A couple weeks ago, my friend Anne passed me a copy of a book that comes out in March titled Undateable: 311 Things Guys Do that Guarantee They Won’t Be Dating or Having Sex. It’s a humor book, but what makes it so laugh-out-loud funny is that the stereotypes it mines are just so…true.
Anne and I had a real “Aha!” moment when we came to one of the Undateable categories: the Bitter Boy. Because, you see, Anne has known me for most of the 14 years I’ve lived in New York, and she immediately remembered the brief but unforgettable interlude when I dated a Bitter Boy myself, the man she and I refer to as Negative Nigel.*
The authors of Undateable describe a Bitter Boy thusly:
Bitter Boy isn’t so much a look as it is a mind-set. First off, let’s just get this out of the way: Bitter Boy has personally never done anything wrong. Ever. It’s the rest of us who are fucking everything up and making his life a living hell. His boss is a “total douche.” The guy who delivers his mail is a “fucking idiot who can’t do anything right.” The senior citizen who lives above him is a “complete dick,” his previous girlfriends are all “crazy bitches.” Never mind that Bitter Boy, by virtue of being a white, able-bodied male, has won the genetic lottery. Forget that BB’s ancestors have never been oppressed and have been running the country since it started. That’s irrelevant.
I met Negative Nigel when I was 27. He was cute, good in bed, and very funny (he still has a popular, long-running comedy gig). He was, however, extremely negative.
For starters, planning a date with him was a real chore. He was picky, and suspicious of new experiences. Dining out required negotiations worthy of the Geneva Accords. Thai? Chinese? Vietnamese? Indian? All out–too many unknown spices, and you never knew how clean those restaurants were (yeah, that was a not-so-subtle whiff of xenophobia). Italian? Maybe, but it took going to three different restaurants before finding one he didn’t complain about. It got so I was willing to stay in and order pizza–only plain! no toppings!–just to avoid the inevitable bitching when the restaurant he finally agreed to wasn’t 100% to his liking.
The people around Negative Nigel were always fodder for kvetching. His co-workers were flaky, his roommate’s girlfriend was a bimbo, his other roommate was an inconsiderate slob who always left her washcloth in the shower, etc. He was sweet to me, but listening to him complain about others really grated on my nerves, and made me wonder what he might say about me when I wasn’t around. Here was a smart, well-educated white guy with a good job, good health, etc., and yet he was convinced that life was always handing him lemons. It was fucking ridiculous.
When you’re dating a Bitter Boy, you know something’s wrong, but it’s hard to put your finger on it, at first, especially when he treats you just fine. But the bitterness and free-floating hostility is unavoidable, and it takes its toll. Dating someone so constantly fussy and angry at the world started to make me anxious and increasingly negative myself. I started anticipating his complaints and unhappiness, and bracing myself against them–often without even knowing I was braced until after the date was over. It wasn’t until I was back in my own home that I’d feel my shoulders unknot and my stomach settle down. Not a good sign. I think women are even more susceptible to this kind of stress because many of us have been taught to be pleasers: if someone’s unhappy, you need to make it right, regardless of whether their unhappiness is rational or hostile or just plain not your problem. Even I fell into that trap: I liked Nigel and he liked me and so I was constantly trying to find ways to anticipate or smooth over things that made him unhappy, without realizing how futile it was.
It was three months before I finally got the message. When I did, my relationship with Negative Nigel met an ignominious end on a sidewalk in Chelsea.
It had been a horrible week for me–lay-offs at the office, bad weather, and to top it off, I’d just found out that my grandmother had cancer. A stress headache was already throbbing behind my eyes when I met Negative Nigel at the movies. I’d deliberately chosen a light, fun movie–”Bend It Like Beckham”–in the hopes of elevating my mood.
But the moment we walked into the theater, Negative Nigel was up to his usual tricks. One of his co-workers had fucked up a project he’d been working on and almost made him late to meet me. No, he didn’t want any candy–his canker sores were bothering him. Why did they need to make a sequel to that movie–wasn’t the first one bad enough? He barely even listened when I explained how bad my week had been, and how I really just wanted to relax and have a good time. It was increasingly clear that a good time was probably not in the cards that evening.
The movie did help my mood somewhat, and as we walked down the street in search of a mutually acceptable place for dinner, I ventured a mild “that was a cute movie.” Nigel shrugged and rolled his eyes a bit: “I thought it was really predictable.”
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Clarity came to me in a flash. The only way to make this evening tolerable would be for me to spend a good half hour trying to find a restaurant Nigel liked–in the full knowledge that it would probably still be found lacking in some way–and then try to jolly him through the meal and get him in a good enough mood to want sex afterwards. And folks, I was done. I was exhausted and irritated and not going to fucking do it.
I pulled up short on the sidewalk and blurted, “You know, I don’t feel like having dinner. I’d rather just go home.”
Nigel looked confused. “Wait, why?”
“Because I’ve had a really shitty week and every single thing you’ve said tonight has been negative or complaining and I just can’t cope with it for the rest of the evening.”
He looked stunned, as though he genuinely had no idea what I was talking about, so I repeated back to him every single comment he’d made that evening. There was a long silence.
“I guess you’re right,” he admitted sheepishly.
“I’m done carrying this relationship, Nigel.” I snapped, “I’m done treating you with kid gloves so you won’t rant or complain about every single thing. I don’t want to date someone who’s so fucking negative all the time.”
And with that, I turned and left him standing on West 23rd street. I wish I could say that I swept grandly out of there like Bette Davis in her prime, but it was sort of slushy and the sidewalk was icy and I slid around a little in my haste to get the fuck away from him. But man, I have never been so glad to catch the subway back home.
Negative Nigel called me the next day and apologized profusely, telling me he’d been going through a lot and he knew he was being really negative and it was unfair to me. I agreed with the last two things, and said I didn’t want to see him anymore.
“Can we at least still be friends?”
I paused. My first inclination was to be nice and soften the blow of dumping him by saying yes. But then I thought about what being Nigel’s friend really meant: putting up with all the same negativity, just minus the sex. No thanks. I had been overly considerate of his feelings for months now. I didn’t need to keep doing it just to convince myself I was a good person.
“I don’t think so,” I told him, “Having a friend who’s angry and negative is almost as bad as having a boyfriend who’s angry and negative.”
To his credit, Nigel took that graciously and went away. Three years later, he got in touch again, took me to lunch and asked for a second chance, saying he was in a better place and wouldn’t be so negative this time around. But I just couldn’t do it. He was a Bitter Boy at heart, and I knew I’d be always on my guard, dreading the inevitable static bursts of negativity that he couldn’t seem to control.
If there was any good take-away from my Negative Nigel experience it was that I realized a low tolerance for negativity. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not a Pollyanna myself, and I can handle some rough patches. But the Bitter Boys of the world have a way of sucking all the enjoyment out of life that’s positively contagious; one morning you wake up next to them and realize you’ve become almost as anxious and angry and negative as they are. The authors of Undateable correctly pegged Bitter Boys for what they are. I wish I’d known that at the time.
*His name was not actually Nigel, but it did begin with an N, and being former English majors, Anne and I love alliteration.