Tag Archives: psychology

Nice Guy Anti-FAQ

“Nice Guy” is a pejorative label used almost exclusively to make fun of men who express frustration at the “unfairness” of the romantic world for good, kind-hearted guys. It comes from the saying “Nice guys finish last,” and many have attempted to defend the perspective and insist that the frustrations and beliefs at its core are genuine reflections of reality.

As someone who struggled with these sorts of thoughts in high school (classic story of self-believed nice guy in unrequited love with a girl whose boyfriend seemed to be mistreating her) but then quickly outgrew it (remained friends with girl through her breakup with first boyfriend and finding actually nice new boyfriend), I view the debate surrounding the worldview and its components with a mix of frustration and sympathy. So I thought I’d write this to help clear the air a bit, and hopefully convince some Nice Guys that their beliefs are largely the result of biased perspectives and limited information, so that they can also grow past them.

(Note that girls can be “Nice Guys” too. Plenty of girls have found themselves to be essentially invisible to guys romantically, despite being nice and caring and giving them a shoulder to cry on as the guys pined after other (often less nice) girls.  This post is going to keep the genders static for simplicity, but most of it can be applied to the reverse situation as well.)

0. What is a Nice Guy?

1. Why Do Girls Date “Assholes”?

2. Why Do Girls Claim to Like Nice Guys?

3. Why Do Girls Complain to Nice Friends?

4. Why Bother Risking the “Friendzone”?

5. Why Are Nice Guys Mocked?

6. Why Should I Believe Any of This?

0. What is a Nice Guy?

Everyone’s going to have different definitions of this, but the ones I find most useful/true tend to use some combination of the following tenets:

1) A guy who believes that being kind, polite, or caring are overall detrimental traits for dating.

2) A guy who believes that the things women claim to care about romantically (like being treated well) are not what they actually care about.

3) A guy who believes that women complaining about their dating life to nice male friends who want to date them are being hypocritical.

4) A guy who believes that being just friends with girls they are attracted to is either impossible, or too painful to be worth having them in their life (fear of the “Friend Zone”)

Additional tenets I often see attributed to Nice Guys that I don’t think are necessary to be one:

5) A guy who believes being friendly and spending money on girls obligates them to sex.

6) A guy who thinks women are only valuable for sex.

I only ever briefly held beliefs 1-2, and knew plenty of others who held 3-4 as well, but I don’t believe 5-6 are “core” parts to being a Nice Guy, and think the majority of the hate/disgust people have toward Nice Guys usually focus on their expressions of 5-6.

Explaining why 5-6 are harmful and obviously wrong beliefs is beyond the scope of this FAQ, and hopefully not necessary to most reading it. However, some combination of 1-4 are somewhat more understandable beliefs that are often the result of biases (sample, confirmation, and others) and pain/frustration/loneliness. Since 5-6 are the beliefs that cause the most harm to others, they’re the ones that tend to get the most attention, but when people assume that anyone who believes in 1-4 also believes 5-6, that makes conversations around the topic of “Nice Guys” hard to navigate.

1. Isn’t Tenet 1 true? I know plenty of girls who date assholes, and lots of them won’t date their nice male friends!

So there are two separate beliefs that combine to form the first tenet.

First, yes, you know plenty of girls who date “assholes.” Most people do. I’ve also heard girls talk about guys who date “bitches.” And guys who date assholes and girls who date bitches. Simple truth is, shitty people exist of all genders, and they are capable of finding someone to date them.

Sometimes the person they date is similarly shitty. But sometimes the sweetest, kindest people you know also date people who treat them poorly, or treat others poorly. Maybe because they don’t see how shitty they are, or they’re dependent on them in some way, or they have amazing sex, or because they don’t have the self-esteem to think they deserve better, or because they hope their SO will change, or because they’re afraid of being alone, or internalized societal messages about needing a “protector” (which can be confused for aggressive jealousy), and so on.  People stay in relationships for a lot of reasons, but there are plenty of people who break up with shitty boyfriends and girlfriends too.

So let’s be clear: if someone ever told you that people only date nice people, they misinformed you. At best they were overly optimistic. At worst they probably just wanted to encourage you to be nice. It was probably your mother. Try not to hold it against them.

But just because a rule you were taught turns out not to be true doesn’t mean the opposite is true.

If Nice Guys just believed that being nice isn’t a positive aspect for dating, that would be one thing. Still wrong, but less wrong. To think it’s actually a detriment requires a second data point that seems to support this belief: that these girls have nice male friends, but they won’t date them instead of the assholes.

So, “some girls date assholes while not dating their nice friends instead” becomes “being nice is a detriment to dating.” It’s a leap in logic, but at least you could see why someone who only focused on these two bits of data would conclude that… especially if the nice guy is observing examples of niceness “losing.” An example of this is if a nice guy asks a girl out, gets a “no,” and accepts that, then sees another guy get a “no,” keep asking, and eventually gets a “yes.”

But again, it’s due to an artificial rule: the belief that being nice is the most important feature, translating to thinking that if you don’t choose the nicest person to date, then you must not care about niceness.

But “Nice” is not all you need to date someone. I wouldn’t even say it’s much of a positive. If I’m being brutally honest, if you consider “nice” to be one of your best features, you’re not saying much about yourself. Most people looking for a partner to go through life with consider “nice” to be a baseline attribute. Some combination of mutual attraction, interests, values, humor, and more are all higher on the list of what “matters” for most people. Again, not because niceness doesn’t matter, but because anyone not nice is often filtered out fairly quickly.

But again, Nice Guys who believe Tenet 1 don’t just think “Niceness isn’t the most important thing,” which is true. They believe it’s completely irrelevant at best, and a detriment otherwise.

Guys who believe that women who won’t date their nice friends must not care about niceness have only to ask themselves the same question: would I date a nice girl who I don’t find interesting or attractive?

Any guy reading this who says yes: think long and hard about every female friend and acquaintance you have and have ever had, every single one that was at all nice to you, and ask yourself if you’d really date them all just because they showed an interest in dating you.

Not just go on a date with them. Not just have sex with them a few times. I mean commit to a relationship, say at least a few months.

If that seems unfair, remember that not everyone has the same priorities as you. Assuming that girls should be willing to just “give a guy a chance” despite not being interested in him romantically is assuming that the girl is interested in casually dating someone she doesn’t see a future with. And any guy who asserts that girls should do that anyway, “just in case,” is just setting himself and his peers up for heartbreak.

Some guys will still say, yes, they would definitely date a nice girl who expressed an interest in them no matter what other factors about that person are true, and will believe they mean it. And for some this will be true.

To those people, I say kudos! To you, niceness is the most important factor for dating. That’s great!  

But not everyone is like that. To plenty of people, it’s just not the most important factor, and they can no more force themselves to prioritize niceness above all other traits than you could force yourself to prioritize something else in who you’re attracted to.

In any case, even conceding that niceness isn’t the most important factor for dating for most people, that still doesn’t prove that niceness is a detriment for dating.

For that to be true, women need to actively turn away from niceness. They need to see two guys, equal in every way, but one is nice and one isn’t, and say “I’d prefer the one that treats me poorly, please.”

Again: I’m not saying this isn’t possible. People are weird. Some people get off on degradation, and others just don’t trust someone who isn’t as selfish as they are.

But if it’s your default assumption for how “most” people think and feel, or how women think and feel distinct from how men think and feel, then it’s probably worth unpacking what you think “niceness” even is. Not everyone agrees on it; on one extreme end, some guys see the disgust people have for macho-male sexuality and catcalls and unsolicited dickpics, and internalize “niceness” as not ever showing any romantic interest for fear of being “creepy.” On the opposite extreme, some people think being nice means being a doormat, having no boundaries, accepting anything other people do to you and making any sacrifice to fulfill even the smallest of gestures for the person you like.

Finding the balance between being confident in yourself and considerate of the people around you isn’t always easy, but studies show that both often affect the perceived attractiveness of potential partners.

2. If Tenet 2 isn’t true, why do women say they care about guys who are polite and nice caring, but date guys who treat them so poorly?

Again, some women do this, yes. As for why, the short answer to this is that people are complicated, and don’t always know what they want… but to be clear, deciding that you know better than they do what they want is the trap that many Nice Guys (and just generally unpleasant people) fall into.

The longer answer has to do with expectations versus reality.

People tend to have an ideal image of what their romantic partner would be like: attractive, romantic, funny, competent, generous, educated, etc. A lot of this is informed by things people are told are important by their parents, or peer group, or popular culture, and I can’t emphasize enough how damaging romantic movies are here. Most people are told at some point that porn is an unrealistic portrayal of sex, but it’s less commonly explained how misleading “romance” movies are in portraying healthy relationships. Hell, in The Notebook the couple goes out together for the first time because the protagonist threatens to kill himself in front of the girl if she doesn’t agree to go on a date with him… while she’s already on a date with someone else. 

So yeah, some people end up with very confused ideas of what healthy, stable attraction and love look like, or what kind of attributes to look for in a partner.

But however they come by them, people ultimately form an ideal set of attributes that they will explicitly think or say they want. Some are generally applicable, others are more specific, like “Went to an Ivy League school” or “Plays an instrument,” but far less common are ones like “Went to Harvard,” or “Plays piano.”

Then, as they meet people who satisfy enough of their ideals to date, they make compromises. It’s okay that they’re not into the traditional romantic stuff. Or, it’s okay that they don’t give to charity. As they continue to date, there are often other things they didn’t expect they’d care about, and learn to appreciate. They get comfortable dating them. They know each other, have shared habits and friends and maybe even a shared apartment. Eventually they might even fall in love.

Maybe some time passes and the guy lets himself go a bit. Less focus on his appearance, gaining some weight. Or the girl spends less time studying or working, and lowers her aspirations. Or simple time changes their perception: his humor, at first unique and witty, now seems cynical or repetitive. Her competence at her job, at first impressive, now seems middling at best.

But if they love each other, they keep dating anyway. One or two things slipping a bit aren’t usually enough to break a relationship. Hell, even everything slipping a bit usually isn’t enough. Once people fall in love, it tends to take a long, steady decline in multiple areas for sufficient will to arise to change their pattern.

So here’s the thing: “niceness” is one of those areas.

Maybe the guy wasn’t really that nice to begin with, but they pretended. Forced himself to go to family events, held back criticisms of her, stopped himself from yelling at the waiter who got his order wrong, went out of his way to do nice things on all the major holidays, took her on dates because it was expected.

Or maybe things just changed. He doesn’t want to see her family as often anymore because he’s gotten to know them and doesn’t particularly like them, or vice versa. He doesn’t really care how her day at work was anymore because he finds her talking about it repetitive and trivial. He gets angry when she buys something expensive without talking about it first because now they have shared accounts.

If she saw these behaviors at the start of their relationship, she might not have gone on a second or third date. But once they’ve been dating for months or years, once love is in the picture and they live together and have a mutual friends and pets and even have kids together, it gets harder and harder to justify breaking things off and upending their lives and being single again, just because he’s not as “nice” as she’d like.

This isn’t just a story. This sort of thing happens all the time. I see it among couples that come in for counseling, know people who complain about it as a growing irritation they have for their SO. Unfortunately, it can even go on past the point of just not “being nice” to verbal or physical abuse. Sometimes people take years to leave a relationship that’s long since become toxic.

So, are girls lying if they say they like nice guys, even though they’re dating someone not all that nice?

No. But “I like nice guys” or “I want to date nice guys” isn’t the same thing as “I won’t date someone if they aren’t nice,” any more than “I like funny girls” isn’t the same thing as “I won’t date an unfunny girl.”   For some people it does mean that, but even then, people compromise on their ideals all the time… especially for love.

And if you’re thinking “But what about girls who date guys even though they’re an asshole right away?” then you’re forgetting the first part of all this: people are complicated. Some think they can make them better people through dating them. Others have low self-esteem and don’t feel like they deserve people to be nice to them all the time: they’re just grateful that the boy is nice to them some of the time.

And ultimately, some really don’t care all that much about niceness. If these people say they do, they’re lying, either to themselves or others. It happens.

But that doesn’t mean all or even most girls are that way.

3. Okay but Tenet 3 is obviously true. Girls complain about their boyfriends to their nicer male friends all the time. Don’t they know they’re being hypocritical?

Let’s say a girl complains about how her boyfriend ruined their dinner when he tried to make it, and the friend she’s talking to is a great cook. Is that hypocritical?

Let’s say she complains about him not applying to a better job he said he would, to a friend who’s successful in their profession. Is that hypocritical?

If someone suggested that a girl should break up with her boyfriend because he’s a bad cook, and date the guy who’s a great cook instead, they’d be dismissed as ridiculous. But many seem to take it for granted that, if a girl is unhappy with her boyfriend’s not getting her a great gift on her birthday, or dismissing her interest to see a movie together, or not being nice to her family, everything else about him shouldn’t matter.

Don’t get me wrong: I think kindness should be valued far above cooking skill or professional aspiration. But it seems apparent that not everyone feels that way. And even if they do, as explained above, most girls who say they like niceness and kindness aren’t lying just because their boyfriends aren’t always as nice or kind as their male friends might be.

There are just other factors that are apparently strong enough to make them stay in the relationship. People complain about their SO to friends all the time. When a girl complains about lack of niceness to a nice friend, whether that nice friend wants to date her doesn’t change what she wants, and isn’t hypocritical.

Also, it needs to be said that if you’re a nice male friend of a girl you’re attracted to, and you think her boyfriend isn’t good enough for her and you would treat her much better, you should at least consider that you might be affected by some bias. Not just the “obviously I’m a better person than someone I have reason to dislike” bias, I mean things like confirmation and sample bias too. Some people are more likely to complain about their SOs to friends than talk about how great they are. But just because you’re only hearing about the negative things doesn’t mean that’s all there is.

Of course, if a girl knows her male friend wants to date her, talking to him about her boyfriend is probably not the most tactful thing to do. But that’s why it’s important for people to have mature discussions about boundaries if certain things bother them.

4. Why bother? Tenet 4 isn’t about objective facts, it’s about feelings, and if there are unrequited romantic feelings, isn’t that friendship just going to be painful and pointless?

This question could take a whole book to answer thoroughly (or at least it did when I tried), but the short answer to this is “it depends on the people involved.”

Friendship is great. Ideally, everyone should be open to more friendship. But friendship can come with costs. To end a friendship is basically saying “I don’t value what you bring me enough to justify what you cost me.” Which you should be able to say, especially if they’re abusive or shitty friends.

But sometimes what a relationship costs you is not always someone’s fault.

Unrequited love sucks. Really, really sucks. Comparing it to the loss of a loved one isn’t quite right, but it’s not far off either. It’s a whole stew of terrible feelings all mixed into one ongoing emotional torture: desperate hope, crushing loneliness, acidic jealousy, etc. It eats at your self-esteem, your self-worth. It sucks the joy out of things, concentrates them all in one place.

To get through that, to endure it, for the sake of a friendship is perhaps more than anyone should be expected to do. But I do encourage people to at least try to do it, because I’ve done it twice, and I’m glad I did both times. It helped me grow as a person and left me with two (or more, if counting their spouses) great lifelong friendships. I encourage others in the hopes they can benefit from them and keep their friendships too.

But I don’t judge someone for deciding not to put themselves through that. Because maybe it’s just not true for everyone, or every situation: maybe for some it’s a never-ending spiral of darkness.

But that’s unrequited love. If you like someone, have a crush on them, are attracted to them, or pretty much any feeling that basically amounts to “I would like to date this person, they make me feel good and warm and happy,” but they just want to be friends? It’s really hard to understand why that friendship would be “pointless” just because it never evolves into a relationship. If you’re heterosexual, and your best same gender friend admitted to attraction to you, you would probably be really badly hurt if after saying you don’t share their feelings they said “Whelp, guess this friendship is all worthless then if we’re never going to have sex, bye forever.” 

So tenet 4 really comes down to the two individuals. For example, someone shouldn’t stay in a relationship where they’re being strung along, or where the other person is being insensitive to their feelings for them. This is where mature conversations need to be had: if you’ve never admitted how you feel and can’t bring yourself to say “Please don’t tell me about that guy you hooked up with last night, I have feelings for you and hearing about that feels like a stab to the gut,” or a less vulnerable version like “I’m still sorting out my feelings for you and things like this make it harder.” Otherwise it’s unfair to expect them to know better.

Ultimately, no one should feel obligated to stay in a friendship they don’t want to continue, for whatever reason. Where it becomes a problem is when, rather than a guy admitting that he ends his friendships with girls because he doesn’t want to deal with the negative emotions that are stirred up by them dating others, he blames the girl for not choosing to date him.  

So yes, Tenet 4 is true… for most people most of the time. But it’s not an absolute, and without Tenets 1-3, it’s far less harmful. What causes Nice Guys to get flak for the belief is the way it turns to blaming women.

5. Why are Nice Guys mocked by women/men?

Again, hopefully I don’t have to explain why Tenets 5 and 6 are wrong and get judged poorly by others here. There’s no definition of “nice” that covers treating people like sex dispensers or believing they owe you things they never agreed to. 

But there are a number of common threads I see in criticisms of Nice Guys that relate to Tenets 1-4, and now that I went over them a bit, I want to address why they elicit the reactions they do from others.

Women in general tend to dislike Nice Guys because their beliefs stereotype women and undermine their agency: Tenets 1-2 amount to “girls don’t like nice guys and if they say they do they’re wrong or lying.” Of course there are girls who like “bad boys,” and some who currently don’t may have done so when they were younger, but treating “girls prefer assholes” as a rule of dating makes women out to be either too dumb to understand themselves (the way the speaker can supposedly so clearly see through them) or too insincere to tell guys what they really want.

This is the equivalent of women saying that men “only care about looks.” Sure, it’s true for some men, even many men. But there are plenty of guys who genuinely care about their partners for more than just their looks, but who get irritated at women for assuming guys only care about sex.

Women tend to dislike Tenets 3 and 4 because they essentially make women out to be callous manipulators who go around breaking nice guys’ hearts for sport. Even if no malice is assigned to them by the guys, a lot of girls know first-hand how painful it is to have good friends cut them off just because the girl doesn’t want to date the guy, which is rarely acknowledged by the guys who are so focused on their own pain. 

Even if the guy wants more than sex, and wants an actual romantic relationship, the distinction between friends and dating often comes down to flirtation and sex first, which means women have to deal with being “Relationship Zoned,” and only treated as worth friendship if it will lead to something more.  Any guy who doesn’t think it sucks to meet someone and become friends with them only to get the cold shoulder as soon as they find out you have an SO needs to practice his empathy. When it happens constantly, some women get understandably bitter.

Generally, men and women feel safe acknowledging that people shouldn’t feel forced to stay in friendships if they don’t want to. Most agree that even if it sucks, it’s no one’s fault if a guy likes a girl who doesn’t like him back, and staying friends with the girl is too painful. Again, what reliably brings out the mockery and anger is when Nice Guys make out girls to be the bad guys for not being able to force themselves to like someone, or not giving their Nice Guy friend “a chance.” Some people feel okay with going on dates in an exploratory way, and might be willing to do so; others are afraid it will change the friendship, as it often can. 

Also, rejecting guys can be scary. No matter how nice someone seems, it’s always a risk for women, and even if the guy doesn’t start insulting them or physically attacking them, it could lead to the guy cross-examining them about what “went wrong” or asking for another chance. For most people it’s just easier to not open that door.

Men who dislike Nice Guys tend to fall into two camps. The first generally disagrees with their beliefs, and finds them immature or sexist… in other words, not actually “nice.” They also might be guys who are, you know, nice and sweet and kind too… but have girlfriends, and so are living proof that “girls only date assholes” is just not true. So the perpetuation of the “nice guys finish last” myth kind of strikes a lot of guys as implicitly insulting, as if to say that they must not be as nice as all the single guys who want to date their girlfriends. 

On top of that, guys who see Nice Guys complaining about how being nice doesn’t get them girlfriends tend to think that they’re only in it for sex/romance, and don’t actually care about the girls as people, so they find them somewhat hypocritical.

Another type of men who mock Nice Guys generally agree with their beliefs, but mock their decision to “stay nice” and be “beta” while encouraging them to abandon niceness. These tend to be advocates of Pick Up Artist communities who try to “game” women into sex, or Red Pillers who believe that women are biologically programmed to only care about looks and bank accounts, and insist that Nice Guys need to wake up to “reality” and embrace their (often harmful) definition of masculinity or gender relationships rather than whining about how unfair it all is.

The latter group, by the way, is a mixed bag in terms of value to guys. A lot of what they preach is basic positive stuff that everyone could benefit from: Get fit. Develop hobbies and interests. Have more confidence. Don’t put people on pedestals. These are all good pieces of advice to guys or girls who are romantically frustrated. The problem comes in when they sell this advice (which, again, is very basic and they did not invent) alongside suggestions for predatory dating practices, representations of females as biologically driven gold-diggers incapable of love, and promotion of one-size-fits-all ideals of good relationships.

And finally, there are just some people who mock “Nice Guys” because they’re mean people who like to make fun of others, or because they have bad listening skills/reading comprehension and see all expressions of loneliness as  entitlement to others’ affection, even if none of the 6 tenets were invoked. Sorry about those people. They suck.

6. So now what? I’ve got these beliefs that you say aren’t true, I’m just supposed to believe you over my experiences?

I don’t expect anyone to believe a stranger on the internet, but I hope I can help people understand why even first-hand experiences can lead us to false beliefs if they’re not carefully examined.

Humans are pattern-seeking creatures. A number of our mental biases come from the mind’s tendency to take a subset of information and experiences, and turn them into a general rule. This is useful when you’re trying to survive in the wilderness, and seeing a couple people die after eating a spotted mushroom or wandering into the forest at night leads you to believe that “those mushrooms are poisonous” and “that forest is full of predators.”

Some of these beliefs turn out to be true, others false, but humans aren’t just pattern-seeking, we’re also risk-averse. Whether true or false, the beliefs we form off of anecdotal evidence are more likely to be be stubborn about updating if they help us avoid or minimize risk of being hurt.

So let’s look at how some romantic stereotypes form:

“Girls like to play hard-to-get” or “Girls find you more attractive when you aren’t seeking them.”

There’s a core element of truth in both of these: namely, desperation tends to be unattractive. Some people fall for each other immediately, but for people who take time to slowly warm up in their attraction, coming off “too strong” is definitely a negative. But they’re also somewhat contradictory.

So here’s a thing that happens sometimes which might cause those beliefs:

Alice is friends with Mike. Mike likes Alice, and wants to be more than friends. He makes some subtle hints, but Alice misses all of them, too caught up in her attraction with John. A year later, John is with someone else and Alice has begun to see Mike as more than a friend. Mike, however, has already given up on Alice, and is interested in someone else. When Alice brings up her attraction to Mike, he becomes upset that she “only likes him now that he’s not interested in her.”

Alice is hurt: she genuinely didn’t know Mike used to like her. Mike is hurt: he thinks she’s just playing with his emotions. In the best case scenarios, their friendship survives, and maybe Mike still feels enough for her to give the relationship a try. But if he really has moved on, he might become bitter about the year of unrequited feelings he had. He might be more likely to believe that “women like to play hard to get.”

Another thing that might happen is that women who have been hurt before, and/or heard lots of stories of guys who seem interested at first eventually get bored of their partner and move on, only feel safe with someone who expresses constant, passionate interest, such that they inadvertently (or even purposefully) turn dating into a competition for their affection. Even worse, many people advise women not to ever be the one to call or text first, in order to filter for guys who are genuinely excited about you, rather than a convenient person to sex zone (a common female concern , likely as common as the nice guy concern).  It’s also more of a risk for women to be “too interested” first, as this might attract guys who will prey on their interest to use them; the way some guys worry about girls taking advantage of them for their money, most women worry about guys taking advantage of them for sex.

“Girls can have any guy they want, while guys have to jump through hoops to get a girl’s attention!”

There is, again, a core of truth in this, if you ignore a lot of factors that I’ll get to in a minute: As almost anyone who’s ever been on a dating site can attest to, even controlling for attractiveness, men and women have very different experiences. A reasonably attractive woman’s week-to-week experience on a dating site is essentially sorting through messages to find the few articulate, interesting, and/or amusing ones from guys they find attractive. Even a reasonably attractive guy’s day-to-day experience is messaging a dozen women and hoping one of them responds.

Some guys take this as definitive proof that dating is easier for women. I know these are often separate people from those that complain about being labeled as “only after sex,” but it’s still a point worth addressing. Many will refer to popular videos that show a guy going around asking random women on the street for sex and getting no positive responses, while a woman doing the same thing gets plenty.

And if sex is all that guys and girls care about, then it’s true: girls can get sex much easier than guys can.

But there’s a mismatch of expectations and standards here. The average man’s starting standard for “enjoyable sex” is far lower than the average woman’s. A healthy, sober guy will reach orgasm almost every time they have sex. But even though a girl’s enjoyment of sex doesn’t require orgasm, even if it’s not a goal, the sex can still be far less enjoyable for a wider variety of reasons.

(Research suggests that, on average, women are more sexually aroused by stimuli that include “mood” rather than men, who tend to be more easily stimulated by the merely physical or visual.)

Most guys who believe that women can get sex whenever they want fail to consider that women are far less likely to want sex whenever guys want. That’s not just a remark about sex drive, by the way: there are plenty of women who have higher libido than men. The point is that to find sex with a stranger or even new acquaintance desirable, even an attractive stranger/acquaintance, tends to be harder for women. Even if we ignore societal pressures against being a “slut,” even if we ignore the various different physical risks to women, they still can’t know whether the man is even skilled or generous enough in bed for the women to enjoy the experience.

It’s kind of like giving someone a Lifetime Pass to a particular movie theatre that plays movies at random, and mostly only gory horror movies, with a low chance of playing something else. But not everyone enjoys horror movies. In fact some find them, well, horrifying.  

And for guys who love almost all movies, including gory horror movies, to look around and see women getting free movie tickets seems pretty unfair. It’s also hard to always see the strings attached: or rather, to see how often what you think are gestures of niceness and friendliness turn out to be strings. To paraphrase Chris Rock, encountering “Wanna grab some lunch? How ‘bout some dick?” and “Wanna see a movie? Wanna see my dick too?” almost every time a guy interacts with you can be exhausting, frustrating, and downright dehumanizing when one gets to the point where they have to constantly think about whether people are being friendly with them to just get some sex.

To simplify, a lot of guys imagine women being able to just walk into a video store, peruse the aisles, and walk out with the high quality movie of the exact genre they want. The reality is more like being constantly barraged with DVDs of random movies in varying quality. Even if such a service were available to them, they have to want what’s on offer to enjoy it.

So even the attractive girls on dating sites who don’t want a short term relationship, or don’t want to date someone who’s more interested in sex than in finding an interest they both share and can talk about, or actually want a romantic relationship with someone they can form a connection with… Their inboxes might as well be empty most days too.

To reiterate, I’m not saying it’s not easier for women to get sex, or even to find a relationship. I’m saying it’s not easier for women to be happy.

You can’t act like women don’t like the attention. I know a girl who’s leading three guys on at the same time, makes them pay for everything, and still complains about not being able to find a “nice guy!”

Yep, I believe it. I’ve known women who went from one relationship to another, cheating constantly and leeching off their boyfriends. I’ve also known guys who spent their entire relationship broke and jobless, living off their girlfriends’ love for years while doing drugs and being abusive all the while.

Selfish people exist. Toxic people exist. See above about why people date others who treat them poorly.

The point of this isn’t to say that these situations don’t happen: it’s to show how judging a gender by its worst members is, well, the definition of prejudice. Saying “Girls don’t like nice guys” or “Girls like getting attention” is no different from saying “Guys just care about sex” or “Guys don’t date to marry, they just marry whoever they’re with when they’re ready to settle down.”

There are too many arguments that essentially boil down to “guys and girls are just different!” by people who are not psychologists, let alone neurologists or evolutionary psychologists, and when you look for sources what you find tend to be dating manifestos or gender philosophies masquerading as science from decades ago.

This happens on the extreme end of the female side as well, whether it’s from cynical older women warning their daughters about how men are pigs or radical misandrists blogging about how all sex is rape.  It’s worth pointing out not just because it should be called out on both sides, but also as a way to empathize: if you as a guy dislike it when people judge you by the worst of your gender, you should be capable of understanding why women feel the same way.

In truth, there are some research-backed differences between men and women, as linked to above. But the differences are not always biological, they are not nearly as absolutist and generalized as many assert, and they are often not even restricted to “men” and “women!”

One of my favorite non-fiction writings by Isaac Asimov was a letter in which he described the relativity of wrong, explaining that someone who says the earth is a sphere is actually incorrect: it’s an oblate spheroid, with mass concentrated more at the equator than the poles. But someone who says it’s a sphere is not as wrong as someone who says that the earth is flat. 

Similarly, someone who says men and women are “the same” is wrong. But they are a whole lot less wrong than those who insist that men and women’s inborn psychological differences can be used to reliably predict any individual’s behavior or motives.

Almost every woman I know is like this. You’re talking about “unicorns,” but they’re the rare exception, and I’m never going to find one that isn’t already taken.

Beliefs about large numbers of people that don’t have some kind of falsifiable % put on them are kind of worthless.  Even if we accept for the sake of argument that most women don’t like nice guys, the word “most” can mean anything from 99.999% to 50.001%, and not bothering to distinguish between the two means you’re okay with potentially being wrong as often as a coin flip.

It’s been said that luck is statistics taken personally, and in truth it is possible for someone to justifiably believe that girls who actually prefer nice guys are exceptions.  Just by the sheer numbers involved in the amount of people around the country and world, there will be some Nice Guys who go through their early life encountering a majority of women who embody the worst stereotypes of the gender—guys whose mother, sisters, and early romantic interests all make them more likely to accept the idea that women are just interested in attractive assholes. 

When such beliefs are formed and reinforced so early and consistently, it can be hard to see past the confirmation bias that develops as a result. But, again, it’s possible that this happens even in a model of reality that says that most women are not like that.

By contrast, the reverse circumstance isn’t broken by counterexamples. For people with lots of female friends who are dating genuinely nice guys, the idea that being nice is detrimental to dating doesn’t get proven by examples of abusive guys who have chains of girlfriends, or girls who claim to want nice guys but keep dating assholes.

This is all bullshit. I’m a smart, kind guy who’s in decent shape, has a good career, and a variety of hobbies. If girls actually care about that stuff, why can’t I get a girlfriend?

Oof. That’s rough buddy. I’d like to start by giving you a hug, because the place you’re in is shitty. I know how lonely it is, how frustrating. How the bitterness and desperation is sometimes your only defense against the pain.  It really, really sucks, and this next part is going to seem cold. So bring it in.

/hug

Ready?

The universe is an unfair place.

There are no soul mates. (Thankfully.) People are not destined to have fulfilling, lifelong romantic relationships, let alone entitled to finding such partners by the time they’re 20, or 30, or 40. 

Maybe the perfect woman for you is on the other side of the planet. Maybe she lives in your apartment building, but you’ll never cross her path or have anything interesting to say to start a conversation that leads to a relationship.

Some people will meet their future wives or husbands in grade school, be married by college, and die within a year of each other when they’re in their 80s. Others will die within a year of being married. Others will never find a relationship that lasts longer than a few years. Others will never find a relationship at all. That’s life.

And if you’re about to say that you’re not talking about happily-ever-after, you’ll settle for just any relationship, just to have someone want to hug you and cuddle you and kiss you and love you for a month, a year, anyone, well, the above still applies.

Relationships are random. They correlate to things like physical appeal and intelligence and fun personalities and whatnot, but you still need to run across someone who’s attracted to you first. If you’re not okay with meeting online or doing long-distance, they need to be in your area. And even if you’re compatible, you need to meet at the right time where you’re both looking for a relationship, rather than being, say, 10 years old, or 13 and 18 years old, or in the middle of a different relationship already, or about to move away for college or a new job and not thinking about dating right now.

So if you’re 23, or even 33, or even 50, and haven’t ever had a girlfriend before, it might not be because of anything in your control. You might have just rolled a sequence of bad dice. With enough people rolling enough dice, it happens. I’m not saying this to minimize your pain, but it’s worth noting that some kids die of bone cancer before they’re even teenagers. The universe doesn’t care.

Take solace in that, if you can, because while there certainly are things people can do to improve their odds, blaming yourself can lead to some unhealthy depression and anger, and blaming women is the quickest way to ensure you’re stuck alone. Cold comfort though it may be, I believe that recognizing the unfairness of the universe is one of the ways you can potentially move past blaming yourself or others, and start really considering the problem in ways you can maybe do something about.

Because here’s the thing: if you really are a smart, kind guy of average attractiveness (or even below average attractiveness) who has a stable career but is frustrated by lack of romantic prospects? I’ll bet you a thousand dollars to one that I can find you someone who will be willing to date you within a year.

How? By lowering your (probably unrealistically high) standards. That’s all. 

They probably won’t be someone you initially consider attractive. And they might not have any skills for employment. They might suffer from some physical or mental disability. They might have totally different taste in music and movies and hobbies. And come to think of it, they might not even be all that nice, when you really get to know them.

How much do each of those things matter, to you? Think about it.  What are you willing to settle on, if all you really want is someone who loves you? Because this is an important thing to consider, when addressing the question of what the world owes us (nothing) compared to what we expect of it (quite a lot, probably, when we actually examine what we want). There’s nothing wrong with wanting a lot, but as the Buddha said, expectations, suffering, etc.

OKCupid used to have a research wing that analyzed the behavior of those on the site, and what they’ve found is that men tend to rate women as more attractive, on average, than women tend to rate men… but that men predominantly message women on the higher end of the attractiveness scale, while women are more willing to message men who are lower on the attractiveness scale.

Really think about that the next time you consider who among your female acquaintances and friends you’re romantically pursuing, opposed to which ones you’re ignoring that might be interested in you. And then think about whether you’d be willing to date the ones you’re not considering, if they expressed interest in you. Because while having standards is good, and having high standards is admirable, having high standards while bemoaning the lack of choices available to you is just bad math.

Tangential to the Nice Guy myths are a lot of others that deal with this perceived romantic imbalance between genders. Guys who refer to highly attractive women when they say “If only some girl would give me a chance,” or “Girls can get all the sex they want at any time,” while ignoring the existence of women below their  attractiveness threshold, whose experience might better match their own frustrations.

So is it really all that strange that you haven’t found a girlfriend yet, if the only girls you’re considering and pursuing are all on the higher end of all the various criteria you consider important?

And remember, this isn’t an argument of “people can only date within their attractiveness level,” it’s an argument of “don’t form beliefs about a gender solely off of members of it you’re disproportionately focusing on.”

And if none of that applies to you, then you still might just have rolled a series of critical fail rolls. Hopefully you’ll regress to the mean soon; it feels cliché, but it’s still true that the more effort you put in the more likely the dice are to be in your favor.

But if it does apply to you, reconsider what you think you know about what girls “really” want and why, and consider more carefully what you really want, and why.

Cleanliness Orientation

For Alice, a clean home means it’s been dusted, vacuumed, and window-wiped sometime in the past week, with all the dirty laundry in their hamper and all the clean clothes already folded and put away, no dishes in the sink, no visible garbage poking out the top of cans, and no visible stains anywhere.

For Bob, a “clean home” isn’t incompatible with having some clothes draped on furniture (but not the floor), some dishes in the sink and some garbage in bags by the door; he’ll take them out all together at some point soon. The bed doesn’t need to be made, the bookshelf doesn’t need to be dusted… that stuff’s just extra work.

For Carol, as long as nothing is rotting or liable to trip someone, it’s “good enough.” Sure, it may not be “clean,” but it’s livable and safe and with two kids and a dog running around that’s all she feels she’s got the energy for. She may do some extra cleaning if guests are coming over, but she doesn’t stress about it day to day.

David doesn’t have kids or a dog, he’s just not bothered by the state of his home. He works 10+ hours a day, and spends most of his time at home in bed, watching TV, or on the computer. The pile of dirty laundry by the door and the stain on the couch aren’t hurting anyone, nor is the perpetual pile of dirty dishes in the sink; he rinses them first, after all, and he can clean them as he needs them.

And still others live with the perpetual stink of pet urine that’s steeped into the carpet, boxes of junk crowding the halls and living spaces, and other stuff that makes a therapist called to the house for crisis intervention go “Oh…”

But let’s put that last category aside. Even within the range of what would generally be considered “normal,” whether you’re the kind of person who feels a need to scrub the toilet every week, the kind of person who is now wondering when the last time they scrubbed their toilet was, or somewhere between, the chances that you’ll end up sharing your living space or life with someone who has exactly the same ideas of clean as you are fairly small.

Of course “exactly the same” isn’t necessary. Most people can get along okay as long as they fall within the same general range of turnover for chores.

But deeply ingrained in all of us is a sense of what “clean,” “fine,” or “messy” looks like, feels like, smells like. And it’s not just a matter of taste or preference; something about our nature and nurture have instilled a sense of normalcy to certain environments. The affordance widths tend to be lopsided toward cleanliness, as most people are comfortable in environments cleaner than their baseline, but if it goes too far it can still be stressful (if that seems weird to you, imagine the feeling of being in a very rich stranger’s mansion and being told to make yourself at home while every move you make is under careful watch).

How does the orientation frame help?

I can’t count how many times I’ve observed or experienced the following type of interaction:

Bob: I thought you were going to clean the kitchen last night?

Alice: Uh… I did?

Bob: The top of the fridge wasn’t dusted.

Alice: Well I didn’t know you wanted me to do that.

Bob: Can you do it now?

Alice: It feels pointless. No one’s regularly going up there for anything.

Bob: It’s still bad for our health to have dust build up in the house.

Alice: Says who?

Bob: *googles it* See?

Alice: *googles it too* No, look, see?!

In reality, a google war isn’t a bad outcome; at least the question is being put to some objective measure, and evidence might even soften one or the other’s position. If Bob is Alice’s parent, the answer in most cases is “Because I said so.”

Assuming research is brought into it, however, what Bob might discover is that regardless of what the research says, he can’t actually feel comfortable unless the fridge is dusted, while Alice discovers that also regardless of the research, the risk is so small that the hassle of getting a footstool and wiping the top of the fridge still feels like an onerous and pointless chore. 

But “This is a pointles chore” is different from “This is making X happy,” and even that is different from “This is making X comfortable.” Recognizing that the issue is more important for one person than the other can short-cut the debate entirely.

Of course it might raise a more important point: whose responsibility is it to appease Bob’s orientation? Again, if Bob is the parent, the default is probably going to be “everyone’s.” If they’re roommates, Bob might feel bad asking others to accommodate him if the thing he needs feels too far outside the “expected norm.” That might also apply to a romantic relationship, though Alice might also accommodate Bob knowing he would do the same for her.

It can also be tempting to think “Well it’s not a lot of effort, really, especially compared to cleaning the whole kitchen. Why make a big deal about it?” But doing a chore that feels necessary vs one that doesn’t can have a huge impact on motivation, and when it comes to something that needs even more regular maintenance, like making the bed, or affects the way you live day to day, like eating somewhere besides the table, conforming entirely to another person’s preferences in every way can be a very onerous ask.

For some people the idea that how clean a house should be is as “important” as whether or not the relationship is monogamous or how involved extended family is silly, and I’m not necessarily saying they’re wrong. Most people find it much less important, both on an emotional and a consequential level. Not all orientations are created equal, and cleanliness is much closer to the “preference” side of the spectrum than extended family, let alone sexuality.

But if you consider how consistently your living environment will be around you day to day, it can be a bit easier to see why this is something that can be important to use the orientation lens on, and why the expectation that others “just relax” or “just do more” can miss the mark on what they’re actually asking of each other.

Extended Family Orientation

In an ideal world, everyone comes from lovely, supportive families that accept whoever they marry and get along with their new in-laws and respect the couple’s boundaries and wishes for how their children will be raised.

Unfortunately, in the real world, many people want little or nothing to do with their families once they’re adults, in-laws regularly make snide or condescending comments whenever they visit, and statistically speaking your own parents probably don’t respect your boundaries, let alone those of your partner.

Some people have great relationships with their family, and don’t understand how anyone could not want to visit on holidays or have grandparents involved in child rearing. Others get along okay with their parents while recognizing their flaws, but feel awkward about how adamantly their spouse dislikes them, or vice-versa. Bad enough if holidays are the only times tensions rise; what if you live near one or both sets of parents? Can they drop in any time? Who’s responsible for telling them they can’t, if someone’s not comfortable with that?

Unlike sexual or romantic orientation, I believe family orientation is mostly the result of nurture rather than nature. Some cultures, particularly Western ones, are very individualistic; “I married you, not your family” is a phrase you might hear fairly often in couples counseling. But other cultures have a very strong family orientation, such that it’s taken for granted that multiple generations will live together; when you marry someone, you are in a very real sense joining their family, not just creating a new independent unit.

In addition to the effects of culture are the effects of upbringing. A loving and nurturing family will make it easy for people to want to involve family in their lives even after they grow older and start their own. A mixed upbringing or family with some good and bad members or memories may make some extended enmeshment feel acceptable, but not too much. And a traumatic upbringing will make people want to never see their family again, or (sadly often) feel guilted into doing so by those family members or their culture while continuing to suffer… though it might make someone very happy to spend time with their partner’s family, if it’s less dysfunctional.

There are some real, hard questions that need to be answered in this space. Not just how involved in potential children’s lives will they be or how often you’ll visit whose family, but also how will you care for family members if they get old/sick? Will they live with you? How much will you be expected to bend to family’s preferences vs standing firm on your own? How much should you contribute to bailing family out of poor financial decisions? How much is “appropriate” to tell your family about your relationship?

When two people have very different orientations on this it can cause endless drama, and that gets worse if one side’s family is actually abusive or manipulative in ways that they’re used to and find hard to notice.

How does the orientation frame help?

Communication and clear expectations are key to navigating these issues in general, and just speaking your preference and inviting your partner’s perspective on how much or little you prefer extended family be involved in the new family you create together can be very valuable.

Some people are very open about this (“If my family doesn’t like you we have a problem,” or “I don’t want to see my family ever again”), and if that’s the case, respecting those orientations is important. It isn’t necessarily mutual; some people are okay with their partner’s family but not their own, might even prefer them. But respecting your partner’s boundaries when it comes to family involvement, particularly their own, can head off a lot of difficulties.

This is an orientation where change is possible to some degree, because it’s predicated in large part on extrinsic factors. Most people would want supportive, loving, interesting people in their life. Most people do not want selfish, hurtful, boring people in their life, but will make an exception for family because they’ve been conditioned to think it’s okay or normal. If you notice your partner’s orientation is very closed to extended family involvement, noticing why that might be the case can be very useful; if it’s something that can be changed, changing it might help their orientation soften. 

But don’t try to change their mind without at least recognizing the cause of it, and notice that the frame of “orientation” still points to something intrinsic; even with perfectly fine and positive family members on both sides, some people are more private than others, or more introverted, or more independent. 

Relationship Orientation

Most people think of sexual orientations as pretty straightforward: hetero/homo/bi/pan/asexuality may exist on more of a scale than as fixed points,  and many people, particularly older ones, are confused about some of them, but at least conceptually it’s understood what someone means when they say “sexual orientation.”

I think “relationship orientation” would be a beneifical frame to normalize as well. While non-monogamous people don’t face the same level of hardship as those of non-heterosexual orientation, there are many similarities. Like heterosexuality, monogamy is the “default” expectation of most people, and many friends or family, particularly religious ones, will judge someone who is open about having anything but an exclusive orientation. Many polyamorous people tend to hide their true selves to fit in with a society that would not legally recognize their relationships, and, particularly in more puritanical times, pretend to be monogomous, as would be expected of them. Aromantic people, like asexuals, struggle with flip sides of the same social expectation: that romance and sex should be intrinsically linked.

And good luck finding media portrayals of things like polyamory, let alone positive ones; at best you’ll see swingers, open relationships, or harems, all of which are different romantic orientations, and all of which lead to blurred lines and misunderstandings about what people who are not monogamously oriented want. Even bringing up that you feel romantic love for more than one person could cause massive stress, anxiety, and jealousy in monogamous partners, and scare off any who don’t have the same orientation.

To clarify here for those unaware, polyamory is specifically the feeling of romantic love for multiple people. There’s a wide range of how this manifests and how polyamorous relationships can work in practice, but it’s more than just having a consensual open relationship where either person can have sex with other people.

But the point is that “open relationship” is also an orientation, as much as monogamy is, or polyamory. This is distinctly different from simply a life of perpetually dating multiple people: many couples specifically want a partner who they can live with, raise a family with, and build their life around, but also enjoy flirting, dating, and sleeping with others.

I’ve spoken to many friends and clients who realized they were some form of non-monogamous fairly late in life, and always there’s a sort of shock in the self-awakening, followed (for those who were already in monogamous relationships) by fear and sadness about their partner or spouse’s reaction if they found out. Some of these relationships endured through omission, others adapted once the truth came out, and of course some broke apart as people realized their relationship orientation did not match.

Another parallel to sexual orientation is that romantic orientation exists on a spectrum. There are some people who are “bi-relational,” so to speak, who note different tradeoffs between a monogamous relationship and polyamorous one, but can be happy in either. These people might still not enjoy an open relationship, however… someone who would be happy in basically any romantic relationship type, though they may still prefer certain relationships based on the people involved, would be “panrelational.”

How does the orientation frame help?

Knowing your orientation can be useful when you’re trying to figure out what makes you happy. People often experiment before they figure it out, and some people feel pressured into trying relationship types they don’t actually fit in… most commonly monogamous ones, of course, but sometimes open or polyamorous ones. And some people compromise as best they can; I know a couple where one person is “monorelational” and the other is “openrelational.” It’s genuinely difficult for the openrelational person to reduce how much they have sex outside the relationship, but they make an effort to restrict it for their partner’s sake. The monorelational person tried dating others as well and ended up preferring exclusivity, but is okay with their partner having an occasional fling as long as they feel the commitment to their relationship is maintained.

Still, the monorelational person finds it hard to talk to friends or family about their relationship, since they know it would invite a lot of dislike toward their partner or even judgement toward themself for “allowing” it; to many people, particularly of older generations, the very idea of consensual-non-monogamy is a myth, and those who engage in it can be seen as immoral on one end or being taken advantage of on the other. And so having to be deceptive to people they care about is an additional strain, as is having to be careful what they say in the workplace or on social media.

Needless to say, both people are very emotionally mature, self-aware, and open to communicating honestly about how they feel and what they can do to help each other be more comfortable. If one of them took the approach of “why can’t you just stop going on dates with others” or “why don’t you just go on more dates yourself,” or even blamed themselves for not being able to change who they or their partner were, the relationship would never have survived as long as it has.

Another two people I know have struggled to maintain monogamous relationships throughout their lives. What finally clicked for them, one through self-discovery and the other through extensive conversation and self-reflection, was a harem-style relationship, where they felt comfortable being in the role of, in one’s case, the head of the household, and in the other’s, part of a romantic group without the more high-maintenance demands of being anyone’s “primary.”

A bisexual friend of mine realized they might not ever be happy in a monogamous relationship because it would mean cutting off a whole “part” of them and the sorts of experiences they  craved, but was afraid to talk to their partner about it because they know of that stereotype/worry that people have when dating someone bisexual. It wasn’t until they realized this went deeper than a simple desire to have sex with different people that they stopped trying to fit into a mold that didn’t fit them, and had a “second coming out,” but there are other bisexual people who stay happily married in monogamous relationships for life, because monogamy is their relationship orientation.

Words have power; they are the main form our thoughts take, the primary way we make sense of our intuitions and feelings and desires and fears, and share them with each other. Of all the things I think should be treated and spoken about as orientations instead of preferences, this feels like the most important one.

Orientations

(Note: these articles refer largely to normative modern western culture. When I say “most people” or “most relationships,” I’m speaking descriptively, not prescriptively. There are absolutely exceptions to all of it, and if you’re in one of those, or in a subculture in which that exception is the norm, I don’t want to give the impression that there’s anything wrong with that)

One of the things I’ve noticed after nearly a decade of therapy is that the word “preference” seems insufficiently strong for a lot of things people want that nevertheless don’t rise to the level of being called a need. For most people, not getting their preferred ice cream flavor won’t ruin an otherwise good day, but for some, coming home to find dishes in the sink and laundry on the floor can make the world feel like it’s falling apart.

This becomes most clear in relationship counseling, where two or more people are trying to live together and accommodate each other’s desires while having their own respected. On some level we know “I prefer a clean home” is not the same as “I prefer vanilla ice cream,” but people don’t often consider how this difference in intensity-of-preferences can impact relationships when they’re unaligned.

On the other hand, there are some “preferences” we generally understand to be inflexible and important. Asking a heterosexual person to enjoy intercourse with someone of the same sex, or asking a pansexual person to only enjoy porn involving heterosexual pairings, would be considered not just rude but basically impossible. In extreme situations someone might try to enjoy something they don’t, or have a physical reaction while being mentally uncomfortable, and this would generally be understood to be tragic.

That brings us to a commonly used word that is generally understood to mean more than simple preference: “orientation.”

I’ve found that a lot of difficulties people have in relationships come from treating things more like preferences than orientations. To be clear, even this is a spectrum. There are clusters on the far ends which can easily be labeled one or the other, but any sort of comprehensive universal list is impossible.

What we can do is notice the sorts of things that are more useful to treat as orientations. Here’s the list of things I believe most people in relationships explicitly and consciously treat this way:

  1. Attraction (sexual orientation included as implicit)
  2. Children (how many, and usually a rough idea of of when they’ll be had)
  3. Career (roughly how much money each person is expected to make/how many hours worked)
  4. Religion (decreasingly, but many would still end a marriage if their partner came out as atheist or converted to a different faith)
  5. Politics (increasingly, particularly among younger folk; “swipe left if you voted for X.”)

To some degree this feels like a good summary of the sorts of “impersonal” things it makes sense to be explicit and upfront about with your partners as deal-breakers.

But when we dig deeper into the day-to-day lives of those in relationships to observe the sorts of things that cause ongoing conflict, we see more. Here’s an incomplete list of what I believe people implicitly and often unconsciously treat this way:

  1. Pets (how many and what kind)
  2. Living location (assuming you will live together)
  3. Extended family (how involved will they be)
  4. Diet (Increasingly common for vegetarians and vegans)
  5. Cleanliness (both hygiene and home)
  6. Relationship type (Monogamy vs some form of open or poly. Some make this explicit, but for most people a monogamy is the unquestioned assumption)

Some of those may seem a bit absurd to put in the same bucket as questions like “should we have kids or not,” but consider how upset someone might be if their partner of many years suddenly decided that they didn’t want to have pets anymore. If that’s too easy (it likely feels synonymous for pet owners), what if over the course of a year your partner came to the inescapable conclusion that they want to live totally off the grid? Some people might be open to such changes or try to adapt. For most, this would end the relationship.

So, when I use the word “orientations,” what I’m referring to are preferences which have a high cost to ignore, and in most cases are unlikely to quickly change. Some people legitimately cannot relax, cannot find mental peace, if their environment doesn’t meet a certain level of cleanliness… and if two people have a substantial difference in what they consider “clean enough” looks like, they can end up in a state of endless conflict, even if it’s minor or suppressed on most days.

I think we also improve our empathy and understanding of each other when we view more things as orientations rather than preferences. In the below articles, I intend to describe how these preferences better fit the “orientation” model, and what sorts of problems can arise from mismatches in relationships without a natural alignment for them.

Relationship Orientation

Extended Family Orientation

Cleanliness Orientation