I found it odd that Nick asked for our food to go. It was our second date—another day date, which I appreciated. I had left my apartment that afternoon thinking how refreshing it was to not have the pressure to immediately have sex. So I thought maybe he wanted to show me another place and was taking me there to eat.
A few blocks later, it dawned on me that that place was his apartment. My brain couldn’t seem to formulate a sentence to express that I didn’t want to go back to his place. As I climbed the stairs to his walk-up apartment, I kept telling myself it was no big deal, don’t be silly and say something. So I didn’t. And of course, within minutes, he carried me to his bed and we started making out. It continued, with me repeatedly telling him not to take my bra and tights off…until he said, “Let me show you where I’m ticklish,” took my hand, and started to guide it to his penis.
I jerked my hand away, muttering some feeble remark about why I had to leave.
We hadn’t done anything I was truly uncomfortable with, but I beat myself up the entire way home and for days after: I had let my drive to be considered a “good girl”—something I’ve started calling “good girl syndrome”—get the best of me with a guy. Again.
That incident made me pause and realize just how often I do whatever the guy wants, mumbling a “no” or “don’t” here or there when he pushes things farther than I want to go yet.
And as someone who thinks of herself as a strong, independent woman…what the fuck is wrong with me?! Why can’t I simply say, “I’m having a nice time, but I really need to get home” when I want a date to end or “I told you I don’t want to have sex, and you seem uncomfortable with that, so I’m going to leave” when a guy can’t meet me at my comfort level?
Turns out, many women have the same experience. The desire to be thought of as easygoing or being raised to be a “good girl” can make dating pretty complicated.
I’m not alone. “This is so common that it’s almost a cliché,” says psychologist and relationship expert Joy Davidson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author practicing in Los Angeles. “What saddens me is that, after all these years of women’s increasing independence and power, so many women still get stuck in good girl syndrome.”
There’s a lot that goes into it, she says. For one, you have to clearly know where you draw the line. And at this point in my life, I know what I want. I had the fun times with the bad-boy bartender, I had the sexcapade long weekend fling—now I’m nearing 32 and sex isn’t a just-for-fun thing anymore. I want a relationship. And clearly my current strategy isn’t helping.
For another, Davidson says, although social messages play a role in good girl syndrome, your psychological makeup also matters. No surprise, I’m a people pleaser. I want everyone to like me—even guys who prove to me that they are douchebags. I’ve always been like this, for several reasons.
My need to be a “good girl” goes way, way back. That’s part of the reason it’s been so hard to break, even as I’ve grown into a strong and independent woman.
While the stereotypical psychologist likes to blame your parents, I had a great childhood. Today I’m close with my parents, especially my mom. But my mom grew up in a less ideal situation and developed a fixer attitude—she’d try to do everything right to avoid any conflict or, if something happened, do anything to make it all better. No wonder I have followed in her footsteps and fear getting in trouble or upsetting others.
Some of that urge also comes from way back in my childhood, when I was about 3 or 4. My mom’s parents took me and my brother camping, and one night one of them yelled at me—as in all-out, I-could-kill-you-with-my-words yelling. I’ve blocked this out of my memory. But my mom told me a few years ago and said that, for her parents to own up to it, it had to be bad. I figure that’s where my fear of getting yelled at comes from, and also my need for approval. I sought out their love, but I was the grandchild who never got a second in the spotlight. They adored my brother and doted on my three cousins, all younger than me. Yet for years, I craved their love.
I also didn’t seem to register on guys’ radars until after college. I had crushes since kindergarten, but guys saw me as a friend and nothing more. I dated one guy my junior year of high school, but I only did so because I wanted a boyfriend—not because I wanted him as my boyfriend. And then, stellar man that he was, he told me one day that his friend had asked him, “Are you still dating that tight girl?”
I think that’s why sometimes I feel like I need to go along with what the guy wants, especially if it’s a seemingly minor thing. I “should” want to keep kissing goodbye, even if I don’t feel like it. I “should” want to grab takeout and go up to his apartment. I get nervous and feel like a loser to speak up over seemingly trivial things in those instances. And, because I need to be a good girl and get everyone’s approval, I have long lived believing that my feelings don’t matter.
But now I see that, not only am I wasting my time with guys that I wouldn’t want relationships with, I’m also giving men power. They’re not truly forcing me to do any of this—I’m failing to meet them with an equal amount of power and determination, Davidson points out. And yes, I am guilty of ranting to my friends with a “they’re the bad guy, I’m the innocent girl” angle.
To attract healthy relationships and set boundaries, I need to embrace my power, experts tell me. That doesn’t mean I have to become a different person—but I do need to take control.
So: How do I stop playing victim? How do I be the strong, independent woman I think of myself as? “Once an identity is stamped on you, everything else goes on autopilot,” Davidson says. “It becomes so automatic for a ‘good girl’ to avoid creating conflict that you stop thinking about what you really want. You don’t learn those skills.”
In order to change my identify, I need to learn new ways to function in those situations where I have the knee-jerk reaction to just “be good,” she adds. First, I need to see that I have power. Rather than letting the guy control the situation, I have to understand that I’m in control, I set the boundaries—will he respect them? If he can’t, fuck him.
“You will never find the right match if you can’t walk away from the wrong match,” Davidson says. It’s simple logic. And it makes me look desperate, although I’m not the type to settle.
Then, I don’t need to 180 and become a Sherman tank. I need to develop a way to express my needs and still be considerate of the guy’s feelings, Davidson says. She suggests I make a list of all my trigger situations, write scripts so that I have something to say, and then practice my lines in a mirror so I can check my body language and facial expressions.
In time, if something happens, my new default will be a well-thought answer rather than stumbling and seeming like I don’t know what I want. And, if I’m thrown a curve ball (like when my friend announced he was getting a divorce and—surprise!—we were on a date), I’ll at least have a concept of what to say and can ad lib.
I’ll have to step out of my comfort zone to change this habit, and I might not be great at it right away. But that’s OK.
I haven’t yet had a chance to try out my scripts (dating in NYC is another article altogether), but I know they’ll come in handy. Yet I also know it’s hard to break a bad habit. So I’ll also keep in mind what Davidson told me if I do resort back to “good girl” Brittany: “Beating yourself up is a waste of energy. When you do that, you’re telling yourself, ‘I wasn’t good enough. I have to be perfect’ in a way that’s still being a ‘good girl,’” she says. “Part of not a being good girl is knowing you screw up now and then, and it’s not a big deal. Learn something from it that helps you negotiate the next situation.”
So yeah, I fucked up with Nick. And many guys before him. But I can end this pattern and learn to stop being a good girl and value and vocalize my needs. And if a guy can’t deal with it, I’ll walk away. I am a strong, independent woman. I don’t need that shit.