Why Women Sometimes Choose Bad Men

I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with an idea in my head that I simply must get up and write down. This is one such time. I was woken up early Wednesday morning after dreaming about a conversation with someone in the wake of the Isla Vista shootings. The person I was speaking to said this to me in my dream:

“But that guy did have a point about how so many women choose to be with jerks who abuse and mistreat them and pass over nice guys to do it. I don’t understand why they do that.”

Gee, I dunno, maybe it’s because we bombard women from the earliest age with messages of inadequacy. Maybe it’s because we take supermodels whose bodies are already unattainable for the overwhelming majority of girls, then airbrush them to make them even more unattainable, sending the message that even Kate Upton or Giselle Bundchen isn’t good enough, that no woman could ever possibly be good enough. Because if we don’t keep them insecure, mind you, they won’t feel the need to buy a neverending series of products that promise to make it all better. We have to break them in order to give them the cure, which is of course the right kind of fashion or cosmetics or perfume or self-help books or a myriad of other products that are sold on the basis of the insecurity we install in them from the day they’re born. And this provides the ground into which manipulative men can later plant the seed of “you’ll never find anyone else if you leave me” and other such ideas. And we wonder why those messages are effective.

(And yes, we do the same thing to men, but male insecurity tends to manifest itself in opposite ways. When men are insecure, they usually try to soothe it by becoming more aggressive, even abusive, by constantly trying to assert their dominance over others. That is why when insecure men and insecure women get together, the result is often very dangerous for the woman.)

Maybe it’s because so many women are abused physically or sexually, either as children or adults, often leaving them with a load of guilt and shame to carry around on top of the insecurity and inadequacy that we saddle them with. We tell them that their only purpose is sexual, that they are only worthy insofar as men find them attractive. We demand that they have sex with us, then we demean them as sluts and whores if they have sex with anyone else.

Yes, women often do get with and stay with jerks, sometimes terribly abusive ones. No one has to tell me that. I have seen it up close and very personal, believe me, and it has caused me extraordinary pain watching people I care about do it. But if that fact makes you get angry at women in general rather than trying to understand the psychological and societal roots of it all, you’re part of the problem and not the solution — no matter how nice a guy you might be.

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  • jeroenmetselaar

    Also although I am sure some people end up in relations that are bad for them I don’t see how that odious little !@# would have been a better choice.

  • wscott

    (And yes, we do the same thing to men, but male insecurity tends to manifest itself in opposite ways. When men are insecure, they usually try to soothe it by becoming more aggressive, even abusive, by constantly trying to assert their dominance over others. That is why when insecure men and insecure women get together, the result is often very dangerous for the woman.)

    I hadn’t thought about that angle of it before. Nicely put.

  • beezlebubby

    To echo jeroenmetselaar, all I notice is that any “nice guy” complaining about the choices women make are uniformly NOT nice guys. They’re petulant, immature, privileged, misogynist bastards. They say, in a nutshell, “Why is she with a monster like him when she could be with a nice guy like me? Stupid bitch.” My answer is to stop whining and make yourself the kind of man that people want to be around. They should try not blaming women for their problems, for starters.

  • http://www.thelosersleague.com theschwa

    “The person I was speaking to said this to me in my dream…”

    ZOMG! That was Jeebus!! Ed is a prophet! Behold the New NEW Testament!!!

  • iknklast

    Another thing that caught my eye was his upset over a beautiful woman being with a short Indian man in a Honda, when he drives a BMW. Driving a BMW only makes you rich; it doesn’t make you nice (or desirable, except to a woman who is more interested in your BMW than in you).

  • iknklast

    Oh, and I forgot to rail at – what’s wrong with short? I used to date a guy who was 2 inches shorter than I am. It’s irrelevant. And Indian? Really? This guy had a lot of hatred swirling around.

  • Abby Normal

    You make a good point Ed. Strong self-esteem is an important component for success in a wide range of endeavors, especially relationships. Too often our culture works to undermine women’s confidence and define their worth first by appearance.

    But I would also question the stereotype that women choose bad men. While it certainly can and does happen, the concept seems to be primarily propagated by frustrated men. “I’m a nice guy; why do women keep going for assholes when I’m right here,” goes the common refrain. It’s a way of blaming women for their own failings. I think it’s important in any discussion of the topic to acknowledge that up front.

    Why do women choose bad men? Mostly they don’t. They just don’t pick you and people kind of suck in general. So it’s easy to pick out flaws in the guys they do and label them as bad.

    (I don’t mean you specifically Ed. I’m speaking generally.)

  • http://cheapsignals.blogspot.com Gretchen

    To echo jeroenmetselaar, all I notice is that any “nice guy” complaining about the choices women make are uniformly NOT nice guys. They’re petulant, immature, privileged, misogynist bastards.

    This is why I often wish that people came with a paper trail. A self-updating dossier which contains everything they’ve written on the internet, especially in the past couple of years, which prospective and current romantic partners can peruse at their leisure.

    Or, alternately, that making sexist statements caused your face break out in blue polka dots. I suppose that would be more expedient.

  • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doench

    There’s another elephant wandering about this room as well. Women in our dog eat dog capitalist society may be making an incredibly rational decision to stick with a guaranteed roof over their and their progeny’s head despite a less than stellar guy in their life.

    And heck, people make mistakes. They see things in someone that aren’t really there. Or the guys changes because his circumstances change. Maybe he wasn’t always a bad guy. I’ve been in the position where someone I really cared about was with someone who was awful for her. It sucked. But she got through it, not because some “nice guy” saved her, but because she had great FRIENDS. She may have even kept us in a zone of some sort.

  • abb3w

    @0 Ed Brayton

    male insecurity tends to manifest itself in opposite ways

    If so, any ideas why? Is it merely a function of blood testosterone level and similar biological factors, or are there other environmental factors shaping how insecurity gets expressed?

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    Maybe part of it is because women like CONFIDENCE, and, in high school and college at least, the “jerks” are the ones who show the most confidence, while the “nice guys” seem (to them at least) uncertain and indecisive.

  • D. C. Sessions

    I’d be a whole lot happier with this explanation but for some personal observations. Interestingly enough, linear comparisons against a fixed factual background.

    My 30th high school reunion was interesting in many ways, not least in that it was pretty much the peak of the “history repeats” wave: the population of us with high-school children (or near it) was at its max. And I heard an awful lot of very pleasant reminiscences from the women I’d gone to high school with. To hear them, I had been one of the greatest guys there.

    Even discounting for polite flattery, this was a bit of a shock because several of them had, back in the day, gone out of their ways to avoid me. Rather disconcerting to watch such a complete historical revision. Or it was until I realized that they were the same ages as their mothers had been 30 years before — and I’d always been more popular with girls’ mothers than with them. Now they were seeing the 18yo me with 50yo mothers’ eyes.

    Which tells me that in at least some cases, women judge the exact same man differently at different times of the women’s lives. Which makes the whole “what does she see in him?” question far less simple than we might think.

  • thascius

    Maybe part of the explanation is that the “jerks” act the way they do is because they CAN. They have something else going for them-be it athletic prowess, money, popularity, etc. that leads women (and other men) to put up with obnoxious behavior from them that they wouldn’t tolerate from most other people.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=153100784 Michael Brew

    I would definitely agree with the assessment that the whole “women love jerks” trope is based on a whole lot of confirmation bias. Everyone is a jerk sometimes, and many times a woman may talk about their significant other when they’re pissed at that person, so anyone in her periph will hear the bad more than the good, and if they desire these women they may also pointedly ignore any good qualities. Further, I know when I was young and hormonal I’d find other guys to be jerks based solely on the fact that they were with a girl I liked. Like, “how dare that guy keep me from being with this girl who so obviously belongs with me,” or even “how dare this guy be better than me in these ways and thus more attractive.” A lot of it is childish envy and justifying it by demonizing the “enemy.” And, of course, it’s very true that many guys who consider themselves “nice” really aren’t. Even if they are, being nice doesn’t entitle you to a person’s love; at most, it may entitle you to a little politeness. It is a bit tragic that in a lot of cases people get trapped in this antisocial cycle in which their social awkwardness causes others to avoid them which causes the socially awkward person to become more awkward and even bitter, which just causes more avoidance. I was trapped in this cycle for awhile until some very patient friends buckled down and helped me get over it, so I sympathize. Still, it’s no one else’s responsibility to deal with these people, except maybe a qualified therapist’s.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    beezlebubby “My answer is to stop whining and make yourself the kind of man that people want to be around.”

    But, even though people love it, don’t cover yourself in honey. All you’ll attract is ants. So I’ve heard.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Michael Brew, I knew your brother, Strange.

  • A Masked Avenger

    Lou Doench, #9:

    Women in our dog eat dog capitalist society may be making an incredibly rational decision to stick with a guaranteed roof over their and their progeny’s head despite a less than stellar guy in their life.

    If capitalism per se were to blame, then you’d see men equally inclined to stay with “less than stellar” women in exchange for a “guaranteed roof over their head.” I think it still comes back to sexism, not capitalism. If women are systematically discriminated against, then fending for oneself is that much harder, and the benefits of partnering with a privileged person (i.e., a man) are that much greater. Which a woman might well weigh against the cost of putting up with his faults and decide it’s worth it.

    In Soviet Russia, sexism was also rampant. Partnering with a yuppie wasn’t an option, but partnering with an asshole who, nevertheless, had political connections and a knack for getting in the shortest line on just the day when the store had bread, would still be a benefit one might weigh against the cost of living with a misogynist asshole.

    Throughout the world and recorded history, it’s generally been the case that survival has been tough, and has been disproportionately tough on women due to concerted action of men. Which sets up the ideal conditions for women to be trapped in bad relationships, since they’re generally seen as preferable to not surviving.

  • sanford

    I partially agree with you about women being insecure about their looks, But if you already are good looking what is there to be a secure about. And I doubt that girls picking out crappy guy is nothing new. And it isn’t like for the last 50 years or even longer that products have been put out to make women look better.

  • A Masked Avenger

    Followup to #17:

    Of course there’s also the “nowhere to run” factor. If the culture fosters abuse of women generally, then leaving a bad relationship carries a substantial risk of ending up somewhere else equally bad. And if survival on one’s own isn’t really an option…

  • DaveL

    This guy was living a posh lifestyle entirely at this parents’ expense, with a BMW, designer clothes, and no responsibilities to speak of, but he still considered himself downtrodden and oppressed by the world because beautiful young women didn’t seek him out to offer him sex.

    With that kind of a track record, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that even if they had, he’d have found something else on which to focus his obsessive hate.

  • neuroguy

    Both Ed’s argument that society is to blame for women’s choices to pass over “nice guys” and the No True Scotsman counter-argument posed by some posters (“Ah yes, well, women never or rarely pass over TRUE nice guys. There must be something wrong with their claim of being ‘nice'”.) contain the hidden assumption that there is, actually, something to criticize about their choices.

    Nice guys are boring, dependent on approval from and therefore easily manipulated by women, and lack passion and drive about pretty much everything in life. THAT’s the problem.

  • otrame

    @12

    As I said on another blog, the problem is the number of adults who still react to their preferred gender the way they did in middle school. This goes for the women who stick with bad guys and the men who think women owe them something (and who aren’t interested in any women who doesn’t look like a model). They don’t know how to have adult relationships.

  • Rentseeker

    @6 iknklast

    One of the other Freethoughtbloggers posted the other key to Elliot Rodger’s hatred: racism. Rodger was half-Asian and unable to pass, so he internalized a lot of racism and blamed his inability to get women on his insufficient whiteness. Rodger hated the Indian man so intensely because a supposed racial and financial inferior was getting the kind of women Rodger deeply desired.

  • mattlantis

    Hey Ed,

    Interesting way to put all this, but consider a few things:

    This phenomenon that you seem to exist is older way older than airbrushing or mass media as we know it. Assume that’s true for the sake of argument and I say something closer to the root of the problem goes like this:

    1) This part is much the same for men and women. The people we’re attracted to and the people who are “good for us” often aren’t the same. “Nice guys are boring” as some have commented.

    Unfortunately exactly what this means isn’t the same for each gender, I’d say in general women often get the worse deal here, we can just accept this as obvious. However, the problem is really compounded for women by something I don’t think you’ve considered.

    2) First, an anecdote.

    I was spending time with several women friends when one of them had just gone through a breakup. Everyone was just drunk enough to well . . . be really honest. What I really remember was a close friend saying, really emphatically how the real tragedy was the length of the relationship. She’d hate to breakup with her boyfriend at the time, because there were “already so many years in it.” Much of the rest of that night was filled with conversation about how unhappy she was in this relationship. The mentioned boyfriend had been unemployed extensively for years, lost his driver’s license after a DUI, and was really vocally unhappy about her attending graduate school, among many other issues.

    Since then I’ve noticed many other such comments from many people, and I’ve realized just how true a certain cliche is that I think is key here: women feel that their success is measured by the lengths of their relationships, men feel their success is measured by the number of relationships. The second point is not quite so true, but maintaining a single long relationship vs many relationships over the same time are very different scenarios for men and women.

    Point one is about how these things start, point two is about why they continue.

    Really, and I’d love an actual psychologists opinion here, when you strip away the emotional guilt and the issues you mentioned, I think it’s often something like cognitive dissonance that gets women and men to stay in bad situations. Complex mental gymnastics are performed where victims convince themselves it’s not so bad, or they can change things, because the stability and length of the relationship plays a huge role in how people, but particularly women, see themselves as successful members of society.

  • Nick Gotts

    Nice guys are boring, dependent on approval from and therefore easily manipulated by women, and lack passion and drive about pretty much everything in life. THAT’s the problem. – neuroguy@21

    Neuroguy, that says a lot more about you than about either women, or nice guys.

  • matty1

    I’m largely of the view that this is a matter of perception on the part of the ‘nice guy’*. The reasons a particular couple are together are specific to them but they are unlikely to be about a third party. That is these things don’t start with the woman thinking “well I don’t wantyou so I’ll have him instead”.

    That is not to say horribly destructive relationships don’t happen, of course they do, but even then they are probably not the result of the woman deciding that she has to stick with it because the alternative must be dating ‘the nice guy’. That kind of thinking makes everyone involved look worse.

    *In my experience people who go out of their way to announce that they are nice generally aren’t.

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie

    My personal experience is that a lot of women thought I was a “nice guy”, so they didn’t want to mess things up by having sex (yeah, I know; stay with me, here) or they saw me a jewel in the rough because I write poetry, know how to cook a decent meal and will do household chores so they would do a “rescue” and try to “fix me”. It never worked and I don’t think it can work–at least with me–because most of us LIKE who we are and not willing to become another person to make someone else happy, ymmv.

    A fairly large minority of the women I’ve dated–and all of those I’ve lived with, had abusive men in their lives prior to meeting me. They liked that I didn’t hit them but some of them really missed the drama and, after a while, they found me to be too boring–not my problem.

  • inquisitiveraven

    Mattlantis@24: What you’re describing sounds like an example of the “Sunk Cost Fallacy.” That’s one of those things that make people double down on bad decisions. “I’ve already put this much time/money/effort/whatever into this; I’ll be damned if I’m going to just give it up.” Now relationships require a lot of work (so I’m told. I don’t have much experience with them), and the way the culture is structure, women often end up doing most of it. This means their sunk costs are higher than their male partners’. Having invested more effort, they are naturally going to be more reluctant to break it off when it goes bad. Does this make any kind of sense?

    It doesn’t cover all cases, of course. There’s a different dynamic in play when someone leaves a relationship and the other party gets violent.

  • inquisitiveraven

    And I meant to provide a link to a definition of “Sunk Cost Fallacy,” and apparently forgot, so here it is.

  • Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    “The person I was speaking to said this to me in my dream…”

    ZOMG! That was Jeebus!! Ed is a prophet! Behold the New NEW Testament!!!

    No, that was FSM, bless his noodly appendage. We know this because in his dream, everything seemed so much bigger, as if Ed himself was the first human in creation.

  • mattlantis

    inquisitiveraven@28: Brilliant way to put it, I agree it’s much the same thing. As you say, of course no generalization covers all cases.

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie

    @28:

    “Sunk Cost Fallacy” may be a factor in the women sticking to abusive men (this is prolly the case in homosexual relationships as well–one of my friends, long ago, was in such a relationship; it was ugly) but I see the abusive person’s thinking headed in the direction of “Scorched earth”. If I can’t have you, I’ll ruin you!”.

  • dingojack

    “But I would also question the stereotype that women choose bad men. While it certainly can and does happen, the concept seems to be primarily propagated by frustrated men.”

    So which is it? A questionable stereotype, a possibility, or a concept primarily propagated by frustrated men?

    Let me tell you what I’ve observed. Women certainly do get into relationships with arseholes. I’ve seen it happen again, and again. And they certainly don’t get into relationships with boring, dependable, nice guys*.

    (There is also the ‘renovator’ factor in play as well. She thinks she can change him into an exciting, romantic bad-boy, a fusion of Heathcliff and Prince Charming, but of course it’s not possible. Arseholes don’t learn by getting exactly what they want, and getting what they want is what made them into arseholes).

    “‘I’m a nice guy; why do women keep going for assholes when I’m right here,’ goes the common refrain. It’s a way of blaming women for their own failings. I think it’s important in any discussion of the topic to acknowledge that up front.”

    So nice guys just have to be arseholes, the possibility that they’re actually nice guys is exactly zero is it? Is it possible that the ‘common refrain’ has got something to do with observation, or is that impossible as well? Who exactly is blaming a whole class of people in order to bolster their theory here?

    “Why do women choose bad men? Mostly they don’t. They just don’t pick you and people kind of suck in general. So it’s easy to pick out flaws in the guys they do and label them as bad”.

    So domestic abuse, even murder of one partner by another never happens? It’s just nice guys being whiny and insecure. Yeah right.

    Dingo

    ——–

    * ‘Nice guys’ are just that, if you mean arseholes say so, don’t play weasel games with words.

    There is some studies that suggest that women prefer strong handsome, high testosterone men (who are more likely to an arsehole) to have sex with, but for long term relationships (especially involving children) it’s the nice guys who are preferred.

  • lorn

    I suspect that mentioning abuse with this choice illuminates it a bait. Note that it has been repeatedly shown that abused children, when given a choice between abusing and non-abusing parents, tend to move toward the abuser. Abusers tend to be emotional roller coaster rides. It is all bright colors with few pastels. Doing what they want usually gets you rewards, failing this gets you beat, raped, deeply hurt. Consider this from the child’s perspective; it is simple conditioning.

    Abusers, even though most have no psychological training or understanding, often have a tacit understanding of this simple and ruthless system of reward and punishment used as a method of control. Those under this control tend to talk about the positive side being they they always know where they stand and what they can do to avoid consequences. The lack of free will is more or less a problem. It is not uncommon for people who have been emotionally traumatized to feel more secure in the bright-line world of a manipulative abuser. Only later, as the control is exerted on ever smaller issues, does the person object, and by that time they find out that they are locked in.

    The average person is a mix of subtle messages and even after being near a person for years you might not have a concrete understanding of how they feel about you. With most people attachments are provisional and contingent. Abusers tend to have an exaggerated behavioral vocabulary. Affection is expressed passionately with lavish abandon. Displeasure is expressed equally passionately. The relationship is an adrenaline fueled thrill ride that plays on the tendency toward addiction.

    It is the nature of addiction that once you tune yourself to strong stimulants and pain it is hard to appreciate the world of grays and pastels where most people live. It is hard to get enthralled by a boyfriend’s second-hand concern that he might not have entirely pleased his boss after dealing with an abuser who expressed his displeasure by pistol-whipping people instead of issuing left-handed compliments evaluations. A well balance boyfriend is neither sweet nor sour enough to compete with an abuser.

  • dingojack

    lorn – your post reminded me of:

    He looked up with a tired smile. “Maybe I can quit drinking one of these days. They all say that, don’t they?”

    “It takes about three years.”

    “Three years?” He looked shocked.

    “Usually it does. It’s a different world. You have to get used to a paler set of colors, a quieter lot of sounds. You have to allow for relapses. All the people you used to know well will get to be just a little strange. You won’t even like most of them, and they won’t like you too well.”

    “That wouldn’t be much of a change,” he said.

    The Long Goodbye. Raymond Chandler.

    Dingo