Ozymandias42 at the great NSWATM blog has written a long post that attempts to answer this question. I usually like everything this talented blogger writes. In this post, however, nothing resonated with me as even remotely true or useful. The post offers a collection of extremely superficial explanations that people use to hide from the real reason why jerks attract them like a magnet.
The real answer – albeit one that many people try to avoid – is that some of us get attracted to jerks for exactly the same reason that some get attracted to adoring, caring, amazing partners.
As we grow up, we observe the couple that is the closest to us and learn what it means to be in a relationship from that couple. If what we see is a jerk who is abusing, insulting and victimizing the adult (parent, relative, grandparent, guardian, sibling) we identify with, we will spend our entire life enacting and reenacting this pattern with the jerk and abuser of our own (or, more likely, a string of jerks and abusers). If, however, we saw the adult we identify with being adored and worshiped by his or her partner, we will spend our entire life being idolized and loved by the partners we choose.
As a result, we often see two groups of people forming. One consists of firm believers in the “all men are jerks” or “all women are bitches” philosophy. And they are right in a way. The only kind of men (or women) their early experiences conditioned them to meet are, indeed, jerks (or bitches.) Members of the second group have only seen wonderful things from the men (women) in their lives and are spoiled enough to believe that their partner has victimized them by forgetting to bring them flowers one week.
There is, of course, an entire spectrum of possibilities between these two extremes. Each of these possibilities, however, relies on the relational model one absorbed while growing up.
Every statement of the “all men ( women) are / want / prefer/ believe XYZ” can be deciphered as “the significant adult I observed when I was growing up was / wanted / preferred XYZ, so now I have to believe all men (women) are this way because that is all I know.”
So if you are a “Nice Guy” who is constantly used and discarded by women (or the female equivalent thereof*), remember that analyzing the motives of the women (or men) who consistently mistreat you is a huge waste of time. Their motives for treating you badly are exactly the same as your motives for pursuing those people who are the most likely to treat you like garbage.
And I really hope that my readers are enlightened enough not to need a reminder that this is not a gender issue. Discussing it as if it were is an avoidance strategy. Such childish avoidance bores me, so I hope that people don’t bring it to my blog**.
* You can see that female equivalent rendered beautifully in Sex and City. Women who gather in groups to repeat like a mantra “we are so fantastic, smart, stunning and successful, so why does nobody want us?” are the equivalent of the proverbial Nice Guys. Both groups have absolutely no interest in being in a relationship. All they want is vent their grievances towards an offending parental figure through the medium of “all men” or “all women.” Both groups are heavily homosocial and have no use for the opposite gender (except as a pretext for bonding with their own gender group.)
** The reason why I put this disclaimer in the post is that I tried reading the comments to Ozymandias42’s post. Oy, people. And once again, oy.