Friday, July 24, 2009

The Myth of the Nice Girl

I had lunch this week with a good friend. While we were catching up, she mentioned a mutual pal of ours whom I'll call Nikki.

The three of us have been friends for almost twenty years despite the fact that our lives have led us in very different directions. Nikki married young, happy to accept her husband's encouragement to remain at home and raise the three beautiful children their marriage produced.

I never cared very much for her husband Harold (Note, that's Harold, not Harry or Hal). You know the type--one of those guys who fancies himself a raconteur, never happy unless he's occupying center stage at any gathering. His humor was always at others' expense, a caustic sniping I found tiresome. But Harold was so tone deaf to social cues that he never noticed his brilliant sarcasm left his audience poised midway between boredom and distaste.

Harold often made Nikki the butt of his jokes. He obviously regarded their marriage certificate as his license to ridicule his wife every chance he got. Her friends tried out the term "emotional abuse" on Nikki, but she didn't want to hear it. She remained steadfastly loyal to her husband.

The first time Harold put his hand on my backside, I stepped away. When his efforts at seduction became less subtle, I explained the pleasure I would take in castrating him with a rusty spoon. He stayed away, but thereafter always made sidebar comments to the effect that I was a "24-karat bitch." I ignored him, but wasn't surprised when rumors of his infidelity began to circulate.

Nikki pretended not to know what everyone else knew . . . right up until the day a little over ten years ago when Harold walked out to move in with his latest mistress.

He demanded an immediate divorce, and Nikki was so used to giving him what he wanted, it never occurred to her to do anything but comply. Her friends pitched in to find an attorney for her, and we provided support when, once the final decree was signed, she fell apart.

Finding a job after fifteen years out of the market was tough, but Nikki had three kids to support. She toughed it out, going on interview after interview, before finally landing a menial job. During the past decade, she worked her way up to a middle management job and, in the last couple of years, began to breathe easier about finances.

Harold never completely disappeared. Since the divorce, he's made all sorts of demands--wanting the kids when it was convenient to him, complaining about having to pay child support, griping about how Nikki took him to the cleaners during their divorce, bullying her into taking out a loan to finish paying for braces for a daughter even though the divorce decree made it his debt. Nikki continued to be gracious, saying she was doing it for the children's sake.

Now he's resurfaced again. During the divorce, they split their modest stock portfolio, with Harold deciding which securities he would take and complaining when Nikki's lawyer insisted on an even dollar split.

Apparently he sold his share of the portfolio to help finance his vacations overseas with his once-mistress, now-wife. Nikki held on to her shares. One security in particular has done very well over the last decade.

Anyway, Harold recently called Nikki to complain that she got the best stocks in the property settlement and to demand that she "make me whole." He went so far as to threaten a lawsuit.

And now we come to the point of this post: Nikki is considering giving him half of the shares in the one security that has more than doubled in value since their divorce.

After the lunch at which I heard the recent gossip, I called Nikki to see if she wanted to talk. She did.

Her friends and family are furious with her for even considering Harold's demand. Her stomach is in an uproar. She hasn't been able to sleep. When she called her former attorney, the woman refused to talk to Harold and made Nikki feel foolish for even worrying about his threat to sue.

I listened, fighting my own urge to say, "What's wrong with you? Just tell him to crawl back into his hole and leave you alone." I know Nikki and how much she hates conflict. She would rather pay him than face any unpleasantness.

I asked her why she thought Harold was calling. She responded, "For two reasons. He is feeling pinched by the bad economy, and he likes to control me."

I asked her why she would entertain his demand. She said, "Because I feel guilty when I'm not nice."

And there's the crux of the matter. Nikki was raised to be a "nice Texas girl." To smile no matter what. If someone peed on her new high heels, she could be relied upon to say, "Oh, don't worry about these old things. I was getting ready to give them to the Salvation Army anyway." It doesn't matter that Harold embarrassed her and ignored the gifts of her heart and her loyalty. SHE NEEDS TO BE A NICE GIRL.

I could tell her pain was genuine. I said: "The decision is yours, not anyone else's."

She acknowledged that and said, "I don't know why I'm not angry at him."

I said, "Of course, you're angry at him, but you never show your anger outwardly. So all that rage is turned inward--you can't sleep and your stomach is in knots."

She was quiet for a moment before saying, "What do you think I should do?"

I responded, "You know what I think, but you're not me. The thing is, if you give in, Harold isn't going to acknowledge you as nice. He's going to pat himself on the back for winning again. But I do think you need to remember your two girls and the message you are giving them if you give in."

We all have our own mythology, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and why we do what we do. We can choose to remain locked into that myth, or we can write a new ending to the story.

I hope Nikki chooses a different page.


Silicon Valley Diva said...

So true Maya. Hopefully she heeds your advice. Her children are definitely watching.

Liane Spicer said...

I know Nikki. I used to be her. I had to be nice, no matter what, and I had to be polite.

The first time a subordinate called me a bitch (behind my back, of course) for standing up for what was right, I considered it a compliment. I'm not so fixated on being 'nice' any more, but it's still a work in progress.

I hope Nikki learns to stick up for herself and her children. People like her husband will take everything from her and walk away laughing at her. I have a friend who's still Nikki. She actually heard her ex refer to her as 'that stupid girl' - right after he had extracted even more money from her.

Maya Reynolds said...

SVD: You're right. Unfortunately, the kids are getting to see both parents.

Maya Reynolds said...

Liane: Congratulations on re-writing your story. That takes a lot of will power and effort. You deserve a lot of credit.

Marian said...

My mother gave in to my father over a lot of issues, telling me that she did it so we would have "peace in the house". I heard that phrase "peace in the house" often when I was growing up.

After she died of cancer, he started dating again within a month. And since he was the executor of her will, I didn't get a single cent of anything she left me in it. This all happened in another country, so pursing a legal route wasn't an option.

I migrated to Canada at the earliest possible opportunity and no longer keep in contact with my father.

Let alone peace in the house, there isn't even a house (as my mom saw it, anyway).

Giving in to someone over and over again doesn't mean they'll treat you fairly or well. Worse, it can come back to affect your children some day.