I'm raising a girl who I'm pretty sure will like boys someday. Paige is only 8 right now, but I want to be ready, so I think about this question a lot: Why do girls like assholes? And how can I discourage my daughter from liking them?
"Girls like assholes" or "assholes get all the girls" is, of course, a tired and arguably false relationship trope; one often repeated by the "nice guy" who gets ditched for the "asshole" by a girl with "daddy issues." And of course not all girls like assholes.
But let's be honest. Many, many of them do. Why?
Personally, I think it all comes down to self esteem. Specifically, not enough of it. Pursuing an "asshole" is a way of validating the end game. It's a way of knowing you have something worthwhile. Because after all, if a man's love, affection, and attention aren't hard to get, how do you know they're worth anything when you finally do? In short, I think low self esteem is a condition precedent to dating or otherwise becoming romantically involved with an "asshole."
But let me detour for a minute to explain what I mean by "asshole" in this context.
It's not necessarily that guy who stands you up and doesn't call you back and disregards your feelings. It's not necessarily the domestic abuser who beats you or belittles you. It's the guy who does that, or some of it, mixed with inconsistent expressions of the exact opposite conduct: intense love and attentiveness that he rescinds in an unpredictable way; in a dysfunctional, hot and cold, push-pull dynamic. One in which the "asshole" is engaging for his own inscrutable reasons that could probably fill a book of their own.
It's called intermittent reinforcement psychology, and it's been studied in lab animals. Rats are given food pellets on a highly irregular schedule, and it literally makes them insane. Much more insane than simply going hungry.
So why do so many women seek out and respond to this dynamic? If it's insane-making, why is "dating an asshole" so compelling? Again, I think it comes down to a pattern of low self-esteem that gets drilled into most girls at any early age. Whatever else girls are, they are, undeniably, the second sex. And they figure out early (usually by third or fourth grade, the research shows), what society expects of their minds and their bodies, and how to conform and operate "successfully" in what is still very much a patriarchal society.
Without getting too Freudian about it, I think pursuit of the "asshole" is a way many girls revisit the scene of these early crimes, returning to these early-implied, early-entrenched messages about what defines their self-worth in an attempt to feel worthy.
My goal with Paige, I suppose, is to help her avoid getting those messages in the first place. To talk to her and promote her self esteem in ways that make it clear to her that she doesn't need any man, asshole or otherwise, to let her know that she matters.