment, what they’re taught fails to challenge gendered assumptions about male behavior?