The "Nice Guy" Marriage: Living in Fear Instead of Bold Love
- Paul Coughlin Author, Married But Not Engaged
- 2006 30 Aug
A ground-breaking study on what makes wives the happiest is bad news for “Christian Nice Guys.” I know. I used to be one.
The study from the University of Virginia found that the single most important factor in women’s marital happiness “is the level of their husbands’ emotional engagement—not money, the division of household chores, or other factors.”
This is great news for husbands who are emotionally alive, who as the expression goes, “know how to treat a woman.” But for the kind of man I help, this study is a sobering wake up call, especially when tied to another startling statistic.
Wives over forty file for divorce more than husbands -- around 66%. And when asked why, the majority say a general “lack of love and appreciation.” This is horrible news for "Nice Guys," men who have a harder time giving and receiving love, and who often can’t express appreciation given their stunted range of emotion.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Thankfully, there are practical steps both Nice Guys and the women who love them can take to pump up the volume of their emotional intimacy.
What’s Wrong with Being Nice?
The most asked question I receive when I explain the Christian Nice Guy problem is “What’s wrong with being nice?” After all, the word is synonymous with being "kind, pleasant, respectful, friendly and considerate." If this is how all nice people actually lived, then there's nothing wrong at all. In fact the world would be a better place.
But this isn't how many "nice" guys actually live. They pretend to demonstrate such virtues. For example, it is a Nice-Guy trait to appear respectful when he refuses to argue with his wife. But he’s not trying to be friendly or gracious. He’s afraid of potential conflict. A married Nice Guy may keep his sexual desires to himself, appearing to be considerate to his wife’s end-of-the-day exhaustion. But realistically, it isn’t about niceness at all - it is because he fears her potential rejection.
The Real Story Behind Many "Nice Guys"
As the above examples demonstrate – examples taken from my own life and that are common to the fake and sinful Nice Guy lifestyle -- Nice Guys aren’t really nice. What motivates them isn’t virtue but fear and the passivity it creates.
This façade creates a myriad of problems for Nice Guy marriages. Mainly, they aren’t truthful with what they think, feel, or do. As a result, their wives complain that they are secretive, manipulative, and unknowable. Some walk on eggshells and think they’re going crazy because they don’t know what he really wants. My wife used to say the very same thing.
Making matters worse, their driving fear wreaks havoc on their emotional life. Many Christians are familiar with the powerful Bible passage, “Perfect loves castes out fear” (I John 4:18). The inverse is also true; fear casts out love. It acts like plastic wrap around a Nice Guy’s heart, crippling his ability to give and receive love. He is married but he’s not emotionally engaged -- a prime candidate for discontent and possibly divorce.
The "Christian" Component
The “nice” problem has an underreported and often misunderstood spiritual component. With the best of intentions, Christian men are encouraged to be nice to a fault, making them emotionally confused and unattractive to their wives.
One reason is that we often read from the NGB (Nice Guy Bible). This is where we study the gentle Scriptures but avoid the tougher ones. A good example of this selective scripture reading comes from a verse Jesus spoke himself: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (NIV Matt 10:16) Jesus again highlights the importance of shrewdness in the Parable of the Shrewd Manager (Luke 16).
If you are like most many Christians, you have never heard a sermon on how to be shrewd as a serpent, but you have heard a plethora of homilies on how to be innocent as a dove. Chances are, you have never even studied the Parable of the Shrewd Manager either.
Why is this need to toughen up Christian men, with a toughness that includes risking the expression of deep emotions, important to your marriage? Because forging emotional intimacy isn’t always gentle and smooth. Emotional engagement does not go to the timid, weak, fearful, or cautious. It requires courage, bravery, risk, and faith because forging emotional closeness requires conflict. And strong, emotionally skilled people handle conflict better.
Though you probably won’t believe it right now, your marital battles are really opportunities for emotional closeness and spiritual growth in disguise.
The Usual Culprits
One of the most liberating truths behind the Nice Guy problem is that passive people are made, not born. God did not give them their spirit of timidity, but wants to give them one of power instead (II Timothy 1:7). Their experiences in life made them passive. This is great news because what can be made by man can be unmade with God’s grace and direction.
It’s important to understand that passive people are not the same as reserved people. Reserved people are slower to reveal their will, but they eventually do. Passive people hide their will because they don’t think it’s safe to express what they think, feel, want, and desire.
Why do Nice Guys have fear in the driver’s seat of their lives while other men don’t? Because somewhere in their lives, usually as kids, they came to believe that this world is a dangerous place. So they drop the sword of their will and keep their head down to avoid attention and potential conflict.
The common culprits are childhood abuse, neglect, abandonment, and heavy doses of shame for having normal wants and needs as boys. Oddly, over-protection can cause boys to become anxious adults because their sheltered upbringings make them anxious about their ability to handle life’s inevitable hardships.
These life-shaping experiences create a kind of man who believes what he thinks, feels, and does do not matter. He doesn’t matter. He may believe the spiritual deception that he is a child of an irrational and hostile God.
Wives of nice guys may find comfort in these insights. Those trapped in “Nice Guy Marriages” can now bring to the table two powerful blessings: empathy for Mr. Nice Guy and relief from false guilt for Mrs. Nice Guy - because chances are he was a passive and fearful Nice Guy well before you said “I do.”
Next Week: Practical Steps to Forging Emotional Intimacy in Your Marriage
Paul and Sandy Coughlin are the authors of Married But Not Engaged: Why Men Check out and What You Can Do to Create the Intimacy You Desire, which helps Christian Nice Guy marriages grow and deepen. For more information about the Christian Nice Guy problem, read No More Christian Nice Guy or visit Marriedbutnotengaged.com or Christianniceguy.com.